PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise – with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.” – Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln saw it coming from a mile away and change, the instance of becoming different, is now upon us. Without a doubt, we live in historic times. The dialogue is shifting, the capability is exponentially evolving, information is saturating, and the brilliant curiosity of our Airmen has never been in higher demand. The impossible has entered the realm of the soon-to-be possible. If we remember the words of Nelson Mandela, “It always seems impossible until it’s done,” we too would recognize that now, right now, is our what if moment.
Nobel Prize winner George Bernard Shaw suggested that “Nothing is ever accomplished by a reasonable man. The reasonable man adopts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persist in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man” – and thus our progress as the most dominant and lethal Air Force to ever take to the skies, space, and cyberspace hinge on the unreasonable Airman.
Everything that’s possible today was once believed impossible. Roger Bannister understood that as the sports (and medical) world, the so-called “experts,” told him the four minute mile barrier could never be broken. Yet since he shattered the glass in 1954, more than 1,400 athletes have achieved what was once unreasonable. More interesting, that bar is now the standard to be considered a serious competitor; let alone a champion – it is the new normal. It just had to be done once – there was no going back after that. We, as Airmen, need to be more unreasonable. Just imagine what we could accomplish if we’d only give ourselves permission, or better yet: the expectation to try.
Before you take the relay baton to blaze off on your lap, understand that the lead established by those that ran before us is collapsing and the advantage we have enjoyed and exploited has proven not to be eternally exclusive – but rather in the wake of our success; ideas and inventiveness are more increasingly illusive. It’s not that we’ve slowed down, it’s that others are sprinting as we continue to pace ourselves. We don’t own a monopoly on progress. In fact, if you listen, you’ll hear determined breathing and quickening footsteps approaching.
Our adversaries are not afraid to take chances and accept risk to close the gap. They are experimenting for experience, leaping to learn lessons, gambling to gain ground, and in many areas, drafting in lane or keeping pace with us step-for-step. All they need now to overtake us is an opening – a seam of our superiority satisfaction, a crease of our creative complacency, an indication of our ingenuity interruption, or a fatigue, fall, or faint in our focus.
Young Airmen – You have the answers. My father taught me when someone offers you a seat at the table don’t just take up space – fill the space, and when invited to speak, don’t just say something – have something to say. His message to me was to be a contributor to the conversation, not just a consumer. We need every Airman to be a contributor – to catalyze the change. It is time to push through the status quo. Take ownership and shape where we are going, don’t just sit back and settle for an inheritance. As our wing commander has directed: be aggressive!
Leaders – I firmly believe the challenge isn’t as much about our most junior Airmen’s want to incubate innovative change, as it is about our will to brave with them into the unknown. Many of us are more than set in our ways – we are frozen solid in place. Contrary to what we might think, it is no longer safe there. I’ll echo our 18th Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright’s words when I say we have to become more comfortable at failing forward. In fact, we need to reward it.
What does that mean?
It means we need to thaw out old thinking – the frozen middle. We must retrain our brains to look at failure as a positive and necessary step of success. Economist and diplomat John Kenneth Galbraith puts it this way, "Forced with the choice between changing their minds and proving that they don't have to, everyone gets busy doing the latter.”
While the mind is difficult to change, the heart can be a mountain to move. We need to embody servant leadership and make it our goal daily to remove obstacles that inhibit an Airman’s ideas. If there is a process that our Airmen are questioning or want to change and the reason it is still around is “because that’s how we’ve always done it,” or “no one will allow that,” – push those possible solutions forward that could benefit your section and the base as a whole. Don’t hold them back – we need every ounce they’ve got.
Arguably the greatest to play the game, Michael Jordan attributed his success directly to his failures. “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
The world around us is changing more rapidly than ever – it is extremely dynamic; actually it is volatile. Our true edge is today’s Airman have always known it to be. Their constant has always been change – they thrive in the stuff – that’s what we’ve got to tap into.
Adaptive, Innovative, Resilient, Motivated, Agile, Networked. That is who and what an A.I.R.M.A.N. is.
We have the opportunity to capitalize on and exploit their strengths, and cultivate them into the Airmen leaders that will soon replace us, but we’ve got to pass the baton and get out of their way! I’m not encouraging leaders to leave Airmen to their own devices; all thrust and no vector – after all, experience is the greatest teacher. I believe true leadership is all about change. Sustaining stagnation really only needs management. Leadership is all about moving. It is all about making a difference. It is not about standing still.
Create a condition for controlled chaos. Cultivate a culture of capable – catalyze the change!