TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – I am nearing the end of my 20-year career with the Air Force. As I prepare to walk proudly away from service to my country, I can’t help but spend a few moments reflecting on my years.
There are many things I’m proud of: the teams I served with to accomplish big and difficult things, the wingmen I supported through trials or tribulations and of the Airmen I’ve had the distinct pleasure of leading. But there will be a few regrets. Of all my regrets, the one that stings most sharply is this: I did not always resist the temptation of being a “yes-man”.
We often talk about leadership training, but the Air Force also spends countless dollars and hours creating assertive followers. We are trained as followers to challenge principles and ideas that run afoul of our good senses and our library of experiences. We are instructed to seek out inefficiencies implement simple or innovative solutions to address them. The Air Force wants our brains involved in our daily activities. It is our brains that make us powerful, not just our brawn. Why, then, do we so easily ensnare ourselves in the trap of silence?
It’s true. Our leaders’ priorities should become our priorities, and we should salute smartly and carry on. But the time for those actions should come following discourse when necessary. Looking back, I think there were times when I took the easiest course only because it was the easiest. I didn’t challenge and I didn’t push back, because challenging and pushing back smelled like extra work. Maybe the effects were far away or not directly impacting myself so it was easy to shirk the responsibility of dissent. Maybe I didn’t have skin in the game. Maybe the person impacted by a poor decision was nameless or faceless or on another continent or in a different uniform. Maybe it was because I thought I knew what the answer was going to be, so I quit before I tried. Maybe it was because I was scared of looking stupid if I was wrong. Maybe my boss was temperamental and unapproachable. Maybe he didn’t take criticism well. Maybe I didn’t take criticism well. There are 10,000 reasons, or excuses, to keep quiet. All of them are wrong. All of them.
And fellow commanders, let me kindly remind you of something: you may not be as smart as you think you are. Silence may not equal consent. When your people are not offering solutions, opposing viewpoints or alternate courses of action, it may not be because you are always right. It may be because you’re often wrong and won’t accept it. We ask our Airmen to be open to course corrections. We better be open to the same. When dissent is squashed, so, too, is innovation, creativity and improvement. I often say, “I’m persuadable.” I love when an Airman can persuade me with a well-crafted, intelligent argument that makes me feel foolish for not having seen the light earlier. Let your Airmen disagree with you. Sometimes you’ll lose, and everyone else, including the organization, will win.
Air Force brothers and sisters, let me kindly remind you of something: your Airmen, your unit, the taxpayers, the people we protect all depend on you to be courageous and assertive followers. They count on you to stop being quiet when you know the way is wrong. They want you to stand up and give your view. They want you to cast aside your trepidations, or excuses. You were hired for your brains. Use them.
But here’s an even harder part of the assertive follower responsibility: your job is to follow. There comes a time when pushing back must end as long as the issue isn’t immoral, illegal or unethical. There comes a time when the clock has expired and the leader’s plan must be executed. After the decision to press forward is made, own your part of the plan. Be all in. Make it work. Don’t doom it to failure just because you don’t agree with it. This is not easy, but you didn’t sign up for easy. Being an Airman is hard.
I hope when you look back after your period of service, you’ll walk away proudly knowing you contributed all that you had to contribute. Follow boldly, Airmen.