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A seat at the decision table: leadership lessons from three colonels

U.S. Air Force Cols. Kristen Thompson (left), Bonnie Stevenson (center), and Laura Goodman (right), pose for a group photo at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, March 3, 2021. The colonels serve as the commanders for the 380th Expeditionary Operations Group, 380th Expeditionary Medical Group, and 380th Expeditionary Maintenance Group respectively.

U.S. Air Force Cols. Kristen Thompson (left), Bonnie Stevenson (center), and Laura Goodman (right), pose for a group photo at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, March 3, 2021. The colonels serve as the commanders for the 380th Expeditionary Operations Group, 380th Expeditionary Medical Group, and 380th Expeditionary Maintenance Group respectively. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Zade Vadnais)

U.S. Air Force Col. Laura Goodman, 380th Expeditionary Operations Group commander stands on the flight line at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, March 22, 2021. Goodman hails from Denver, Colorado, and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1997. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Zade Vadnais)

U.S. Air Force Col. Laura Goodman, 380th Expeditionary Operations Group commander stands on the flight line at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, March 22, 2021. Goodman hails from Denver, Colorado, and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1997. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Zade Vadnais)

U.S. Air Force Col. Bonnie Stevenson, 380th Expeditionary Medical Group commander stands outside the medical clinic at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, March 24, 2021. Stevenson joined the U.S. Air Force in 1996 after graduating from nursing school at the University of Texas Health Science Center. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Zade Vadnais)

U.S. Air Force Col. Bonnie Stevenson, 380th Expeditionary Medical Group commander stands outside the medical clinic at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, March 24, 2021. Stevenson joined the U.S. Air Force in 1996 after graduating from nursing school at the University of Texas Health Science Center. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Zade Vadnais)

U.S. Air Force Col. Kristen Thompson, 380th Expeditionary Operations Group commander stands in front of an E-3 Sentry aircraft at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, March 29, 2021. Thompson grew up in Anaheim Hill, California, before she attended the U.S. Air Force Academy as part of the class of 2001.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Zade Vadnais)

U.S. Air Force Col. Kristen Thompson, 380th Expeditionary Operations Group commander stands in front of an E-3 Sentry aircraft at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, March 29, 2021. Thompson grew up in Anaheim Hill, California, before she attended the U.S. Air Force Academy as part of the class of 2001. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Zade Vadnais)

AL DHAFRA AIR BASE, United Arab Emirates --

There’s a subtle change taking place in the U.S. Air Force, one that could be missed if not consciously noted in the day-to-day battle rhythm of generating airpower.

In the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, the wing leadership table is set a few times a week for the meeting of the minds of senior leaders. A wing commander, a vice commander, a command chief, and the group commanders gather round to make the decisions necessary to run a wing made up of thousands of Airmen.

The table always represents the functional aspects of the Air Force: operations, maintenance, mission support, and medical. Under a different lens, the table also represents the lived experience of each leader, as well as a legacy they represent.

 

The maintenance group commander, Col. Laura Goodman, takes her seat seriously. As a career maintenance officer, she has grown accustomed to representing hundreds of Airmen at once.  

“Maintainers can be fickle; if you do them wrong, it can be hard to earn back their trust. If you are doing your best, you can fall down, you can make mistakes, they’ve got your back, they’ll pick you up, and they’ll make sure the team excels,” she said. “Being at the table…it’s about being a representative for a big group of people who are getting important things done in challenging environments.”

Goodman has a coffee date with her parents nearly every morning. They’ve always passed on to her a mentality to never give up, which has served her well in launching her own Air Force career.

She wasn’t accepted to the U.S. Air Force Academy on her first try. She tried again, and joined the class of 1997 when they walked across the graduation stage. Within her first year in the Air Force, she failed pilot training. She assessed what was the best path for her and decided to go where she could lead Airmen. She asked for maintenance.

“A lot of times the Air Force decides for you what’s next in life. I’m certainly along for the ride,” the Denver, Colorado native said. “I think that I’m very representative of a lot of people in the Air Force that sometimes do things the hard way or don’t take the direct path. But you can keep at it, you know…do your best, don’t give up, and pretty good things happen usually.”

As a maintenance colonel, she relays that she’s been taken care of by her teams, too, as one of the few career fields where officers truly are raised by their senior enlisted counterparts.

“Maintenance relies heavily on your recognition of who the subject matter experts are…and trusting them and working hard with them. You let go of all the things you think you are because there are a bunch of established leaders, you tuck in and you get ready to learn.”

She is not the only one who feels that way. Also at the head table sits another colonel raised in a different environment.

“Especially sitting at the head table, I say you have to rely on your SMEs,” said Col. Bonnie Stevenson, the 380th Expeditionary Medical Group commander. She is ever-conscious of the expertise she is charged to represent: talented physicians, medics, and technicians who have undergone years of schooling and training.

Stevenson will tell anyone that she joined the Air Force by birth in 1972, having been born into an Air Force family. Her first job was at McDonald’s and her second job was as a nurse’s aide. Her dad encouraged her to pursue the skills she gained in the latter experience, and she joined the Air Force as a nurse in 1996.

She notes that growing up on Air Force bases and working in hospitals shaped her leadership style.

“I think learning the art of leading in such a diverse setting helps,” said Stevenson, who attended nursing school at University of Texas Health Science Center. “This rotation has shown me what a diverse and inclusive team can do. Everybody gets along, everybody contributes, and everybody values what you bring to the table.”

When she arrived at Al Dhafra, she was excited to see the assembled team she was about to join.

“I remember coming off the plane. We had a meeting at the wing building I think that day, and I looked around the room and I thought ‘this is awesome,’” she said thinking of her fellow group commanders. “They’ve become sisters to me. We look out for one another.”

Normally seated across from Stevenson, the operations group commander considers leadership as a spectrum of relationships and processes, where she aligns herself on the relationships side.

“My two most important relationships I was going to have here, one was with my squadron commanders - those are the most important humans on my planet. My other most important relationship was my relationship with all my fellow group commanders, who are the absolute best at what they do.  It’s so cool to see the groups take on their personality—their passion, dedication, and selflessness.  Bonnie and Laura are so inspiring,” said Col. Kristen Thompson, 380th Expeditionary Operations Group commander.

“I lean toward the human side. Making memories with our Airmen is one of the most impactful things we can do.  It’s a way to connect even in a high stakes environment,” Thompson, who hails from Anaheim Hills, California, explained. “I use the word ‘love’ a lot. I feel that I can do that because I wear a uniform, and the fact that I wear a uniform communicates to other people that I’m willing to die for them. And I think that’s big…it’s very important for me to tell that to our Airmen like ‘hey I love you…I trust you, I empower you, and I am 100% here for you.’ And I know that’s very non-traditional and not very many people do that, but that’s who I am.”

She explains a deployment back in 2011 was formative in teaching her how to lead and how she approaches decisions when asked to advise on behalf of operators.

“I was a major who was really just immersed in their own platform and then I went to the (Combined Air Operations Center) and got to see the operational level of war, and to see how all of the platforms were stitched together to run an air war. It was really instructive for me,” she recalled of her first 365-day deployment.   

“To see a lot of these decision makers up close and personal, you learned what it takes to be an enterprise leader while balancing critical relationships. You also learn what it takes to be at the forefront of generating airpower and thinking about airpower. It was by far my most transformative assignment.”

 

These three colonels sitting at the head table represent the subtle change taking place in the U.S. Air Force.

The legacy they share, at least in the United States of America, is more than 100 years in the making. The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in 1920. Twenty-eight years later, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act officially recognized the ability of women to serve and die for their country. Another 28 years after that, the U.S. Air Force allowed women to officially become pilots and fly. In 2015, the three colonels, along with the rest of the world, witnessed the opening of combat roles to women.

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, it’s a time to take note of the changes that are more indicative of the future. Women across the Air Force have spent their careers being the only one at the table, a dynamic that’s so common it’s easy to forget. Now, however, there are these small moments to notice when there’s one more woman at the table, and then another.

The next generation of women in uniform won’t be the first at anything, but maybe they’ll be the last to witness the dynamics change. With more seats being filled at the table, the legacy will continue. They will just get to be the leaders they are, which are precisely the leaders the Air Force needs.