ORLANDO, Fla. – Judging by the conversations and hardware on display, cutting-edge technology – virtual reality, 5th generation equipment, hypersonic weapons, cyber capabilities – was the dominant theme at the Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando.
But in his keynote address March 1, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein focused on something else and something decidedly old school – leadership, a quality that he suggested is even more important to the Air Force’s future and its continued excellence than shiny equipment.
“We must recognize that the culture of the United States Air Force has to be big tent culture,” Goldfein said during a 40-minute appearance alongside Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright before more than 1,000 Airmen of all ranks on the final day of the Air Force Association gathering.
In often-personal terms, both leaders paid tribute to leaders who shaped their careers and helped each correct his course. Goldfein noted that “bold and inspiring” leadership and embracing diversity has never been more important or necessary given the demands placed on today’s Air Force.
“It is not about being politically correct,” Goldfein said. “It’s a warfighting imperative.”
For Wright, the major influence came early in his career from Master Sgt. Joe Wimbush, whose guidance provided clarity of purpose and thought as well as direction.
“He was very tough, but he was fair and he treated me like his son,” Wright said. “… There was always a teaching moment, an opportunity that he allowed me to grow. Everything that I am today as a professional, as a man and everything that I’m not is because of Joe Wimbush.”
Goldfein touched on a similar theme but also stressed that good leaders recognize diversity and the attributes it brings to the Air Force.
“Think about what we do; we do leaflets to nukes and everything in between,” Goldfein said by way of making a larger point about the value of diversity within the Air Force and why leaders must adapt to the difference. “We operate from 65 feet below the surface to the outer reaches of space and everywhere in between.
“That kid has to see himself in the United States Air Force and our culture has to be inclusive of that. … They have to see themselves in us. So to me, celebration of diversity and making sure we see the flesh-colored Band-Aid is not about being politically correct. It’s a warfighting imperative.”
As he has before, Goldfein illustrated the point with a story about a conversation about a flesh-colored Band-Aid with an African-American senior enlisted leader. The chief handed him the Band-Aid and said there was a problem. Goldfein was confused, failing to make the connection until the Airman put the Band-Aid on and highlighted the fact that there was only one choice and one color.
The point, Goldfein said, was that good leaders understand “what they do not see” or know and are open to those who bring those “blind spots” into view.
“The first thing we do as leaders is acknowledge we all have blinders on,” he said. “And there are certain things we are not going to be able to see in our organization. Once we acknowledge that we have to acknowledge there are flesh-colored Band Aids in every squadron.
“The only way we can see them is to surround ourselves and build our teams in ways that others can point them out to us,” he said.
Often the insight comes from enlisted Airmen.
“I’m a firm believer that no officer in the United States Air Force becomes successful at the very senior ranks without being raised by a great NCO,” Goldfein said.
Both Goldfein and Wright emphasized the real-world importance of leadership that is strong yet adaptable and open to change when warranted. They also acknowledged the benefits of missteps and stumbles. Goldfein mentioned “my six years at the Academy” to illustrate how he had trouble adapting, left the Academy but returned after biking across the U.S. to reset his perspectives.
When asked what he thinks when hearing stories of Airmen who make mistakes, Wright says his answer is always the same: “Good on you! That’s how you learn. We must allow for that.”
Goldfein agreed, and like Wright, he said strong leaders have instinctive ability to allow room for individual quirks while at the same time combining the “parts” into a cohesive, effective whole.
“The command team’s role in achieving the mission is the most important role you play as a leader,” Goldfein said. “You must organize, train, and equip Airmen to be ready to fight. It’s your moral obligation to get it right to field a ready fighting formation. As leaders you’re also responsible for doing everything we can to accomplish the mission; it may not always be glamorous, but it’s required nonetheless.”