WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio — As I depart for my new assignment as the 2nd Air Force commander at Keesler AFB, Miss., I can’t help but reflect on my previous assignments and what I’ve learned in my nearly 28 years of service.
As a comptroller, I obviously pay a lot of attention to the budget environment. While current headlines might seem dire, today’s fiscal environment is typical of a post war inter-war period. After two-plus decades of war — including major Air Force participation in humanitarian efforts — we should not be surprised that the nation is seeking a peace dividend. A similar trend has occurred immediately following major conflict since before the birth of our Air Force. The recurring pattern of upward and downward trends in the Defense Budget shows a predictable historical pattern with the national threat being the causal indicator. The nation has always provided additional resources needed to address a clear and present danger. Unfortunately, our track record in predicting the next threat in terms of timing and characteristics is not that good. Today’s budget debate is really about how much is “enough” to achieve near-term readiness with reasonable investment in an uncertain future threat.
The Defense Budget is a complex calculation, with one of the major cost drivers being personnel. Personnel costs are 38 percent of the Air Force Operations and Maintenance budget. Therefore, end strength changes achieved through programs such as early retirements and reductions in force boards represent hard budget decisions and threat calculations. The force management programs are a necessary step we must take as a force. However, as the threat and the budget change, so do the personnel decisions. These strategic policies can have the very tactical impact of causing frustration and uncertainty, especially among our junior force members.
I always warn those who serve to be careful making decisions based on headlines. Airmen, talk with your commanders, career assistance advisers and other mentors to find out if you are at risk of being separated under one of the involuntary programs. Check your personnel folders to make sure all your records are up to date before separation boards begin reviewing them. If you want to serve, try your best to continue to do so by doing what you have a passion for and doing it well. Service is a privilege and an honor that we should all be allowed to pursue. As we go through these changes, we must strengthen the team by supporting each other and working as one.
How can we support each other as good Airmen and leaders? Leadership is an Air Force core competency required without regard to a specific badge or specialty. It is an art, and not a science, because of the very real human dynamic. Therefore, like any art, we must practice and develop this skill set in large part through lessons of life — good and bad — that inform our future actions. In that light, I offer the following 11 points as my leadership perspective, or what I call “Brown’s Bag.”
Point 1: What gets measured gets done.
Publication in law, DODI or AFI may not be enough. Leaders should measure, grade and govern the things that are “no fail” in their business. How do you know it is being done as you directed?
Point 2: Bloom where you are planted.
Our business is global and will take you to places that you are yet to dream about. However, it is not based on your personal desires but the needs of the Air Force. An Air Force career, at some point, will require you to let go of your geographical preference in order to fully serve. Be ready to do that; have the discussion with your family. You never know what you do or do not like unless you try. Although it may feel like you are a flower planted in concrete, it is your job to show up and grow regardless of the perceived environment. I have loved every one of my assignments and didn’t pick any of them.
Point 3: You are neither better-looking nor funnier on the day you take command or a leadership role.
Don’t let your rank get in the way of who you are. Continue doing the remarkable things that got you to your position. The special attention you are receiving is out of respect for your position. Earn it each day and it will continue to be yours. Seeing it as an entitlement is the beginning of your downfall.
Point 4: Leaders must be willing to be lonely.
Leaders must move the ball sometimes in no more than two years. This often means changing the status quo. Some may not be happy with the leader when this occurs. That’s okay. You are put in a position to lead — not to win popularity contests.
Point 5: Rank does not equal knowledge.
Find ground truth and answers to your questions wherever the expertise exists. This could be two stripes or two stars. When I was a commander, I had a lot of meetings to figure out why traffic continued to back up at the front gate, but I wasn’t satisfied with the explanations. One night, I rode his bike to the front gate with a couple of soft drinks in hand. I shared the soft drink with the airman first class gate guard and learned everything I needed to know.
Point 6: Get mad and get over it.
The days of toxic leadership plagued by emotional flare-ups and temper tantrums are over and have no place in today’s Air Force. Leaders can and must be demanding but must not allow their anger to ruin their decorum as leaders. This is critical for a successful organization and to have the free exchange of ideas.
Point 7: Read something every day.
I was inspired by the admirable leadership of Bill Creech, which I read in “Creech Blue.” This leader has passed away, but his lessons of rebuilding the then Tactical Air Command, post-Vietnam are timeless. There is much to learn beyond our brick and mortar classrooms.
Point 8: Every human being deserves respect.
Our nation and our Air Force believe in human dignity and respect. Nothing anyone can do disqualifies them from deserving human respect and dignity. Leaders must keep this in mind as we develop policies and actions that address large and diverse populations.
Point 9: Once your health is gone, so are you.
We are all replaceable and we should make time for our health. Our Vice Chief of Staff goes to the fitness center most days, so we should make the time as well.
Point 10: Your intellect can take you to positions that your character cannot sustain.
With the seemingly constant news of military leaders failing their core values, I implore leaders to keep integrity at the forefront of who they are. Our intellect will get us promoted, earn us distinguished graduate status and garner many other well deserved accolades. However, our character will sustain us and make us the leaders needed by our Air Force and the nation.
Point 11: Asking for help is a sign of strength not weakness.
Leaders must be willing to stand-up and say that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. Our goal is to help treat it and get our Airmen back to the fight. If you strain your ankle during training, we take you out of formation with full intent to get you well and to return you to duty. Mental illness must be viewed through the same lens.