Leadership Lessons: Broken Sunglasses

  • Published
  • By Andrew Swenson
  • 319th Air Base Wing chief of safety
When asked "how did I become a Safety Manager" I have often replied with "by making lots of mistakes." Most of the time this was just a comment intended to induce a good laugh. However, looking back it does colorfully describe key waypoints on the path which has led me to where I am today. You see if it weren't for a little bad luck I possibly would never had enlisted. If not for a BRAC I wouldn't have been at the base I was force cross-trained, and had I not chose Safety as my next career I may not be a civil servant. It all started with a little bad luck; specifically a broken pair of sunglasses, which I claim started my good fortune.

It was a little over 25 years ago when the need for a new pair of Oakley's placed me in the doorway of a local mall with Tech. Sgt. Dan Verbeski. Verbeski was an Air Force recruiter who worked out of an office at the mall. I had probably walked passed his office a hundred times, never once giving it a glance or a thought. Until that "doorway" moment, the military had only existed on the TV or in the 1942 photo of my grandfather on the deck of a ship docked in Pearl Harbor and one of my father on a railcar somewhere in Germany circa 1958. Until that day I had no interest in serving. I didn't grow up fascinated by planes. I never experienced an airshow, nor did I sit in a gymnasium to hear a recruiter speak. I still can't tell you which service I chose on my selective service card. What I can clearly state is in every moment of our life we have a choice to make, and I had no idea where my next choice would take me.

By now you have heard "you may not be able to control what happens, however you can control what happens next." I think a safe argument could be made that smart choices definitely help tip the odds in the favor of a good outcome. But are you truly in control? Even the best thought out and well executed plans sometimes play out differently than expected. Let's face it, healthy people sometimes get cancer and safe drivers sometimes die in car accidents. When life seems out of control or things don't work out as planned; it's what we do next when facing this adversity that defines us. Defining moments are the events leading up to a moment; it is the decision at that moment which carries the title.

I have a sister raising a daughter with autism.  Immediately after learning about her handicap I began to focus on all of the difficulties that lay ahead of her little girl, however my sister decided to love her daughter unconditionally. In time I learned that faith and love was all she needed to get her through the tough times. I am completely amazed and truly inspired by those facing what seems to be insurmountable odds but yet still able to smile. Their power comes from a bravery I can't fathom, a deep gratitude for the moment and an enduring hope of what's to come. A great lesson to us all stressing more over lesser issues, don't you think? I recall a POW reflecting about how she felt it was learning to handle life's smaller issues that prepared her to survive being a POW and abled her to be successful after being released. Put in another way, its life's little failures that prepare you for the big ones. All the great success stories in history are simply events that outlasted adverse moments.

My enlistment is just an example of one event in my life and honestly will rank pretty low on the scale of importance in history. It's but one decision I cannot explain, but one that I am very grateful for the way it turned out. I am not sure if Sergeant Verbeski and I exchanged any words beyond; good morning or thank you as I held the door open. What I can tell you is at that moment I could have easily continued my heading toward the sunglass kiosk. Instead I followed the man who will always be known as "my recruiter" into his office and enlisted. Call it fate, maybe...destiny, doubtful unless you believe it was destiny that causes me to sit on my shades.