As a senior cadet at a military college, I was tasked as cadet officer of the day -- my charge was to run the guard detail responsible for manning numerous gates and entrances to the campus. After guard mount, the first order of business was calling the commandant of cadets to report that the guard was in place for the night and anything else of importance. The commandant, retired Army Col. Tony Lackey, was a grizzled former Special Forces soldier who commanded the utmost respect on campus among both cadets and faculty. His hard-nosed policies and iron backbone were complemented by a friendly demeanor and honest interest in the well-being of cadets. I thoroughly enjoyed my many conversations with him -- except this one.
He picked up the phone on the first ring and barked, "Lackey!" I proceeded to give him my report on the uneventful guard mount to which he responded with a question. "What about dinner?" I wasn't expecting the question and perhaps that is why I answered it so badly. I said, "Sir, I just got a box lunch from the chow hall ... I'm good." The terse tone of his response told me I had missed the point before my brain even had time to decipher the meaning of the words. "No, Allen, I meant your men. Have they eaten?" If there was a hole anywhere near my desk I would have climbed into it with no intention of ever coming out. Here I was -- a senior cadet at a school that prides itself on turning out superb leaders. And I was speaking to one of the people I respected most at the school. And in a two sentence conversation, I revealed to him that the first thing on my mind was not the well being of my men, but my own well being. I had failed a leadership test. I was crushed.
The good news was, I was 22 and didn't know it at the time, but had many years ahead of me to learn from that mistake. It was a pivotal moment that continues to shape my efforts to become the best leader I can. The idea of putting those I lead before myself became the foundation of a leadership philosophy that has become more nuanced with time. As I progress in my career, putting Airmen first continues to be the basis for my leadership philosophy.
To be clear, this is not an offshoot of the "mission versus people" debate. I think that discussion, asking a leader to choose which entity comes first, is a fruitless exercise in semantics. The right answer to the question "which comes first, mission or people?" is simple: Yes. The reason we have people is to accomplish a mission. They will be working towards accomplishing a mission from the day they enter the military -- that is their purpose in the service of this nation. This is what we as leaders must remember. If accomplishing a mission is their purpose, then leading them towards mission accomplishment is taking care of them. Leaders don't have the luxury of picking one area on which to focus. That's why they're in a leadership position, they have exhibited the ability to think creatively and act on multiple fronts simultaneously.
There are some no-brainers to putting your Airmen first: visiting them in the hospital, taking the time to greet them at the airport when they return from a deployment, scheduling a down day when it's needed. I think leaders at all levels get this kind of stuff. But somewhere in career progression this concept gets fuzzy for some. Many times leadership becomes impersonal as leaders find themselves running staffs instead of leading Airmen. I think this lack of direct interaction with the Airmen is a pitfall for many leaders as they no longer see for themselves the effects of their decisions and policies. As they move up through the ranks, these leaders interact with Congress, civic groups, the press and other entities that compete with Airmen for time with the boss. It's not that these interactions are wrong -- in fact, they're essential. But again, this is why these people are called leaders; they're expected to conduct all of this interaction and still remember why they are here -- to lead Airmen.
This balancing act is played out in our acquisitions process. The senior leader entrusted with making the decision on the next new platform will face a multitude of competing interests. Congressmen with aircraft manufacturing sites in their districts will recommend one company, while civic leaders in areas affected by increased noise of the aircraft might recommend another. And at the same time, the American taxpayer wants and deserves prudent use of his hard-earned dollars. That leader has a decision to make -- and no decision will satisfy all parties. This is where he must put the Airman first. Which aircraft best supports the Airman accomplishing his or her mission? That concept must guide those entrusted with the leadership of our Airmen.
Today, I wonder how I would have answered the question from the commandant 15 years ago knowing then what I know now. I like to think I would have answered correctly, but I'm not 100 percent sure. I am sure of this: getting leadership right requires relentless deliberation and re-evaluation of those tenants to our own personal leadership philosophy. Through that constant process, one leadership principle has remained unchanged for me -- putting Airmen first is always the right thing to do. This act can take numerous forms in our business, some of which may include putting them in dangerous or uncomfortable situations. But to me, putting those responsible for protecting this great nation first is always the right answer.