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Air Forces offers incentive pay for excellence...PT scores included?

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- Now that I have your attention, is this fiction or fact? Would this entice you to work harder, study more or get more fit? There have been philosophical debates over the Air Force offering incentive pay for excellent fitness scores, and whether it would improve the motivation for Airmen to challenge themselves to become more fit. Recently, I asked this question in a forum of NCOs I was speaking to and some thought it may work. What happened to our commitment to the Air Force's third core value ... Excellence in All We Do?

Perhaps it's because of my deep affinity for collegiate and professional sports that the thought of incentivizing Airmen programs to inspire excellence weighed on my mind. My beloved Alabama Crimson Tide exhibited textbook fundamentals of blocking and tackling, ultimately defeating the Louisiana State University Tigers for the college Bowl Championship Series national title. It was a rematch of their regular season contest - a lesson in resiliency. Nick Saban, Alabama's football coach, often secures the nation's top recruits; he boasts that he coaches "all of his players and coaches hard." Every recruit arriving on the Crimson Tide practice field knows the standard and the expectation of excellence, but rarely appreciates the level of commitment, sacrifice and personal courage it takes to get there. Nonetheless, these players challenge themselves day-in and day-out to be the very best. The incentive: being the best. The coaches don't reward nor incentivize personal success; their mantra, team goals and personal accountability above all else--this was and is the team's cultural norm.

Recently, I attended an Airman's call where the Chief Staff of the Air Force Gen. Norton A. Schwartz shed light on this very point. He stated the 2011 World Series champions, the St. Louis Cardinals, weren't statistical leaders in any category, but they were the best "team" and the most resilient. To this point, the Boston Red Sox, a team built on stats and incentive-laden contracts, had leaders in several of the "so called" significant statistical American league categories. Most of their contracts were front loaded to incentivize personal achievement, yet they failed to reach the playoffs. Perhaps their failure was due to a lack of commitment to team objectives, too busy worrying about their personal achievements and numbers. The reward: financial gain through personal achievement without regard to team success. Show me the money!

Let's compare today's Airmen with collegiate and professional athletes. We recruit some of America's best and brightness men and women to be members of, as stated by President Obama, "the finest fighting force that the world has ever known." Why is this true? Is it because we're the best led, best trained or best equipped? General Schwartz said, "We must know the difference between claiming that we're good and actually being good," and taking it a step further, knowing why we're good.

Will incentives to increase performance breed the ethos and commitment we desire in today's Airmen? Do incentives drive performance in professional athletes? In some cases, yes -- I believe that becomes their motivation and not the ultimate goal of the team -- and, in some cases, no. JaMarcus Russell, a collegiate football star, signed a $68 million contract, $32 million of which was guaranteed with the Oakland Raiders. He failed, however, to take advantage of $36 million in incentives to stay in shape, train hard or not abuse drugs. Barry Bonds claimed millions in incentives with herculean home run numbers, but never won a title.

What's the winning formula for our Airmen? It's simple, and I believe it's the lesson we learn from the college sports programs -- we don't pay for play! The athlete's privilege is to attend and represent these universities, demonstrate the work ethic, ethos and commitment to excellence to earn the highest team goals. Sound familiar? We recruit and retain the best; we communicate the standard; we coach [train] them hard; we demand individual responsibility and teamwork; we inspire commitment to our Air Force core values and we hold everyone accountable. The individual reward is the ability to continue to serve in the best Air Force the world has ever known and work feverishly to never lose the claim that "we're the best!"