Leadership Lessons: Think Different

  • Published
  • By Maj. Matthew Suhre
  • 319th Communications Squadron commander
When people think about diversity, differences in race, ethnicity, religion, and gender typically come to mind. While these traditional categories are important, the Air Force's definition of diversity is much broader. AFI 36-70 defines diversity as "a composite of individual characteristics, experiences, and abilities, consistent with the Air Force core values and Air Force mission." In addition to demographics, the Air Force also recognizes other characteristics that are important to diversity such as personal life experiences, educational background, physical abilities, and work background. It seems counterintuitive: a large organization built on conformity and uniformity celebrates and promotes the diversity of its individual Airmen. However, the promotion of diversity isn't just a bumper sticker; it's a military necessity that is vital to the long term success of our mission. Diversity amongst our force yields something vitally important: diversity of thought. The values, experiences, and ideals of our diverse Airmen allow each of them to "Think Different".

Now, for those of you who are sticklers for grammar, I understand that "Think Different" is not grammatically correct in the previous sentence. In fact, "Think Different" was an advertising campaign used by Apple, Inc. in 1998, the beginning of its resurgence. Some of you may remember the advertisements honoring historic figures such as Amelia Earhart, Thomas Edison, and Gandhi with the following lines of text:

"Here's to the crazy ones. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."

At the heart of the "Think Different" campaign was the notion of being bold, effecting change, and most importantly, innovation.

Innovation has fueled the Air Force throughout its history. It has allowed us to reshape the battlefield, change boundaries, and has enabled us to become the world's greatest Air Force. The Air Force had its own "crazy ones" who dared to "Think Different" and shaped our service into what it is today. Airmen like Generals Billy Mitchell, Bennie Schriever, Benjamin Davis, and Lt. Gen. Pete Quesada drove the Air Force to find better ways to fly, fight, and win.

If we look at each of these Airmen, we find diversity. Mitchell was born in Nice, France, to a wealthy Wisconsin senator and gained his commission with the help of his father's influence. He is widely regarded as the father of the United States Air Force. Schriever was a German immigrant who played a significant role in the development of the Air Force's space and missile program. Davis was born in Washington D.C. and commanded the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. He was also the first African-American general in the United States Army. Quesada was born in Washington D.C. to an Irish-American mother and a Spanish father. He pioneered many of the principles of tactical air-ground warfare and close air support. Each of these men come from different races, backgrounds, education, and life experiences that gave them a unique perspective on how to deal with the challenges they faced.

Today's Air Force has the most diverse force in its history. We need to continue to promote diversity not just to check a box for race or gender, but because there is a real benefit of having diverse and qualified Airmen amongst our ranks. Each Airman brings a unique perspective gained through their experience and background. They bring different ways of looking at problems and developing solutions. Having the same group of people looking at the same problem will seldom yield different results. We need the creativity, imagination, and the wisdom that is enhanced by diversity.

As a commander, I expect all of my Airmen to be innovative. Each of the generals mentioned above were not innovative because they were generals, instead they became generals in part because they had the foresight to implement change and improve their organizations. Similarly, I expect every Airman in my organization, from the newest Airman Basic to the oldest Chief to innovate. Innovation isn't just about creating a new service, aircraft, or revolutionary tactics; it's about applying common sense and creativity to improve everyday processes. Each idea brings about efficiency and incrementally improves the organization. I don't have all of the good ideas, and all of my ideas aren't always the best. I don't need "yes men" who agree with everything I say, but instead Airmen who "Think Different" than me. I need them to shoot holes in my ideas or to present ideas of their own. I need Airmen with different backgrounds that see things from a different perspective than I do to offer alternatives. The best ideas don't come from the top but instead, they come from the person closest to the problem. We are all experts in our own piece of the mission and it is our duty as Airmen to constantly improve our piece of the mission. Although we all have unique experiences, educations, and cultural backgrounds, the synergistic effect of using multiple perspectives gained through diversity will facilitate innovation throughout the Air Force.

In today's environment of shrinking budgets, manpower, and "doing more with less," innovation is even more important than ever. By promoting diversity and encouraging Airmen to "Think Different," we will continue to find innovative ways to fly, fight, and win.