What I learned in command

  • Published
  • By Col. Charles Arnold
  • 21st Mission Support Group commander
On June 2, I will hand over command of the 21st Mission Support Group after two eventful years filled with highs, lows and everything in between.

When I took command I was like a lot of new commanders - impressed with my newfound importance and a little full of myself. I was sure I would be the one doling out wisdom, but what I quickly realized is that I had much to learn. I hope you'll indulge me by letting me share a couple of the most important lessons I've learned, which I think apply to anyone who takes on a new leadership position.

The first mistake I made as a new commander was I tried to be someone I was not. More specifically, I decided I needed to be the tough, iron-fisted commander who expected perfection and demanded results. Unfortunately, I was so focused on demonstrating that I was in charge, that I initially overreacted to issues and failed to separate the big rocks from little rocks. During my first few months of command I spent far too much time showing my disappointment in my squadron commanders - I lost my temper, yelled, micromanaged and basically turned into someone I didn't like all that much. While I may have been effective during the initial stages of command, I'm not sure it was a leadership style that would have succeeded over the full two years.

Luckily, I had an incredible group of squadron commanders and two patient deputies who provided honest feedback. Several months into command I realized I had lost my way, but I was able to revert to a leadership style that had served me well during two squadron commands and in other leadership positions. Now, I'll never be the most patient man in the world, but I stepped back and trusted my incredible staff and six squadron commanders. More importantly, I developed a genuine faith in the abilities and professionalism of the men and women of the 21st MSG. Don't get me wrong, I'm still demanding and am often guilty of micromanaging (as my commanders will tell you), but my preferred leadership style is to be a positive team builder who provides those who have earned my trust plenty of room to operate. The end result, I believe, is that by reverting back to my preferred leadership style I was able to move forward in a positive manner and after two years of command I'm happy with what the 21st MSG has accomplished. So the first lesson I learned is don't try to be someone you're not.

I also learned that it isn't about the technology and the toys, it's about the people. The last two years have been tough -- really tough. We've worked through major budget shortfalls and at times I've felt like I had to maintain Peterson AFB with duct tape and bailing wire. We've also weathered civilian and military force-management initiatives, a morale-crushing furlough and sequestration. Worse, every day I have to look at my officers and enlisted professionals knowing that some of them may not survive force reduction.

Despite these challenges, the men and women of the 21st MSG never cease to amaze me. They have accomplished everything I've asked of them, and despite the fact that I have failed to provide them with all the tools needed, the mission has never suffered. I know that even during sequestration, there were employees who stretched the rules and put in probably more time than they should have under furlough guidelines. They were going to do their jobs and they refused to let sequestration impact the mission. I couldn't have been prouder of my civilians, and I get choked up when I think of their commitment to our base and our Air Force.

Similarly, the commitment of my officers and enlisted force has never wavered despite recent challenges. They have found ways to accomplish the impossible, and their commitment has been impressive. So the second key lesson I learned is it really is all about the people, they are what makes Peterson special.

Finally, I've learned that despite the doom and gloom associated with manpower and budget cuts, the future of our Air Force remains bright. I have the honor of leading officers who are more versatile and better prepared to take on leadership roles than I was at the same stages of my career. I'm blessed to command remarkable NCOs who continually find ways to deliver the impossible, and Airmen whose ingenuity and resiliency never cease to surprise me. I'm also regularly amazed by the professionalism and "all in" approach of my young civilians who do so much more than punch a clock. When I look at our young leaders I realize that the future is bright, very bright.

So when I hand over the flag in two weeks, I'd like to think I leave command a little wiser. I've learned a few lessons that will serve me well in the future, lessons that apply to any leader who tackles a new position. I'm lucky to have had the honor of commanding 2,000 of the finest men and women I have ever crossed paths with, and can't thank them enough for their patience with a cocky new commander who had much to learn.