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Leadership: Through Performance Report Writing

By: Capt. Christopher “Matcha” Little


“The pen sometimes builds a more enduring

monument than can a hammer or a chisel.”

– James Basford (1845-1915)


Listen to this article on Podcast: Here

Meet Captain Broadwell. He has been in the Air Force for seven years and is a rated officer. He learned to write as a young Lieutenant and was mentored others on how to write from early in his career, it interested him. He shared his knowledge and taught others along his journey. Next, let’s meet Captain Jones. He has been in the Air Force for eight years. He is also a rated officer at the same flying squadron. He is the current Flight Commander for the flight Captain Broadwell is about to replace. He didn’t care to learn to write and didn’t teach or give much emphasis on it to his Airmen. Captain Jones relied on the individuals to write their Officer Performance Report (OPR), Enlisted Performance Report (EPR), or their supervisor. Additionally, he didn’t put emphasis on putting people in for quarterly or annual awards. Because Captain Jones was unable to effectively write, he was not able to help others write either because he lacked what skills they needed. He thought it a waste of his time because writing “detracted from the mission," and he didn't have time for it. His flight had thirty-five people in it. How do you think Captain Jones and Captain Broadwell faired at Flight Commanders? How important is the ability to write like a leader in today's military? Let's find out.

Frequently, when performance report writing and leadership are mentioned, they are not thought of as synonymous practices. Effective writing is a skill that needs to be honed and taught, particularly the art of Air Force styled bullet writing. Today's and tomorrow's leaders must know how to write and to spread their writing skills to others. Without the ability to effectively write like a leader, one is less effective at taking care of one’s people. One cannot lead without being able to promote his or her people, and this is done through writing. The military encourages leaders to the next level of leadership by the practice of written records meeting boards. It is important to note that people do not meet promotion boards, their records do. Our Airmen’s careers are hinged upon their leaders' ability to successfully codify their performance as a matter of record. If an Airman’s records are lousy, either the person(s) that led that Airman couldn’t effectively write or the person actually merited the report. Routinely, the author has noted, the former is more common than the latter. Some may argue this act of “meaningless” leadership, as Captain Jones thought, and detracts from the mission. However, this essay will say and show otherwise. Writing for your Airmen is one of the single most desired leadership skills you can possess as a leader and pass on to others.


“The pen is mightier than the sword.”

– Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873)


Writing is the ability to put one’s performance on paper. In the Air Force, we do this via OPRs, EPRs, decorations, quarterly, and annual awards. Leaders can shine in this way and show they take care of their Airmen. Per the Air Force Holms Center, “[OPRs and EPRs]…have the most impact of any factor involving your future as an officer [or enlisted].” Learning to write for oneself is a must for any leader. The Commander or Flight Commander will do what they think is best, but if one wants to take hold of their own career and other’s careers, one needs to learn to write. The higher in rank one goes, generally, the more people one will lead. The more Airmen will look to one’s leaders to teach them and mentor them. Teaching others to write should be at the forefront of mentorship. Commander’s days revolve around, taking care of their Airmen. They do this by writing and reviewing writing, among a myriad of other things. With writing, a subordinate leader is evaluated by their commander or supervisor for future potential as a leader. Writing is a crucial attribute for future potential as a leader, principally for Command, Director of Operations (DO), or Flight Commander positions for officers.

The Air Force is making this concept evident. Big Blue demands even more precise writers than in recent years. In 2008 OPRs were thirty lines, now condensed to only ten lines. The Promotion Recommendation Form (PRF) for majors and above was nine lines, now only two. This is incredibly important for leaders to have the ability to fit thirty lines of information into ten and nine lines on the PRF to just two. According to USAF Maj Elizabeth Clay, “As leaders, one of our biggest and most important jobs is to write and review performance reports. EPRs and OPRs are documents that follow each Airman throughout his or her career and will make or break him.” Precise and meaningful writing will follow your Airman for their entire career. On the contrary, not caring can be seen as a lack of leadership. The Air Force recently revised its Air Force Instruction (AFI) 36-2406 Officer and Enlisted Evaluations Systems in late 2019 to mirror these changes. It is 291 pages of instruction to heed and an excellent instructional tool. Most wings and groups have supplemental writing guides to help leaders along the way. This gives leaders local guidance on leadership's preferred style of writing to supplement the big Air Force's guidance. Another way to learn how to write and communicate effectively as a leader is The Tongue and Quill. Published by the Air Force and last revised in 2015, although it needs some more revision. These items are a reference on where to start your journey in learning to write.

Action, impact, result! Also known as the A-I-R acronym. Does that mean anything to you? For Air Force leaders who write and rate on others, it’s imperative that they know, and know it well. Action, impact, result is how the Air Force writes bullets or a line of report writing. This is how leaders codify performance for the 321,444 Airman in the United States Air Force (USAF). What was the action (always past tense and in an active voice), who or what did it impact, and what was the result? There is more philosophy on bullet writing than this article allows, so it will be kept straight forward and rudimentary. Keep in mind everyone writes differently and with different styles. It is not one master person teaching the concept. Instead, everyone adds their own touch to the Air Force's and local leadership's guidance. Think of writing performance reports as a person trying to buy a car; the color, model, and other attributes are tuned to fit the need of the person, much like writing. It is easy to say, "my airman is the best," but how does one quantify that phrase to tell others up the chain? The answer is writing. Air Force writing is an art and separates leaders in haves from the have nots. For a useful reference on bullet writing, see Chapter 19 of the Tongue and Quill referenced above.

Imagine that Captain Broadwell wants to tell the commander in an award package what he did for recently as Flight Commander in one bullet. He was a leader of thirty-five individuals who all worked very hard and accomplished the mission seamlessly. He mentored all of them frequently and gave them midterm feedback on time. Also, he recently put together an official mentoring program to make sure each of them knew how to write and teach others. As a result, he noted his leadership observed a twenty-percent increase in his flight wins at the squadron and group levels. How could he codify that into one bullet? He has the story of what he did, now he needs to organize it in bullet format.

Action. This is the first of three sections in any bullet. The bullet should always start with “the who,” who being Captain Broadwell. It can begin with Led, Coordinated, Managed, Mentored, Drove, Spearheaded (please don’t use this one), and the list goes on. The first part of the bullet would look something like this as you get your thoughts together on paper:

- Led 35 airman as Flt/CC in the squadron’s largest flight;

To save space, it would look something like this; note the difference in space saved:

- Led 35 amn as Flt/CC in sq's lrgst flt;

Next, let us look at the impact section of the bullet or the fact section. Remember, this part is how did it impact the unit mission or the organization as a whole.

; created a mentorship program for enhanced writing skills--

To save space, it would look something like this; note the difference in space saved:

; created writing pgrm--

Lastly, we have to show what the result of him creating this program was?

--the flight garnered 20% more quarterly awards

To save space, it would look something like this; note the difference in space saved:

--flt rcv'd 20% more qtrly awards

Now, put action, impact, result together:

- Led 35 amn as Flt/CC in sq's lrgst flt; created writing pgrm--flt rcv'd 20% more qtrly awards

This is by no means an end-all-be-all for how to write a bullet, rather a place to start. Captain Broadwell was able to pass onto his flight what he had learned and it helped fuel their careers. He was the motivation to his Airmen to be more skilled writers and to show how much it would impact their career. They received twenty percent more awards received than his predecessor Captain Jones. It wasn’t that Captain Broadwell did things much differently day-to-day. It was that he knew how to codify the team’s performance on paper. This helps immensely with being able to submit his people for awards and above-average performance reports. By Captain Broadwell teaching others how to write and showing them how it could impact their career, he achieved a slow culture change. It takes one person to light the flame for culture change. In this case, it was getting a flight to care about writing and showing them how to take care of other's careers.

In summary, Captain Broadwell was better able to show his leadership; he was able to effectively take care of his people. This had a snowball effect. The people he taught ended up teaching others and so on. Writing does not detract from the mission. Instead, it boosts it in every way. Finding time, along with mission requirements, is a job that Airmen get paid to do. (Ret) General Stephen Lorenz wrote, “… [leaders must] balance their shortfalls to accomplish the mission.” As a leader taking care of your Airmen is part of that mission. One will never be given all of the resources they need to accomplish the mission. Instead, it is through prioritization that mission's get accomplished. If writing is not high on the priority list for you, then perhaps it is time to refocus your personal leadership. The mission of effectively leading and teaching your Airman. At the end of the day, the aircraft will always fly, and the mission will always go. However, your Airman isn't a machine, and they need your leadership to do their job.


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