“To be or to do? Which way will you go?” In this episode, I share insight into my recent experience of not being selected for the next level of competitive leadership: group command. To say I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster would be putting it lightly, but I believe in the end that I’m on the path that I need to be on, not necessarily the one I may have wanted.
On a professional development recommendation from a colleague, I listened to the audiobook version of Boyd: The fighter pilot who changed the art of war. Full disclosure: I chose the audiobook after several failed attempts at trying to read the hardcover version, of which I gifted someone who wanted it. This book was recommended to me as I moved into my new rank of Colonel/O-6, and I must say that the timing was on point. There is a pivotal section of the book in which John Boyd is advising his acolytes (followers) on some critical decisions they will encounter as an officer:
“And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed in another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something — something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life, there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?”
While I knew I had earned my promotion to serve at the next rank within the Air Force, in parallel I was competing for a leadership position commensurate with that rank: Group Commander. This is the next level of competitive leadership after serving as squadron commander, which is usually reserved for Major/O-4 or Lieutenant Colonel/O-5 (I happened to serve at both ranks, pretty cool!). I was mentored by several senior officers who felt that I have the potential to serve in that position, and I do have several “push-lines” from my performance reports that recommend the same but getting selected is a whole different ballgame. The competition at that level is quite fierce, and I am competing for the first time as a brand new Colonel that has not been promoted early nor was I selected for Senior Development Education in-residence. In the end, I was not selected during this round of selection (I get to compete several more times after this). I was not selected as an alternate either, which could have served as an indicator that I am truly competitive for the position, just not quite yet. Not gonna lie, I was very disappointed. I’m not even sure if being selected as a group commander is even in the cards for me, as I have not had time to have a mentorship conversation with senior leadership. Regardless, not being selected reminded me of the quote “To be or to do?” from Boyd, and here are my thoughts:
Be someone – Serving as a commander of a mission support group has been a goal from my early days as a CGO. I grew up as a traditional 33S/Communications officer and seeing other Communications officers serving in this position was aspirational. I advocated to serve as a commander within a Mission Support Group versus a Cyber Group because of 1) the preponderance of worldwide opportunities to serve, 2) I missed being attached to a flying mission, and 3) frankly, there are better cyber operations officers out there that much better qualified/suited for that role. The ability to serve in a high position and have a major influence on an Air Force base sounds like a responsibility I would highly enjoy. I could serve as a “Coach of Leaders,” mentoring squadron commanders to perform at their highest potential and drive true change across the Air Force. I could serve as a force multiplier within an Air Force wing that spreads across the functions of a mission support group, not just through my functional career path. However, “being someone” like a group commander may not be in the cards for me.
Do something – I was selected to serve as the Cyber Transformation Division Chief, Air Command Command. In other Air Force Major Commands, this could be seen as the “current operations” division with two sides of the house: “Warfighting Communications” includes Command and Control Mission Systems, Expeditionary Communications, and Spectrum Management across the Air Force; Enterprise IT, which includes prioritization of Air Force-wide IT capabilities organized within five portfolios. However, what is unique to this position is that Air Combat Command was designated as Lead Command for Cyberspace, meaning our collective A6 Directorate is responsible for organizing, training, and equipping Air Forces to conduct cyber missions and operations and providing combat air, space, and cyber power, and the combat support that assures mission success to America’s warfighting commands. All of those words can be boiled down to “ACC sets the tone for all current and future cyber and communications-related efforts within the Air Force,” and our Cyber Transformation Division has a front-seat responsibility to lead this effort. I’ve already set the tone within the division that we should be operating as the “pacing unit” for the directorate and moving to bring the future faster. I did not realize how much influence our team can have across the Air Force…but I’m excited about the opportunity. Sometimes the responsibility feels very heavy, but luckily I am surrounded by supportive senior leadership and bold ideas that I can help bring to reality. Progress won’t be made by our team alone; I have numerous (close to 40+) other O-6/GS-15 leaders both in and out of my community that I will need to communicate, coordinate, and collaborate with to truly make lasting positive change. We may not agree to everything, which is fine, but perhaps our position as Lead Command can break some ties and move the team forward. Regardless of the challenges in front of us, I believe we can define the future…because we must.So today if you ask me “Do I want to be someone, or do something?”…I’m proudly doing something.