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We are NOT a family

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- At a recent Wingman Day event, I stood center stage in front of my squadron and declared, “We are NOT a family.” Nobody saw that coming.

When leaders describe the Air Force as a “family,” they’re searching for a model that represents the relationships they want to have with their people — a connection, a lifetime relationship, a sense of belonging, etc.

I told my squadron we’re not a family, and I don’t want us to be one. We’re more than that … we’re a team. And not some junior varsity basketball team, we’re a professional sports team.

A sports team has a mission — to win. Members come together to accomplish that mission, the composition of the team constantly changes, there’s a limited number of roster spots, we are accountable to each other for our performance, and if you do something to hurt the team, you’re on the bench.

A family is different. While both teams and families care about each other, families are stuck with crazy Uncle Bob and his inappropriate comments at the dinner table. After all, he’s family. Families don’t say, “Sorry Tommy, but your table-setting skills have diminished over the past six months, and your obsession with Hatchimals just isn’t adding value anymore. We got to let you go.” It would be unthinkable.

I told my defenders to be good teammates. If someone’s struggling, work with them. If someone’s hurt, get them help. But your obligation doesn’t end there. Get them help, but get them back on the field as fast as prudently possible. I need them. Their absence hurts the team.

This philosophy is not my own. Netflix, LinkedIn, and universities like Harvard Business School, are now teaching this paradigm. It seems to be working. Netflix is the top performing stock on the S&P 500 this year.

For a long time, I was certain I had the right model, but recent life events have caused me to reevaluate.

Every summer, 1,200 of America’s sons and daughters refresh the ranks of the United States Air Force Academy. These new cadets get assigned a sponsor family in the Colorado Springs area, who serve as role models and offer a refuge away from the rigors of the Academy. Last summer, an 18-year-old girl —let’s call her “Natalia” — was one of those 1,200 cadets.

Natalia is from a small town in the South. Her mother was absent from her life and her father was addicted to drugs and alcohol. She grew up in this environment. It started with neglect, which then elevated to other forms of psychological and physical harm. I’ll leave it at that.

Natalia knew that her ticket out of that life was through education. So, she buckled down and studied. She could barely afford clothes and food, let alone college tuition, so when the time came, she applied to only one university — the U.S. Air Force Academy — which provides its cadets with everything they need.

The Academy was her last hope, despite only admitting 12 percent of its applicants. Deliverance came in early 2017 when she received a letter welcoming her to the Cadet Wing class of 2021. I keep a copy of that letter in my office as a reminder of the power of hope. My wife and I are Natalia’s sponsor.

Over the past year, Natalia has opened up to us about her unspeakable past. She looks to us as parents and we look to her as a daughter. Our goal is to take care of her and make sure she never loses hope. Whether its fear, loneliness, despair, or a life of misery; I’ve learned that hope is the one force that can transcend all.

Circling back, I still want my squadron to be a “team” and not a “family;” however, what Natalia has taught me is that you can be whatever you need to be in order to give someone hope. If a member of your unit, our Air Force, a friend, etc. is in distress, you be whatever you need to be … that may be a father, a mother, or an older sister.

For me, what I’m hoping for is that when Natalia graduates in three years, my wife and I can pin second lieutenant bars on her shoulders. And, if we can do that, through the power of hope, we can rest comfortably that we helped out the Air Force team.