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Things I've learned

  • Published
  • By Col. Don Adams
  • 90th Maintenance Group commander
I have been in the Air Force my entire life. I was born into the Air Force family in 1964 and served as a dependent for 22 years. One of the proudest moments of my life was June 9, 1987, when I was sworn in as a lieutenant. On that day, I became a third-generation member of the greatest Air Force the world has ever seen. My grandfather served in the Army Air Force during World War II. My father served for 20 years, including a tour in Vietnam. Two weeks after his retirement ceremony, I entered the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Auburn University, Ala. A few weeks ago, I sat and reflected over the 28 years that have passed and what I have learned.

The first and most important thing I learned is people are important. When I think back on my career, it is the people I remember, not the positions I've held. I've learned to treat people the way I want to be treated, that all people are important no matter what their position in the unit or their rank. I've learned if you treat all people with dignity and respect, you will build a reputation as one who is not only respected but usually highly trusted. I've also learned not to allow myself to become too big for my britches. If you feel you are somehow more important than others, you will most likely develop an unhealthy sense of entitlement. You will feel you deserve to be treated better than others, and as a leader, you will be ineffective.

Next, I have learned your level of expertise is important. You are expected to be the expert in your field and your position. Unfortunately, not all earn that distinction. It does not happen over night, but you should learn everything you possibly can about every job you ever hold. In other words, become the expert in that area, no matter how important or menial the position is. Once you hold a position, the assumption is you have done exactly that. I am expected to be the wing's expert in missile maintenance. If I have not become the expert in all of the positions I have held, then I risk failing in my mission of providing preeminent combat capability to the commander of United States Strategic Command. The commanders who hired me into this job were counting on the fact that I did learn all I needed to in my previous positions. A big part of becoming the expert is continuing your education. Whether it is getting your associates degree through the Community College of the Air Force, or your master's degree, you owe it to the Air Force and yourself. That also includes professional military education. Get it done as soon as you are eligible! Trust me; you will never have more time than right now to get both done. The longer you put education off, the harder it is to get started.

I've also learned that reputation is important. When the time comes to hire a new person into that dream job you have always wanted, the hiring authority will do everything in their power to find out all they can about the people being considered. If your reputation is not solid, you will be discounted before they ever look at your record. You may be the expert I described above, but if you have a reputation as one who has little integrity or one who can't get along with others, it does not matter. Unfortunately, I have worked with far too many people who did not reach what they considered their full potential because their reputation followed them throughout their career. In a previous article, I described my own experience with a poor reputation. Trust me, it is not fun to think you are the cat's meow and be told "we don't want you."

One of the later lessons I have learned is to respect the decisions of those in a position of authority. Unfortunately, it was after I became a commander before I realized that the commanders I had worked for in the past just might have had some information I didn't have, and that is why they made a decision I didn't like. The bottom line here is when you become the boss, you can make the decisions, but until then, your job is to provide the input and follow the directions and orders of those appointed over you. I encourage you to talk to your boss if you disagree or don't understand a decision but in the end, the decision is theirs to make. If you do not have the courage to engage your boss, shut up. This is harsh, but reality nonetheless.

Finally, I've learned that you must take care of yourself. Do not expect that others will. Although most supervisors and commanders do their very best to take care of every member of their unit, sometimes things fall through the cracks. Keep track of when your Enlisted or Officer Performance Report is due. Know when you should be due for a decoration. Be ready to provide solid inputs to your boss when those things come due. Again, your boss has more to worry about than just you, and despite the best of intentions, he or she may not have the perfect sight picture of what you need. Don't be afraid to say "hey boss, I need you to say this (insert your need) in my next report." If you do not tell them, you run the risk they won't think of it. Part of taking care of yourself is making sure you are squared away in all areas such as physically and financially. Get in the habit early of hitting the gym on a routine basis. Pay your bills and control the "get it nows." Life is full of opportunities to get something now, and pay for it later. Again, trust someone who has been there, don't do it. What seems like a reasonable payment now becomes unmanageable when combined with other "get it nows."

There are many more things I have learned, but I do not have the space to include them all here. I think these are the most important: people, expertise, reputation, respect for authority and take care of yourself. If you can learn these lessons from me, and not the hard way by having to deal with the consequences of bad decisions like I did, then I will have been successful and so will you. Good luck, and I hope you enjoy your time in the Air Force, no matter how long it is, as much as I have enjoyed mine.