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25 … No, 28 years of change

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Antonio Hickey
  • 451st Air Expeditionary Wing command chief
NOTE: I initially wrote this article in 2007 while stationed at Aviano Air Base, Italy. During that time, we were struggling with a new wing mission and a pending merger of operations and aircraft maintenance. The concepts still hold true today as we are faced with impending budget pressures, the pullout of combat troops from Iraq and future mission changes in Afghanistan.

I woke up the other day and realized that I'd just rolled over 25 years in the Air Force. Pretty amazing since I never thought I'd make it through my first four years much less make a career out of it, but that's another story in itself.

As I look back through those 25 years, I'm struck by how much the Air Force has changed. During the last quarter century, we've transitioned from the Cold War era of massive numbers of personnel and scores of bases all across the globe, to a lean and lethal force capable of delivering air power anywhere in the world. We do more with less, our living standards have improved dramatically, and we've learned to fight and win America's wars quickly and decisively. As I look forward to the next 25 years, I know even more change will be necessary if we intend to maintain our edge as the world's premier aerospace force.

What I've noticed throughout these years is that people who understood the need for change and continuous improvement and those who did not. The former Airmen went on to do great things and made the Air Force the fighting force that it is today, while the latter became disgruntled and resisted to the point of becoming irrelevant. When I look at what separated the two types of people, I can identify a few key personality characteristics that seem to be present in most successful Airmen. These factors (and they are by no means exclusive) are the continuous pursuit of education, a positive attitude, and the ability to promote a free exchange of ideas.

One of the most important characteristics for an Airman in today's rapidly changing environment is the continuous pursuit of education. It's this simple ... if you are not improving your skills every day, you are becoming less relevant. I can't tell you how many people I saw over the years who were very good at their jobs, but quickly became unproductive as the environment changed and their skill set became obsolete. The advent of the computer was a classic example of what I'm getting at. There were some very good people who saw the new devices as tools and took it upon themselves to learn to use the new technologies to improve their performance. Others elected to resist to the point they quickly became inefficient as the technology advanced at an alarming rate.

Every one of us should be constantly seeking opportunities to improve our education through a wide range of resources including formal military training, civilian education programs, and self-study.

The second factor which has a dramatic impact on success in a changing environment is attitude. No surprises here -- attitude has always been and will always be everything. We've all worked with the person who is content with the status quo and has no interest in changing the way we do business. These individuals are very comfortable in what they do and will resist change no matter what happens.

Sometimes this reluctance to change stems from fear and other times it is the result of complacency or simple stubbornness. At it's worst, people will leave the service rather than change the way they do business, often with a parting shot expressed via Air Force Times or some other venue.

Whatever the case, you see the negative attitudes emerge when Airmen quickly dismiss new ideas or initiatives off-hand with little or no thought about the possible benefit. Many times this dismissal is presented with a personal attack against individuals suggesting a change.

On the other hand, we see successful Airmen give thoughtful consideration of all ideas presented by going so far as to take risks when outcomes are uncertain. This type of courageous attitude is what has proven very effective in the past and is absolutely essential in today's rapidly changing world.

The last characteristic I'd like to address is the commitment to promoting a free exchange of ideas. No matter who you are, you have an impact in promoting a free exchange of ideas in your work center. Obviously, the impact is greater if you are the leader of a team or organization but performance can be impacted at any level. Through the years, I've seen many sections or units, where the people resisted change by waiting until changes were "forced down their throats," often hiding behind wording in Air Force Instructions that have failed to keep pace with the changing environment.

Other organizations looked at the changes as opportunities and solicited feedback from all their personnel on how to implement and cope with change. These work centers excelled through the changes quickly and became benchmark organizations. A classic example of what I'm talking about can be seen with the different approaches to adopting the current physical fitness standards.

Some units quickly brainstormed ideas and developed schedules to allow members time to conduct mandatory sessions. Others, often with the same or similar missions, held out to the end until their excuses for non-compliance were no longer tolerated by senior leaders. How well your unit or duty section promotes open exchange of ideas like this will define the success of future changes.

So what can we expect in the next 25 years? What type of aircraft will we be flying? Will they even be manned? What will the force look like? I don't think anyone can answer those questions with any degree of certainty.

One thing is certain, the Air Force will not be anything like it is today ... it will be better. We will be more lethal with capabilities that seem impossible today. Those capabilities will require changes that may seem ridiculous and unattainable at first glance. Some will embrace the changes from an educated perspective with a positive attitude while promoting a free exchange of ideas. Others will stumble along following their lead and complaining all the way.

We'll all get there eventually, but you have to ask yourself which road you'd rather take.