Sharing: A chance to learn from each other

  • Published
  • By Col. Patrick Miller
  • 88th Air Base Wing and Installation commander

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio  Right now, I’m reading a book by Tim Ferriss called “Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World.” The concept fascinates me.

The author posed 11 questions to a wide array of personalities from celebrities to entrepreneurs to academics. The book is simply a composition of responses providing diverse perspectives on the same basic questions. I’m learning a ton from the various thought processes, motivations and quirks.

As many of you know, AFMC Connect is a program designed to facilitate small group conversations across the team as a way to better connect with each other. Each quarter has a theme and is broken down into monthly supporting topics. The theme for this quarter is “Community,” and February’s topic is “Sharing.”

Typically, the 88th Air Base Wing produces two “Let’s Get it Wright” videos discussing the monthly AFMC Connect topics — one at the beginning of the month with the command chief and I sharing our thoughts on the subject; one mid-month serving as a deep dive led by one of the two wing deputies with a guest or two.

If you haven’t seen them, the videos are posted on our wing Facebook page. The intent is for work centers to use the videos as a kick-starter for their own conversations.

Rather than produce videos this month, we are trying something a little different. Drawing inspiration from “Tribe of Mentors,” we crafted seven questions:

  1. What is the book (or books) you have given most as a gift, and why? Alternatively, what are a few books that have greatly influenced your life?

Col. Patrick Miller, 88 ABW and installation commander –

“The Servant: A Simple Story about the True Essence of Leadership” by James Hunter. The book is an easy, quick read that uses a story as the backdrop to unveiling the basic principles of servant leadership. I read it at least once a year to recenter me. Two other authors whose work I devour are Chip & Dan Heath and Brené Brown. I love everything they write!

Col. Charles Barkhurst, 88 ABW vice commander –

I have three nonfiction books that I like to share. The first is “The Guns of August” by Barbara Tuchman. This history lays out the causes and struggles of the beginning of World War I. It is a great study in tactics, leadership and alliances in both the military and diplomatic spheres.

The next book is “Call Sign Chaos” by Jim Mattis and Bing West. This book really shows the trials and tribulations and leadership philosophy of one of the great leaders of our lifetime: Former Secretary of Defense and retired Gen. James Mattis.

The final book is actually from a trilogy called “The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill.” The second book of the trilogy is the best. It is titled: “Alone 1932-1940.” This book shows the incredible valor and foresight of Churchill, who virtually singlehandedly spoke out against his party and all of the English government about the dangers of disarmament and appeasement as he tried to stop WWII from happening. It is so compelling to see him stick with the courage of his convictions as all others in the government were against him and his ideas.      

Chief Master Sgt. Jason Shaffer, 88 ABW command chief –

“Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun” by Wess Roberts. I like the way it gives lessons you can apply at all levels of leadership. The book dives into many important aspects of leadership and is a powerful read. “Extreme Ownership,” “Gates of Fire,” and “The Mission, the Men and Me” have also had a profound impact on my life.

Greg Leingang, 88 ABW vice director –

“The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition” by Caroline Alexander. Although not specifically a book on leadership, this true story offers valuable lessons on leadership, followership, facing adversity and overcoming circumstances, all while giving insight into an incredible historic event.

  1. When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? 

Miller –

Breathe, triage and then isolate. Typically, when I am overwhelmed, it is a function of multiple issues being dogpiled on me over a short period. Remember, very few things are so time sensitive that you cannot breathe. Stop, collect your thoughts and recognize not everything can be done at once.

After I catch my breath, I triage the issues to figure out what is most important or time sensitive. Then I focus on the top issue until I am in a comfortable place to close it out, hand it off or move on.

Barkhurst –

I work out to clear my head when I am stressed or lost focus. The great thing about working out is you can get exercise and either focus internally or build camaraderie. I enjoy running by myself or doing a CrossFit workout with my wife. Finally, playing sports or working out with a unit or friends is an excellent experience. 

Shaffer –

I first try to slow my mind down. That could be by going for a walk, taking a deep breath or collecting my thoughts. For me, I need to try to visualize what is causing the problem and then move past it. If all else fails, I head to the gym to sweat it out. 

Leingang –

I take a long walk and then I write down what needs to happen. Walking has a way of calming my thoughts. Then, writing down the way forward on an issue, or a to-do list or schedule, provides something actionable I can do to keep the calming effects of the walk going. 

  1. We often talk about taking risk. What is the most important risk you took and why?  

Miller –

Being me. Peer pressure is very real. As a young officer, several peers scrutinized me for constantly volunteering for things. Folks thought I was award hunting. In truth, I simply liked helping people and being involved. Rather than step back, I brushed it off and stayed true to myself. Don’t compromise your values and beliefs to fit in. Instead, be the best you that you can be. Folks can tell when you are faking it.

Barkhurst –

The most important risk I took was to always bring my expertise and knowledge to my boss, no matter the consequences. This has not failed me yet. I have pointed out flaws or issues with plans from general officers, wing commanders, political appointees and senior executives. As the comptroller, executive officer or military assistant, you work directly for the senior person in your organization — and they expect you to provide them with sound advice. I have always done this, which sometimes protects them from themselves.

These decisions were all risky because the commander or leader wants to move out on a plan and telling them that they can’t is not what they want to hear. You can often find another way to execute their idea, but sometimes you cannot, and it is risky to be the one who puts the brakes on their plan.

Shaffer –

When I was in a special-duty assignment at the Pentagon, I had some offers to get out of an assignment to Cannon AFB, New Mexico. Many said it would not be good, and I had the option to take another assignment. I felt like I needed to go be a flight chief and stop doing the “fun” stuff. I knew it was going to be a challenge but I thought in the long run it would pay dividends. Going to a tough location and being able to lead Airmen was so important to reaching my potential.

Leingang –

After graduating with my bachelor’s degree, taking a job with the Air Force as a Palace Acquire intern and moving to Washington, D.C., instead of going to law school as I had originally planned. The Air Force job and the location were going to be completely foreign to me, but making some money after being a poor college student sounded good. And I figured I could always go back to law school. I never looked back and I’ve been working for the Air Force ever since. This career has provided a wonderful sense of service and purpose that I don’t think could have been matched in any other civilian career. 

  1. Building on risk, how has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure?”

Miller –

In my mind, my biggest failure happened in college. I was attending a conference and running for a national position for a service organization. Several of us were at a social event, sharing a table with AFROTC cadets from other universities. We had a few “candidates” for our service organization with us.

A senior cadet from another school was asking the candidates about their training program. I didn’t think much of it and left the group to focus on the national bid we were pitching the next day. Turns out, the senior cadet from the other school got a little overzealous. Our candidates — cadets that trusted me to look out for them — felt hazed by the senior and abandoned by me. I never regained their trust and it haunts me to this day.

I routinely recall this event and the feeling of letting them down. As a result, I work hard to do right by people. There is a big difference between failing or disappointing someone and not pleasing them. We cannot make everyone happy, but we can be pure in our intentions and maintain awareness of others’ needs.

Barkhurst –

I graduated from college in 1995 with the goal of being an FBI agent. I had specifically obtained a degree in accounting for this reason because the FBI was hiring agents primarily with accounting or law degrees. Unfortunately, I was not picked up for the FBI because the timing was poor as they were not hiring many agents at this time.

I then worked in the private sector for a year doing accounting work and hated every minute of it. At this point, I decided to try and commission into the Air Force. However, this was during the drawdown in the mid-1990s and the Officer Training School classes were very small and only looking for folks with technical degrees or those intending to be pilots. I felt like I had failed in all of my career choices and I was only 23 years old.

At this point, I laid out a plan to go through ROTC on a two-year program and earn my MBA at the same time. I was lucky enough to be accepted into the ROTC detachment and this plan came to fruition. I sometimes look back at those failures and am so grateful that they happened. I cannot be happier with how my career has turned out.

Shaffer –

It started in college. I got hurt and couldn’t play basketball anymore. That led to me going down the wrong road and failing out of school. I had lost my work ethic and needed to find something I felt with team sports. The military was the shining light I needed. I never wanted to tell my dad I failed at something again.

  1. What is an unusual habit or absurd thing that you love?

Miller –

I absolutely love reality television! Human interaction is an amazing thing. I enjoy seeing people in stressful situations and seeing how they respond (or sometimes react… two very different things). I think it helps me recognize different situations and think through how I want to deal with them. A secondary benefit – I feel better about myself. My craziest days are nowhere near as crazy as what I see on reality TV.

Barkhurst –

I am an Anglophile and love many things British. I think this is because my roots mostly come from the British Isles; I deployed with the Royal Air Force in Bosnia when I was a young lieutenant and I was stationed at RAF Mildenhall as a squadron commander. I drink lots of hot black tea with milk and sugar, enjoy English biscuits and chutney, read a lot of novels from English authors and watch a lot of British TV.

Shaffer –

Growing up, I was a big baseball card collector. I still have a case of old collectables. I love anything “Star Wars” and can’t get enough of the “Mandalorian,” especially baby Yoda!

Leingang –

Working on complicated, purely mechanical things like old engines and old clocks and mechanical watches. These things are like moving puzzles and are fascinating human accomplishments.

  1. If you could have a gigantic billboard with your favorite quote or leadership philosophy, what would it say and why? Are there any other quotes you think of often or live your life by?

Miller –

“I am they!” As a leader, I recognize I am the “they” people talk about. “They” do not get it.  “They” made me come in on the weekend. They, they, they. This simple phrase reminds me that my decisions affect many people. I need to make sure I consider all perspectives before making a decision. 

Alternatively, what kind of “they” are you? Are you part of the solution or simply a voice, part of the noise, complaining about a problem instead of being part of the solution? It is easy to criticize; it is far harder to lead.

Barkhurst –

I love an aphorism that Secretary Mattis used and always keep it written down wherever I work. This maxim is three simple questions but is powerful because it shows the type of leader he is. Some successful people treat knowledge or information as currency to stay ahead or hold power.

Secretary Mattis as the SECDEF and of course as a Marine from a young lieutenant all the way to a four-star general and combatant commander, shared knowledge and information to ensure the success of his organization or unit. His three questions are: “What do I know? Who needs to know it? Have I told them?”

Shaffer –

The quotes that first come to mind are “Don’t ever let the mind tell the heart what it can’t do” or “Earn it every day,” but my favorite quote is: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit,” by Aristotle.

Leingang –

“The best way out is always through,” by Robert Frost. This quote helps me be more deliberate in both big and little things. Am I choosing the path I’m on because it is the best path or because it is the easiest thing to do? I’ve found “going through” may be more difficult, but it will teach me valuable things I didn’t know before.

Another unattributed quote I’ve heard before, most recently by Gen. Charles Q. Brown, chief of staff of the Air Force: “Leadership without risk is called management.” This is a powerful thought as we look for creative solutions to issues.

  1. What advice would you give to a smart, driven Airman – uniformed or non-uniformed – starting their Air Force journey? What advice should they ignore?

Miller –

Make things personal; do not take things personally. No matter what you are doing, you need to own it. Your actions define who you are. Get to know your team – birthdays, anniversaries, goals, motivations and so much more. Relationships are the key to success.

With that said, do not take things personally. In my position, I get all kinds of feedback. I do not view it as an attack on me as a person. Instead, I try to understand using perspective taking (i.e., seeing things through their eyes). Is there a nugget that can help me grow and improve? Or is it a difference in perspective, and we are meeting the mission, just not the way they want it done?

That is OK. Similarly, I do not own others’ choices. As long as I have done everything possible to arm and equip someone to make an informed decision, what they decide is on them. If they disagree with me, again, it is not personal.

Barkhurst –

I would tell them to focus on learning their job first and foremost. That is critically important to new Airmen. I would also offer to new officers that they are here to be leaders. Some officers will have time to learn their jobs first before they have any significant leadership responsibilities.  Others will be leaders right from day one. Either way, it is key for officers to understand that for most of their careers, they will be leading and to be ready to lead from day one.

Shaffer –

Advice I would offer is control what you can control. Effort. If you want to succeed, give effort — don’t sit back and be a spectator. Ultimately: Work hard, live courageously and be resilient… you can accomplish anything. It’s about getting better every day. Nothing is out of reach. 

Advice to ignore? Understanding that every journey is different and there is no set path. It is OK to be different or try something outside the norms. Be grounded in your beliefs and don’t worry if it might be different. 

Leingang –

The best advice I’d give to someone starting their career is to learn to be as precise as possible when they speak. Doing this requires clear thinking, and thinking about things clearly and objectively is a great asset.

A common piece of advice I think a person should ignore is, “Don’t worry about what other people think about you.” While nobody should walk around in constant self-doubt and anxiety, I believe a person needs to be open to the learning and growth that can occur from well-meaning critical feedback.

Capitalizing on our extraordinary Wright-Patt community, I solicited leaders from across the base to share their insight and perspective. Over the coming weeks, you will see responses popping up on social media and in the Skywrighter.

“Tribe of Mentors” has challenged me personally and professionally. I absolutely love the diversity of thought, and my reading list has significantly grown. I cannot wait to see what our teammates have to offer. Let the fun begin!