Leadership Lessons: Let’s all be real Airmen

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. --
"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling is much worse. The person who has nothing for which they are willing to fight, nothing which is more important than their own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself." - John Stuart Mill

This is a quotation I was taught in 1987 while I was in basic training at the Air Force Academy. It is a quotation that I can still recite from memory to this day. I remember these words because this quotation really speaks to me. I am in the profession of arms and my job is to go to war when my nation demands it. And while war is abhorrent for its loss of life and the hardship it brings, there are worse things than war. When our nation chooses war or has war forced upon it by outside forces, we are making the statement that some things are worth fighting for. Our identity as a nation--our freedoms, our rights, our system of government--is worth standing up for.

As Airmen in the United States Air Force, we need to know our identity as well. And we must be prepared to defend our identity. It is who and what we are. Our identity is what we stand for and what we represent to each other, but perhaps most importantly what we represent to America and the world.

Our Core Values are our identity. They define our standards of conduct. If you are an Airman, our Core Values represent a line between the honorable conduct of our daily lives and what John Stuart Mill would call a decayed and degraded state of conduct. There is not a grey area here. The Core Values are the definitive line between what is right and what is wrong. And we should be prepared to fight for our Core Values, because they are the foundation of our profession.

Integrity First, is the character trait we strive for. It means we have the moral compass to do what is right in the hundreds of decisions we make every day. We do the right thing because other Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines are counting on us to do our job the right way, all the time. We do the right thing because we voluntarily signed up for the United States Air Force, knowing full well what the price of admission was. We do it, because the nation depends on us to do our job, most especially when no one is watching us. The nation gives the military fearsome weapons and capabilities and the public must trust its service members to do what is right in every instance. That means doing the right thing both on and off duty, because if an Airman cannot be trusted on his own time, why would the public trust the Airman on duty?

An Airman who betrays the public trust, falls completely afoul of Service Before Self, our second Core Value. Any Airman who takes a shortcut and skips the rules does so for completely selfish reasons. The shortcut is easier. The rule is inconvenient. The standards are just too onerous. Airmen need to remember that they are service members--the very word conveying a meaning of servitude toward our nation and our Air Force. Each of us raised a hand and swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. We committed ourselves to serving our nation first. That might mean serving late on Friday or Saturday night. Or it might mean helping those you supervise, and their family members, before you head out of town on leave. The Airman who cares more about himself, more about his own personal desires, is a miserable creature who jeopardizes his fellow Airmen and their mission by taking shortcuts and skipping the rules.

Excellence In All We Do, our third Core Value, builds on integrity and service. If we are making the choice to do the right thing and serving our nation, our unit, and our Airmen before ourselves, then we are prepared to move forward on a path of enduring excellence. According to Air Force Instruction 1-2, the concept of excellence "directs us to develop a sustained passion for continuous improvement and innovation" that propels us on "a long-term, upward vector of accomplishment and performance." We constantly tout military members as the "1 Percent Club", since less than one percent of American citizens join the Armed Forces and raise their right hand to defend the nation with their lives. How proud can we be of this moniker if we do not behave with a sense of excellence in our activities--the everyday duties we perform. Every one of our duties should be accomplished in an excellent manner with an eye toward improving our units and our own performance.

If you do not know whether you are living by the Core Values or you believe that the Core Values are a big grey area, let me tell you directly--you are not living by them. If you cannot say you are a proponent, a teacher, and a living, breathing example of the Core Values, John Stuart Mill would look you in the eye and say to your face that you are in a decayed and degraded moral state. He would add that you have no right to call yourself a "1 percenter." Without the very identity the Air Force prescribes--the Core Values--how can an Airman possibly believe they are part of the Air Force Team? Our Core Values set us apart. Our Core Values allow us to defend the Constitution of the United States. Our Core Values allow the public to trust us with the deadliest weapons the world has ever seen.

If I had to put a modern, Air Force spin on John Stuart Mill's quote, it would go like this:
"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. A decayed and degraded state of Core Values among our Airmen is much worse. Airmen who have nothing for which they are willing to fight, nothing which is more important than their own personal agendas, are a miserable bunch and have no chance of being real Airmen until they honor our Core Values."

We need every Airman to take a stand for the Core Values. Every time an Airman condones acts that violate our Core Values, our Air Force is weakened. But every time an Airman takes a stand for Integrity, Service, and Excellence, we become a more powerful force for Global Vigilance, Global Reach, and Global Power. Take a stand every minute of every day as you make your own decisions. Take a stand every time you see another Airman violate the Core Values, and call them on it--confront them directly and correct bad behavior. You are empowered to do so. Take a stand both on duty and off duty, when in uniform or not. Let's help each other be real Airmen in the truest sense of the word and in keeping with the identity we profess in our Core Values. We owe this to ourselves, to each other, and to the nation we serve.