HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
I will show my age by saying I graduated from Airman Leadership School toward the end of 2011 but I knew then that teaching was something I desperately wanted to do.
Who would have thought a 20-year-old kid racing his best friend on the omelet grill in the dining facility would become a three-year Airman Leadership School instructor and a three-month Interim Commandant?
The moment it clicked for me may not be as grand as you imagine: I was sitting in class and my instructor, Staff Sgt. Valerie Risley, said the words, “the human element” while reminding us that our role in the Air Force was shifting. I realized it was no longer about me and that sparked my desire to be there for others regardless of my rank or position.
I applied to be an ALS instructor five times between 2012 and 2019 before I was finally selected. The fifth time applying almost didn’t happen as I was extremely discouraged, but thankfully my wife reminded me not to give up on my passion, uplifting others.
Believe it or not, I wasn’t even their first choice when I got selected. Out of eight applicants, I was the panel’s third choice. Fortunately for me, the first two choices were denied release from their career field.
First or last choice… it didn’t matter, I was ready to fulfill the role.
My goal, despite the complexities of the curriculum and the repetitive delivery of information, was simple: attempt to positively affect as many people as possible.
I initially didn’t understand how challenging this role would be and I had no idea that I would be changed so much in my attempt to change others.
three years, hundreds of students, and thousands of podium hours taught me valuable lessons. I would like to share those with you. I created the “E-5” system that I believe all leaders, old and new, should remember:
- Enjoy Similarities- It is important to find ways to relate to your Airmen, but not allow cliques to form.
- Embrace differences- Get to know your Airmen beyond just what they have to offer at the work center. Learn about their backgrounds. I always ask my Airmen, “who are you, and what are you good at?”. This opens the door to so much productivity, cohesion, and balance it’s almost ridiculous.
- Embody your own expectations- Don’t be the “do as I say, not as I do” supervisor. Don’t be a hypocrite; Live up to the standards you expect your Airmen to uphold.
- Empower your Airmen- Give your Airmen opportunities to excel. Sometimes that might mean you have to step in and fill a role for them while they pursue a better opportunity.
- Encourage positive change- You are not always right and your idea is not always the best. A stripe doesn’t make you smarter, it just gives you more responsibility. The word Sergeant comes from the Old French “sergent” and originally from the Latin verb servire meaning "to serve”, so it is your job to be there for your Airmen.
The final lesson I learned seems simple, but can be the most challenging for a leader:
Do not “Go with the flow”, instead, “GROW with the flow.” Sometimes your level of growth will force you to stand out from the crowd and not fit in.
I always told my students, “my job is not what you think it is.” I am here to change the AF Culture for the better, 16 students at a time. I am not trying to push retention, or make you memorize Air Force Instructions. I am trying to better the person in the uniform because everything else will improve when I am successful.
I have had a lot of time to ponder on whether or not I would still have applied to be an ALS instructor. Now that I have completed my time, I can say I absolutely would.
Every day and every class had its unique challenges, but this was the best job I have had in my career and I will miss the professional military education world dearly. I have also accepted that it is time for me to relinquish the reigns to the new team who I am very confident will do amazing things during their tenure.
I am not done developing and helping Airmen. I intend on taking the lessons and skills I have learned into the Services world as I return to my career field better than I left.
As my second favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, Raphael said, “You’ll never fit in. One of the hard truths about leadership is that being a leader makes fitting in hard. You have people looking up to you. You have people judging your actions. You have people wanting you to fail. Trying to fit in shouldn’t be your goal. Taking care of your people and getting the job done, that’s your goal.”