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A valuable question from the next generation of leaders

By Col. Mark Harris | 437th Maintenance Group commander | Oct. 24, 2018

JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. —

Last week, I had the distinct honor of hosting Joint Base Charleston’s Airman Leadership School Class 18G for their graduation ceremony.  As the host, I was invited to meet with the prospective graduates just a few hours before graduation.  During that time, they were free to ask any questions that might have been on their minds.  One of the first questions I was asked is a testament to the caliber of leaders the next generation is bringing into our Air Force. 

The question was simple and straightforward, but at the same time showed a great deal of perspective and, to say the least, it was thought provoking.  Simply put, the class asked me, “What would you change if you were given supreme power over the Air Force for a day?”

At the time, I answered by referencing some of the changes recommended in the Colonel Ned Stark articles that have been published in the Air Force Times and War on the Rocks Blog over the last five months.  However, like all great questions, I found this one eluded my initial attempts to answer it.  Hours after meeting with class 18G, I found my mind wandering back to that question.  Given the opportunity to be the Chief of Staff for a day, what would I change in order to make the Air Force better? 

In my 23 years of service, I have seen a lot of change.  From weapon systems to uniforms to performance appraisals to the very way the Air Force is organized, change has visited almost every aspect of our service.  Some changes have been long-lasting and others extremely short-lived.  A good deal of it has improved our force, while much of it has required even further change to undo unintended consequences.  This constant quest for change in our Air Force has caused many to argue that our service has no heritage.  However, as a third generation Airman, I would argue that our willingness to change is our Air Force’s heritage.  I believe that is why Class 18G’s question kept returning to my mind. 

As I considered the question, I tried to think of the most impactful change I have seen in my career.  Surprisingly, I didn’t have to think about it for long.  That change was implemented on 1 January 1997 with the first publication of the Air Force’s “Little Blue Book.”  In 25 pages that measured 5.5”x 4”, then Chief of Staff General Ronald Fogleman introduced us all to our Air Force’s Core Values, which forever changed our force.  The values were clear, succinct and left little room, or appetite, for debate.  At the time they were introduced, I was a second lieutenant and in the nearly 21 years since, I can think of no policy or program that has been better received by Airmen or more impactful to the way we think and operate.  Those values form the basis for our identity, serve as a constant reminder that we hold ourselves to a higher standard and are the foundation of our current Air Force culture.

Considering the enormity of the impact the core values have had on our Air Force, it seems only natural to use those values as a model going forward.  Integrity First, Service Before Self and Excellence in All We Do have become our watch words and have given us all a gauge with which we can measure our actions.  However, there seems to be room for more.  The core values, stated only slightly differently, could function as a checklist of great leadership traits.  Honesty, selflessness and an uncompromising pursuit of quality are all regarded as hallmarks of a servant leader. 

However, we have omitted one vitally important leadership trait: courage. 

To be an Airman, and even more so to be a leader of Airmen, requires a great deal of courage.  The courage I am speaking of is not just the physical courage to stare an enemy in the eye and charge forward like Tennyson’s famous Light Brigade.  I mean a courage that is often more difficult to display.  I’m speaking of the moral courage to tell a friend to stop because they are about to make a horrible mistake, or worse, commit a crime.  I’m talking about the courage required to say we need to slow down, when even your boss is clamoring to go faster.  I’m talking about the courage to drive to “yes,” yet know when the time has come to say “no.”  I’m talking about the courage to speak up for your Airmen, even if you’re afraid no one will want to hear what you have to say.     

Our Air Force is smaller now than it has ever been.  We are building back up, but it will take several years.  If we are going to continue as the world’s preeminent air power, then we need courageous Airmen and leaders of Airmen.  So, to answer your question, Class 18G, if I were the Chief for a day, I would give the Air Force a fourth Core Value and that value would be “courage.”  The majority of our Airmen and leaders display it on a daily basis and I believe the time has come to codify that fact and instill it as a central part of our culture.

Integrity, Service, Excellence and Courage are words I believe we can all live and lead by.