KABUL – The quiet art of listening is an essential – though a lightly regarded – component of leadership, according to Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Bob Rucinski, the newly installed senior enlisted military member for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in northern Afghanistan.
Listening also happens to be the foundation to his personal leadership style.
He began a six-month tour, his second in Afghanistan, in April. As the district commander’s primary advisor for personnel matters, the Dolton, Ill., native said it’s important for him to pay attention to and know the mood and disposition of the district’s hundreds of military and civilian employees.
“In my career, I’ve noticed that for some reason, people think leaderships equals talking, that it involves speech. Sometimes leadership involves just listening, being there for people, and people knowing they can come to you,” he said.
Those skills are particularly important for someone in his role as the principal member of the staff responsible for ensuring morale and discipline, he said.
The best approach is mixing with employees both at the district headquarters at the Qalaa House compound in Kabul, and at the area offices all across the district. His job is talking to people, listening to people, and hearing their grievances, Rucinski said.
“We’re in Afghanistan. It’s not America. This isn’t the Holiday Inn Express. There are sacrifices that we all make. You may have frustrations. Sometimes you just need to talk to someone; you just need to voice some frustrations,” he said. “That’s the little bit I can do – just listen.”
Often, he said, he isn’t able to directly address the issues he hears about. The living conditions are cramped and will stay cramped. The amenities are limited and will remain limited. The work hours are long and will stay long.
“Sometimes you can’t do anything about the problems or the issues, but it’s just to be a sounding board, letting them voice their frustrations and they feel better. We’re still in the same predicament. We’re still in Afghanistan,” Rucinski said.
His approaches to dealing with military service members and civilians are virtually identical, he said. Everyone wants to be treated fairly and with respect. Everyone is making sacrifices by being away from family for long periods of time, said Rucinski, a chief master sergeant since June 2010.
“There’s no difference. People are people. Well, there is a little bit of difference, but the bottom line is that people are people. One of the benefits that I have is that in the Air Force, we have a civil engineer squadron and it’s a mix of civilian and military, so I’ve worked around civilians my whole life. I’ve seen people try to separate them, but I always approach it as we’re all people,” he said.
The biggest difference between military members and civilians in Afghanistan turns out to be their ages, Rucinski said. The military members tend to be younger, while the civilians tend to be older. And those issues transcend military status.
District commander Col. Christopher W. Martin said he depends on Rucinski to serve as his eyes and ears for the entire workforce throughout the unit.
“You want him to get the pulse of what’s going on. At the same time, you want him to ensure that the commander’s intent is being carried out by everyone, that people understand it. He helps ensure that attitudes and the way things are being expressed around the camp are OK,” Martin said.
The key to Rucinski’s approach is experience, Martin said. Rucinski, who’s 41, has severed in the armed forces for 21 years, including 11 years overseas. He doesn’t jump to quick decisions. Instead, he relies on his military knowledge to identify important issues and seek appropriate input before taking action, he said.
“When the chief master sergeant speaks, he’s speaking on my behalf. That’s obviously because I trust him a lot. I trust his experience and his grade. I know that he’ll make the right decisions,” Martin said.
Rucinski said he is able to listen to people’s issues – and when he can, address them – without personally carrying the weight of those issues. He makes it a point to separate his professional life from his private life, even when his private life is crimped when he’s deployed.
“I don’t take it on as a burden. I don’t feel like that,” he said. “I know I have limitations. There’s only so much I can do. Sometimes things are out of my realm and I understand that.”
A bigger concern for a guy who has built his reputation on being accessible is that most people think his natural facial expression is serious, bordering on stern. He’s well aware of that. “Sometimes I wonder if I make the best first impressions, but once people get to know me, we tend to be OK,” Rucinski said.
Certainly, he’s been around. He has served in Italy, Germany, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, in addition to his previous tour in Afghanistan.
He did a six-month stint in 2008 and 2009 at Bagram Air Field, where he worked as the superintendent for the facility engineer team. He oversaw the day-to-day operations and maintenance at the busy international base.
The job kept him largely confined to the compound, so his view of Afghanistan was limited. The most he ever saw of the country was during 10K runs around the back side of the base. He remembers glancing up during one run on a cold winter day and seeing sunlight illuminate snow-covered mountains in the distance.
“It was such a beautiful site. It just reminded me that it’s just such a shame that people can’t find peace here, because if they did, I think they would enjoy the beauty of this place,” he said.
His current job gives him the opportunity to see far more of the country, traveling frequently with Martin to Corps of Engineers project sites throughout the northern portion of the county, which is the size of Texas.
Rucinski grew up in Dolton, the second of four children, and the first in a large extended family to join the military. Rucinski and his wife Ingrid live with their daughter Jessica, 18, at Kadena Air Force Base in southern Japan.
Outside of work, he enjoys hiking, camping, fishing and canoeing, which are pursuits that the big city guy truly discovered during a seven-year assignment at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. The natural splendor of the Big Sky Country was unexpected, he said.
“We would go camping and hiking and see all that beautiful wildlife. I mean, I had never bought a canoe. I had gone fishing before, but you go fishing or hiking there and you’ll come across a moose or a grizzly bear. It was a different world up there,” he said.
Another passion is Chicago sports, particularly the Bears, Bulls and Cubs. Rucinski, who’s 6-foot-1, plays basketball, softball and baseball, and he coached his daughter’s softball teams when she was younger.
He’s an Air Force-trained electrician who broke into the trade working with high-voltage power lines. He earned a bachelor’s degree in management from Park University in Parkville, Mo., in 2007.
He’s the third consecutive Airman to fill the post of top enlistee for Afghanistan Engineer District-North, following Chief Master. Sgt. Chad Brandau of Tucson, Ariz., and Chief Master Sgt. Forest Lisner, of Minot, N.D.
Rackinski sought the assignment because he felt he was due for another warzone deployment.
"t wasn’t the assignment per say, as much as credibility. Credibility is huge,” he said. “Even though you’ve deployed in the past, you’re only as good as what you’ve done lately. It was just my turn. Everyone else had gone and it was time for me to step up and do it too, and just build credibility and serve our country. That’s what we do.”