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Finding my voice as a quiet leader in a not-so-quiet world

Master Sgt. Khafiz Gondry, official photo, U.S. Air Force

Master Sgt. Khafiz Gondry, official photo, U.S. Air Force

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – I have always been quiet and awkward around people which is oftentimes viewed as a negative attribute and is something I have struggled with throughout my 19-year Air Force career. Since I don’t always have much to say out loud, I have endured the common comments and questions about my quietness from peers, supervisors, first sergeants and chiefs alike. While this was not done with malicious intent, what they didn’t understand is that their comments were in some ways holding me back without even knowing it.  

This is not to say that they are bad people, but what they didn’t realize was every time someone brought up the fact that I don’t talk much, I was taken back to a dark place and reminded of the physical and mental anguish I endured as a child at the hands of an abusive stepfather. This abuse continued until the age of 12. I attributed this as the cause of my quietness and fear of speaking up.

When I arrived at my first assignment, I was excited to work and excelled in my job as a crew chief and in several other capacities early on in my career. I was able to deal with the questions and comments for the first few years, but once I became a non-commissioned officer and took on more responsibilities, some of my self-confidence eroded and my self-doubt became more pronounced.

On one occasion, after I had just been hired to be a field training detachment instructor, my shift supervisor stopped me in the break room and asked about it. I thought he was going to congratulate me, but instead he asked, “How are you going to be an instructor? You don’t even talk.” That was certainly not what I was expecting and I brushed it off the best I could and subsequently went on to instruct for five years. It was disheartening, though, to hear that comment come from someone I respected. It was as if all the hard work I had put in and all my accomplishments were overshadowed by my lack of participation in “shop talk” with the rest of the maintainers.

After that experience and through all my years as an NCO, I took the comments to heart and tried outwardly to be like the leaders who were talkative and loud, but I was never successful.  After I became a senior NCO, I struggled with it even more because I was constantly trying to find a way to change myself into the outspoken, visible leader that I thought the Air Force expected me to be and eventually led me to question if I still belonged in the Air Force.

It wasn’t until I was 34 years old that I reached a tipping point and finally went on a journey of self-discovery to find my own voice. This resulted in the realization that my childhood abuse wasn’t to blame for my quietness after all. I was simply an introvert and just never knew what that meant. I eventually found the “voice” I had been searching for all along which I now know can be expressed much better through writing, not always talking.

The main takeaway from my experience is that those of us in leadership positions, and those who eventually will be, should ensure that we are not stifling someone’s potential growth by focusing on perceived negative personality traits, but, instead, learning to key in on those particular traits and leveraging them in the best way possible.

Even though I still get the same comments about being quiet, I have been able to grow my strengths as a quiet leader and have discovered talents I never knew I had, even many that I use daily in my job as a first sergeant, which does require me to talk, but in my own voice and not what I believe others want to hear.