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Building officers of character

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Lt. Col. Pete Hansen, 5th Flying Training Squadron commander

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- “So what do you want to do when you grow up?”

This is my standard ice-breaker question when flying with a new student for the first time. My intent is never to make them feel uncomfortable, rather merely to assess whether or not they entered flight school to chase a dream.

Most often I get a rather modest, hesitant response because the student doesn’t want to write checks his talent cannot yet cash. At other times I get the sense that these young officers honestly haven’t put much thought into which mission set they are truly interested in pursuing.

However, I am most encouraged by the responses that are unequivocal: “Sir, I want to track T-38s and fly the A-10 because I want to help support our troops on the ground.”

I’ll be very honest – that is the student that gets the very best instruction out of me because I’m immediately motivated by their focus and enthusiasm. When your desire to succeed in any endeavor outpaces your skillset, attitude can be everything.

Leadership consultant Simon Sinek has said that millennials want the following things in life to feel satisfied: a sense of purpose, opportunity to make an impact, bean bags and free food.

At least the first two items are a much more noble object of aspiration than the goal of my Generation X peers who had a much more materialistic motivation: “I want my parents stuff, but I only want to work five years to be able to afford the accoutrements of the good life that they labored 20 years to accumulate.”

Sinek goes on to observe that coupled with their goals, the millennial generation also has a sense of “institutionalized impatience.” Of course the challenge for us as leaders and mentors of this new generation of officers is to help them understand that developing a sense of purpose and the ability to make an impact can and will take time, effort and hard work.

I would argue that in the military, the nature of our business lends itself to fast-tracking this process. But it can still take years before we have the technical and tactical proficiency coupled with the institutional or positional authority to begin feeling like our desire for purpose matches our ability to make an impact.

Colin Powell was once asked by a White House Fellow, “How would you define the key characteristics of effective leadership that allow you to go and be an advocate for good?” Without hesitation he replied with a single word -- trust.

Powell went on to elaborate that creating conditions of trust within an organization, both up and down the chain of command, was one of the key responsibilities of all leaders to empower both mission success and organizational health.

Very broadly, I wonder if we are succeeding at this task. Emphasis on character development and ethical decision-making can appear to wane when the pressure of day-to-day mission accomplishment is high.

It is easy to get distracted from spending enough time teaching our junior officers how to lead, first themselves and then each other, in preparation to lead the subordinates for whom they will eventually be responsible.

I contend that our officers need the type of leadership and mentorship that builds trust now more than ever as we look to the challenges ahead. Our country has entrusted us with this task, our commander’s should require it of us and our subordinates will demand it from us.

As Gen. George Washington reminded the officers of the Virginia Regiment, “Remember that it is the actions and not the commission that make the officer, and that there is more expected from him than the title.”

We should not forget that while our job may be to fly, fight and win in a cockpit, our calling as officers is to lead our people selflessly with honor, courage and commitment.