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Building officers of character

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  • By Lt. Col. Pete Hansen 5th Flying Training Squadron Commander

“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 not to make them feel uncomfortable; rather 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.


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.


Acclaimed leadership consultant Simon Sinek has said that millennials, to feel satisfied, want a sense of purpose (love that), opportunity to make an impact (difficult to define), bean bags, and free food (thank you Google campus).  The first two items, on the surface at least, are more noble objects of aspiration than the goal of my “Gen 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 twenty years to accumulate.”


Sinek observed that 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. Even in the military, where I would argue the nature of our business lends itself to fast-tracking this process, 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 to define the key characteristics of effective leadership required to advocate for good.




Creating conditions of trust within an organization both up and down the chain of command is one of the key responsibilities of all leaders to empower both mission success and organizational health, he explained.


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 to increase the pilot production pipeline is high. The temptation to get distracted with sortie counts and production timelines makes me wonder whether we are actually spending any 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.


Now more than ever, as we look to the challenges ahead, our officers need the type of leadership and mentorship that build trust. Our country has entrusted us with this task, our commanders should require it of us, and our subordinates will demand it from us.


As General 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.”


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