Ever wonder what the Air Force’s top commanders wish they’d known when they were young lieutenants just starting out? Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh asked six general officers just that at this month’s Air and Space Conference at National Harbor, Maryland.
Their advice was at times poignant, candid, anecdotal and to the point. Here’s what they had to say.
Lt. Gen. Stephen “Seve” Wilson, commander, Air Force Global Strike Command, Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana:
“I wish I would have known when I was a lieutenant the importance of relationships and how with them you can do anything and without them you can’t do anything.”
Lt. Gen. Stanley Clarke III, director, Air National Guard, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C.:
“The one thing I would tell myself would be encourage others always. And I think about some of the airmen that, unfortunately, I knew that committed suicide. … When they were patting other people on the back, I didn’t take the opportunity to pat them on the back for what they were doing. And I missed that opportunity, never [to]get it back. So just kind of looking at that: encourage others around you. Be a little bit more positive.”
Lt. Gen. James “JJ” Jackson, chief of Air Force Reserve, Washington, D.C., and commander, Air Force Reserve Command, Robins Air Force Base, Georgia:
“Get out of your comfort zone at every opportunity. I still remember very, very vividly the day that I was a lieutenant flying F-4s and my ops officer said, ‘Get in the back seat and … you’re going to do great. And of course, I didn’t believe him, but I did. And that opportunity just set the pace for my whole career when it comes to looking for opportunities to get out of my comfort zone and do the things that other folks have told me I can do because I will achieve success.”
Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, commander, Pacific Air Forces; Air Component commander for U.S. Pacific Command:
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. So I would emphasize learning how to go together at things. And secondly, I would tell them the single most important ingredient to success is learning how to get along with one another.”
Gen. John Hyten, commander, Air Force Space Command, Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado:
“I wish I could find the right words … to tell myself as a lieutenant that the enlisted forces, they power the Air Force. Because I tell you it took me about 15 years to figure it out. I was a squadron commander [when]I really figured it out. I went through the first year… at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, and it was an amazing squadron and we were doing amazing things. .. I was trying to be the leader for every squadron. I tried to get to know their name, I tried to do everything and I was frustrated. And they kept doing things that were just stupid and I could not get through to them.
“And finally, three master sergeants came up to me … one day and said, ‘Sir, why are you so frustrated?’ And I said, ‘Gosh, I’m doing everything, I just can’t get through to the airmen. And they looked at me and said, ‘Why didn’t you just ask us? That’s our job.’ And it hit me and that has been the most important lesson I’ve learned my entire life is that if you trust the airmen and you trust your senior NCOs in particular, they will lead their airmen and they will lead the unit.”
Gen. Darren McDew, commander, Air Mobility Command, Scott Air Force Base, Illinois:
“Lead. Sometimes we’re in positions where we don’t think we can make an impact. I say lead. Sometimes … we don’t think that our job is to do whatever it is we think it is. Lead. You have a job description. Own it. And I wish I’d have taken advantage of that sooner. There was some wasted time where I was empowered and didn’t feel I was empowered. Just lead.”