Recently, as I stood in line in the Shoppette, I overheard this statement: “Airmen aren’t what they used to be.” This statement is not a new idea, nor is it something that each of us has not heard many times in our careers, and admittedly even something many of us have uttered. I know I am guilty of making that statement. The statement in its purest form is correct; Airmen are not what they used to be. They are different. They are better.
Legend has it that our standards have lightened up a bit. Some say that the physical strength of this batch of Airmen is less than in years past, and some will even say that new Airmen are socially awkward and lack the ability to look a person in the eye and carry on a conversation. This theory ties into the millennial generation spending its formative years playing video games or surfing the internet, or so they say.
When you start to really look at today’s Airmen you will see a stark difference from what we, the older Airmen, looked like at the same time in our careers. Today’s Airmen are adaptive, innovative and confident. They’re involved in the dorm council, DFAC (dining facility) Advisory Council, the Airmen Recreation Center. These are all examples of major programs that our young leaders affect to make things better for the on-base community.
We have Airmen who continually make changes to local processes that help influence big Air Force policy. If you want to see that in action, look at the DFAC Advisory Council and the work that our Airmen do to make changes to the menus and help guide healthier lifestyles. Good things go on day in and day out because of the innovative spirit of Junior Enlisted Airmen. That, I am quite sure, was not in existence when I was an airman 1st class.
And, our Airmen are confident. If you think that is not the case, I challenge you to talk to them about their hopes and dreams. Have them explain their goals and what path they will take to achieve the goals they have set. You will be floored. They have very strong plans to meet those goals.
An example of that confidence happens every week in 388th Fighter Wing Staff Meeting. On a rotational basis, a Junior Enlisted Airman is called upon to develop three slides with information that includes his or her background, interests, family and goals. Then, they have the opportunity to address the senior wing leaders. Of the many dozens of briefings I have heard to date, I have yet to see an Airman who is nervous or without a strong set of short- and long-term goals. I am positive that when I was at their station in life, I could not brief a room full of high-ranking officers and enlisted with the confidence that they demonstrate.
I think the challenge we, as leaders, face, is embracing the fact that the Airmen aren’t what they used to be. We need to realize that it is a good thing, because I am convinced that the next generation of leaders will be smarter, more adaptive and better equipped to face future challenges. Our job is to understand how this generation thinks and acts, and learn to lead them focusing on what they are good at. They are tomorrow’s leaders and we have an obligation to make them good ones. Therefore, it’s easy for me to echo what political activist Ralph Nader said: “The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”
The coming years in the Air Force are going to bring changes we cannot yet fathom. Ultimately our job is to ensure that we are producing a generation of leaders who are prepared to deliver mission success. Airmen aren’t what they used to be, they are better.