Set the example

Col. Julie Rutherford, official photo, U.S. Air Force

Col. Julie Rutherford, official photo, U.S. Air Force

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – I recently worked for a general who often told a leadership story about guiding a group of Airmen across a tarmac during the Gulf War while missiles were incoming. I had the opportunity to hear the story numerous times and was struck that I did not have a similar story of overcoming adversity in a combat environment that showed my leadership potential.  It made me really consider what moments shaped me as a leader. 

As a young captain in the Air Force, having served less than two years, I was assigned to the Lead Mobility Wing.  The Air Force was different then, and our team was tasked to be the advance team opening airfields after humanitarian disasters.  Although we never actually deployed, hence the short lived concept of the Lead Mobility Wing, we engaged in numerous exercises.

One of those exercises was Phoenix Readiness, a two-week training event at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.  During the second week, we were “deployed” to the field with boxes of supplies and a mission to set up operations.  Our advance team arrived and the follow-on forces soon followed.  Hundreds of security forces members, personnelists, civil engineers, you name it, were there.   The legal set-up for deployments is pretty basic.  A computer, office supplies and a few books were all I needed, so I was done with my set-up early.  The commander, seeing I was done, tasked me to secure the navigation equipment near the airfield. In other words, fill sandbags and put them around a piece of plywood painted red.

I grabbed some Airmen and we headed off.  We grabbed shovels and sandbags and began the task at hand.  Using dirt from a newly dug foxhole, we filled the bags, passed them and stacked them around our asset.  We finished, and with a quick high five for a job well done, we went back to our work areas. 

Later that night in the mess tent, three senior noncommissioned officers came to my table. I assumed someone got in trouble; my normal lawyer reaction. Instead, they thanked me.  They told me they saw me working to fill sandbags with Airmen earlier in the day and that it was a great example for Airmen to see an officer jump in and help with the work.  They thought most officers would have chosen to stand to the side and watch. 

I never gave it a second thought.  It never occurred to me to not actually fill the sandbags and help complete the task.  It was not a conscious decision to be a good example.  However, that moment instilled in me a desire to always think about how Airmen will perceive my actions.  To this day, I regularly make decisions based on this experience.

This exercise also made me realize the importance of being able to drive a Humvee and shoot an M9 pistol, an embarrassing story for another time. But it was those SNCO’s that changed how I thought about being a leader in the Air Force.  Don’t let these small moments pass you by.  Use them to make yourself a better Airman.