Busy, Busy, Busy
It has been 18 months since I commissioned, and it has been a wild ride. I have been waiting for life to calm down and be “normal” again, but I am beginning to realize that being busy is the new normal. I think this is the nature of the game. I miss the comfort of enlisted life, but at the same time I know I am becoming a more seasoned leader and am being pushed past where my previous boundaries existed. I believe the degree of success you achieve as an officer will be measured by how well you can conquer the chaos, and how well you inspire the people around you to more effectively accomplish the mission. As of now I am still trying to conquer the chaos.
Over the past 18 months I have realized I am in a 24/7/365 battle of balance. When I was in training the Air Force asked a lot from me; I had to maintain my relationships with my family while fulfilling and exceeding my responsibilities as an Airman. My Airman responsibilities evolved from being a Cadet at OTS, to being a student in tech school, to becoming an expert in my space system (we call them weapon systems). Once I mastered one duty position I was asked to master another one. After I master the second one, I will be asked to master a third.
There is a “track” we are expected to follow and there is a constant pressure to be moving upward through this track. There is more of an emphasis on my career and whether or not I am staying on track, and less of an emphasis on the mission. I honestly think this is a fundamental flaw of the system. The flaw is not the existence of the track, but the emphasis. Instead of focusing on which officer is excelling most and who is ready for the next step, we should focus on which mission related positions needs to be filled and which officer would be the best fit.
I was chatting with one of the Lieutenants in my squadron and he was asking for my advice about the track he was on. There were rumors that he was being looked at to be promoted from the basic operator job to a more advanced/technical position. In the space ops world we all start with some version of satellite operator, which is the basic level certification. Some of us operate the bus of the satellite (the brain, power, and associated guts), and some of us work with a specific payload (component responsible for the mission). For our first duty position, it is crucially important that we understand the technical aspects of our job. As a brand new operator we aren’t expected to lead, we are expected to be “weapon system experts.” Once we know how to operate our system nominally (space lingo for normally), we are expected to know how we can leverage our system to more effectively deliver combat effects downrange. Later in our career we will transition to higher levels of leadership, but this is our ONE opportunity to have a technical-operator foundation. I can’t say this enough, it is crucial for us to have this depth of technical-operator experience. This experience will be our foundation as we advance to future leadership positions. In my opinion, truly outstanding officers will be able to have a depth of technical experience in multiple systems. Remind me and I will blog about the depth and breadth debate.
The fundamental flaw of many failed leaders in our Air Force is that they fake their way through the foundation phase of their career and fallback on the tag word of leadership. I’m not saying leadership isn’t important, because it is crucial. But in my opinion the core of a good leader in our Air Force is a person who can have a genuine connection with people. This leader has to truly understand the challenges that we as Airmen face, and should have spent the years prior to being designated as “leader” figuring out how to deal with and eliminate those challenges. The only way to do this as a 13S is to spend time on the system, i.e., “in the trenches,” dealing with the challenges of being a space operator. If you as a space operator ever feel like you are a second class citizen, or everything you do isn’t important to the rest of your squadron, your leadership has forgotten where they came from or has likely never spent an extended amount of time in the trenches. Don’t be this type of leader, and always remember that the squadron should be “ops focused.”
I attempted to explain this to the Lieutenant in my squadron and his response was, “Yeah but that is a more technical job, and isn’t really leadership based.” He was missing the point, and this is something I want you guys to get. He was succumbing to the upward pull of tag word “leadership.” He was allowing the political pull to draw him away from his technical contribution to the mission. In his defense, he was an academy grad and he had spent four years of his life living and breathing political Air Force leadership.
The other thing that I have learned over the past 18 months is what I have coined “locked in experience.” It has been difficult to find my place as an officer. As a MSgt select my peers were seasoned NCOs or SNCOs. Most had families but we had all been around a while. We knew how the Air Force game worked and we had figured out how to play it well but still have a life outside of the Air Force. Now, that peer group doesn’t look at me the same. I am an officer, someone who crossed over to the dark side and there is a level of mistrust behind their eyes. Some feel threatened by me or some just naturally put up a wall. It is minute, but it is there. I’m not saying it is everyone, but this is a subtle thing I have picked up by many. Heck, maybe it is all in my head. Even if it is in my head and it is a superficial barrier, doesn’t it still exist? It is something to think about as you start your own journey.
If I can’t relate to who my peers were, maybe I can relate to who my peers are now. There are three categories of officers; academy graduates, ROTC graduates, and those who commissioned through OTS. 95% of the officers I work with are academy or ROTC graduates, which means almost all of the Lieutenants are in their mid 20’s. I am 30 so that alone creates a huge gap between us. They are just figuring out how to live life outside of college, and I have been earning stripes and fighting the fight for 11 years. They are dating or newly married, I have been married for a decade. We are in completely different stages of life.
When I first commissioned and started spending time around the other Lieutenants, it was difficult because I looked at other Lieutenants like kids. They acted similar to new A1Cs or Senior Airmen (from a NCO/SNCO perspective) but it threw me off because they were extremely intelligent and seemed better educated than I was. That may sound terrible, but remember that I started in Security Forces where the enlistment requirements were different and education wasn’t actively pursued by all. It took me a long time, probably almost 18 months, to learn that I indeed respected them. Learning how I respected them was revolutionary to my perspective as an officer. At first I thought I had to fit in with them, but over time I realized we are just on different paths. My path involved 11 years of Air Force experience, and their path provided them with surface level Air Force experience concurrent with outstanding educations. At the end of the day, we just bring different things to the table.
As we all began to traverse our paths through our new officer careers, I began to notice the very distinct differences between how we operated. Academy grads have a tendency to take an indifferent approach to tackling challenges. When faced with a task, their eyes glaze over and they try to find the easiest way to complete the task while still delivering most of what the boss is looking for. ROTC grads attack the task eagerly, but they don’t have a lot of experience so they tend to take a hands-off approach and let the NCOs do their thing. OTS grads are all over the place, it really depends on the person. Understanding an OTS graduates’ methods often requires analysis at the next level; prior and non-prior enlisted experience.
Locked in Experience
At first it was easy for me to lump myself in the OTS prior-enlisted category, but the more I did, the more I realized I didn’t fit into that category either. I am not just prior enlisted, I am a prior enlisted [essentially] SNCO. I had spent 11 years developing into the SNCO the Air Force wanted me to be. I know how to relate to Airmen “in the trenches,” I naturally try to mentor and mold young Lieutenants into outstanding future leaders, and I started playing the Air Force game while my peers were in high school (or earlier). When I commissioned, this experience was “locked in” for me and I started a new path as an officer. My experience didn’t go away, it shaped who I was when I started this officer journey. It is evident because I still try to take care of the Airmen, and try to help my fellow Lieutenants figure out the Air Force game.
There are other prior enlisted officers who crossed over as Senior Airmen or Staff Sergeants. They enjoy the Air Force life, and they have a more eager and optimistic view of the Air Force. They are good at their job and think they can change the world. When they crossed over, their SrA/SSgt experience was “locked in,” and they began their journey as officers. Their experience didn’t go away, but it is evident in how they lead their people and perform ops on the floor.
This theory can also be seen from officers who re-trained from different career fields like Misileers or prior maintainers. It also applies to ROTC and academy grads, except their “locked in” experience includes four years of Air Force academy BS or four years of civilian college with the Air Force sprinkled in. I believe this is why ROTC graduates are better rounded leaders as they begin their officer careers, because they already had to juggle life outside of the Air Force while doing the Air Force thing.
The fascinating thing is that we will never develop past where we were before. I will always be a SNCO at the heart. Prior SrA/SSgt’s will always be prior SrA/SSgt’s, and fresh ROTC/Academy graduates will have a more academic perspective. Regardless of where we started or what experience we had in the past, we all start our commissioned journey at the same time. We all commissioned at the same time, will promote at the same time, and will compete for the same jobs. As commissioned officers we will all develop together, and start being molded into the officers the Air Force wants us to be.
Tying it All Together
I bring this up in an attempt to illustrate the importance of experience. There is nothing we can do about our life prior to commissioning, but as brand new Lieutenants this is our one chance to build experience going forward. The officer track moves very quickly, probably 3-4 times faster than our enlisted counterparts. We are expected to hit the ground running and accelerate through the many years of our career. Due to the intensity of our tracks, it is crucial that we spend our time as operators developing into tactical, knowledgeable system experts. If we don’t do it now, we will never have a chance to go back and do it over again.