TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. — The Airman with the most time in grade of any chief master sergeant in the Air Force offered leadership advice to Tinker Airmen last month.
Chief Master Sgt. Michael Warner, command chief for Air Force Materiel Command, was the guest speaker for the Airman Leadership School graduation on Dec. 17.
Warner said he considers ALS graduation the most important milestone in an enlisted person’s career because it gives graduates the authority to supervise and officially be responsible for Airmen.
“Your job now is pretty simple,” he told members of the most diverse class in Tinker ALS history. “Take what you have learned from your outstanding instructors, from your fellow classmates and from your own critical reflection and analysis of your abilities and put them into action.”
The chief charged the 41 Airmen and three Sailors with not just checking the “I’ve completed ALS” box, but with being different than they were when they began.
“Graduates, you must — and we expect that you will — be a different type of leader than you were when you started this course,” Warner said. “Your ability to do this is critical to you, and more importantly, to your Airmen and your unit’s success.”
Warner said he believes this generation is facing the most change in enlisted force development that he’s seen in his entire 32 years in the military, which includes time in the Army before he joined the Air Force. The chief said when he completed a version of Airman Leadership School in 1989 he didn’t have the use of a computer, but graduates today have to deal with much bigger issues — such as a completely new enlisted evaluation system and significant changes to promotions and Professional Military Education.
“The force you’re going to lead is different, but they’re the best we’ve ever brought into our Air Force,” he said. “They are different than you, just as you are different from when I came in. The environment, the Airmen we lead and the changes in how we develop Airmen are all different than when I was you, but it will be you, not me, who will be counted on to guide this Air Force through those changes.”
Warner said, though he doesn’t know what the future holds, he does know the new group of leaders will have to be agile, be flexible and embrace change to lead in a time of fewer resources and increasing requirements. He said the three things critical to leadership success are trust, education and foundation.
Starting with trust, the chief said the graduates will have to trust in their training and education.
“You know what’s right and you know what’s wrong,” he said. “You have to trust your fellow Airmen, your fellow NCOs and your leaders. You also have to trust in yourself. When you know the path is difficult or hard, make a decision and trust that decision.”
The chief said while it’s important to pursue education through the Community College of the Air Force or getting a bachelor or master’s degree, it’s also important for leaders to remember that their Airmen expect them to be the expert in everything.
He told the story of a lumberjack who couldn’t understand why he worked so hard every day, but the results of his labor kept shrinking. It was because he’d failed to notice his ax was no longer sharp.
“You have to find and take time to sharpen your ax,” Warner said. “You must daily keep in tune with what’s going on in our world and with Air Force updates and changes, personnel policies and rules. You have to be the expert. No one will do that for you. If you expect your leadership to give you your answers, then you are not the ‘they’ that we need. You know who ‘they’ is, right? ‘They’ are my leadership. ‘They’ said this is going to happen. ‘They’ have the answer. You have to be ‘they.’ Keep your ax sharp because you have to be the expert.”
The most important of the three, in the chief’s mind, is the foundation.
“No house survives a storm without a solid foundation,” he said. “No leader succeeds without a solid foundation. A profession cannot be a profession without a solid foundation. As a leader, your foundation — your core — is your values. Think about it, you have the values that define you. They were given to you and inspired by those who brought you up: your parents, your friends, your siblings, your teachers. I would tell you those values are what guided you to join the Navy or the Air Force.”
He said, while some values have a little wiggle room, the core values must be immovable.
“Our history is filled with heroes who embodied the core values, even before we put them in the little book,” he said. “Heroes, NCOs and leaders who were faced with life or death situations and tough choices, used our Air Force values to make the right decisions. Tough decisions, decisions you graduates will be faced with, aren’t confined to the battlefield, they happen every day.”
Warner said the ALS graduation puts the Airmen and Sailors squarely in the leadership arena, where they can no longer be the critic on the sidelines.
“We are absolutely counting on you to succeed,” he said. “I cannot tell you what the future holds, but I know in my heart that because of leaders like you and the great things you’re going to do and the Airmen that you’re going to lead, no matter what challenges, you’ll make sure the Air Force continues to be the greatest Air Force the world has ever seen.”