For the majority of the episodes of Constant Elevation, I just freestyle from the top of the dome and share my thoughts and feelings throughout the recording. Today’s episode is a little different, as I wanted to approach the subject matter very deliberately and felt that my emotions may have gotten the best of me and I wanted to share my message to be shared clearly and succinctly. Without further ado, here is “Punching Doubt in the Throat.”
Like all of us serving in the Air Force, we have annual performance reports that are designed to capture our past performance and provide insight to what we are capable of in the future. There are intricacies of this system that I won’t get into for my Non-AF listeners, but there are two key places within these reports that are important for career progression: the push lines.
Push lines are the final sentences written by your rater and add’l rater that summarize a year of performance. Only 115 or so characters to build carefully written words that have the potential to propel or stall your progress within the Air Force. These sentences are pieced together with other push li nes from your past to create a story for your promotion potential. My story so far has had a general positive trajection. I’ve earned promotion at each level available to me, been nominated and won some awards (not that many, to be honest), and earned consistent stratifications and recommendations for add’l levels of responsibility from my leadership. However, during this year’s drafting of my report I had a different perspective presented to me.
I asked a senior officer from my functional community who recently participated in the Spring Development Team that reviews records for key leadership opportunities to review my records and share her perspective on how competitive I would be for Colonel next year. Of note, I’ve never met nor worked for her directly, so this would be purely objective feedback based on my records. Upon review of my records, she stated she agreed w/my perspective that I believe I would be competitive for an on-time promotion. Achieving the rank of Colonel has been a goal since I first commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. Throughout my career I’ve met people not familiar with the military and when they find out I’m an officer, they ask me my current rank. I respond simply with the rank, of which they usually ask, “That’s high, right?” I always get awkward when that second question is asked, because I’ve never thought any officer rank was “high” until one reaches Colonel. So I usually respond, “Eh, I guess that depends. I don’t really think so,” and try to advance the conversation as fast as possible.
Anyways, back to my draft performance report. The senior officer asked the following follow-up question: What were the push lines out for my first tour as squadron command? I’ve looked at those push lines often, mainly because I have to usually explain what happened. Here are the push lines for the first year:
- Rater – My #1/5 Majs; led CS to MSG Sq/qtr x2; white-hot leader with killer 1st year as CC–Joint Staff/OSD a must after IDE
- Additional Rater – My #2/87 Majs; superstar leader with stellar 1st year, can’t wait to be amazed during his 2nd–Joint staff/OSD post-IDE
Here are the push lines for the second year:
- Rater – Passed Sq/CC test with flying colors; boundless energy/drive–perfect choice for Joint Staff/OSD as IDE follow-on
- Additional Rater – My #8/80 Majs; charismatic ldr completing cmd w/ a bang; FY13 Wg Info Dom FGOY–Joint Staff/OSD post-IDE
If you notice, there is a noted drop in performance during the second year of my command. The vibe just isn’t that strong, and I usually have to explain what happened. There are still positive words contained within, but definitely not the same type of energy as captured during my first year. So now, let’s take a look at the first year of my second command tour:
- Rater – Best seen CS/CC in 24 years; courage/leadership define him; confronts issues others avoid; SDE then tough Gp/CC
- Additional Rater – #6/52 ABW Lt Cols; FY18 11 AF Info Dom Lg CS Unit Awd; tech savvy, mission focused leader–SDE then Gp/CC
And here is my second year:
- Rater – Aced Sq/CC with ease; innovative, driven team builder who led squadron to peak results–send to SDE then Gp/CC
- Additional Rater – Top 20% of ABW Lt Cols; visionary cyber leader, easily the best I’ve seen in 22 yrs–Gp/CC following in-res SDE
Again, there is a noted drop during the second year of my command tour. I never noticed that a similar theme can be seen in two key points in my career: I started out with high expectations, and from all accounts I didn’t meet them in my second year. Looking at those four sentences together really hit me hard and I started to doubt myself. I started to doubt whether or not my belief that I am fully capable of serving as a Colonel. I did earn the recommendation from leadership that I could serve as a Group Commander, which inherently requires one to be a Colonel, so it seems like my drop in performance hasn’t affected my potential for serving in a higher grade and with higher levels of responsibilities. This performance report will be near the top of the stack of my package when I meet my promotion board, but for the first time in my career I started to doubt myself in that maybe I’m not ready for Colonel. I even replied to the senior officer with my thanks for her time and that I’ve never analyzed my performance from both of my squadron command tours in isolation, which led to me having this self-doubt. This self-doubt lingered for a bit until I came to this realization:
Don’t let these four sentences from the past define who you are as a leader today.
I refuse to let four sentences be the sole measure of success during my four years of squadron command. My success is measured through so much more. It’s measured by the trials I endured leading Airmen to serve our nation. It’s measured in the stripes, bars, and oak leaves that continue to rise throughout the Air Force because they have risen to the challenges presented to them, kept their eyes forward, and never stopped trying to do their best. It’s measured by the one-on-one talks I had with teammates of all ranks to help them become better leaders, either through overcoming their own doubt or pushing them outside of their comfort zone to success. It’s measured by the “thank yous” I’ve received from people under my command that appreciated my potentially non-traditional way of leading people by staying true to myself, even sometimes at my own expense. I didn’t serve as a squadron commander to advance my career; I served to advance the careers of others. To groom the next generation of leaders that our Air Force needs. I’ve kept that same energy as I’ve ascended the ranks and higher positions of responsibility, and I’ll continue to keep that same energy. The push lines will be written how they are written, but they have never been a focus of mine. There is a time and place to have those written in a matter that summarizes me within the ecosystem of the Air Force, but I’m not going to worry about them. I place trust in my leadership that they will make the choice that is best for the Air Force, and I will return to doing my job in being an authentic leader. A leader who leads boldly and doesn’t worry about two sentences on a performance report, but rather places his energy into advancing the men and women surrounding him to help them rise to their potential. A leader who does not see himself at the top of an organization chart, but instead someone who believes in the inverse of that model and thinks about how to best help the team over career advancement.
Self-doubt is natural and isn’t anything to be ashamed of. I see it as a sensor telling me something. Sensors telling me that I am human and prone to the same feelings everyone encounters. Sensors telling me that I’m not special and that hard work will overcome any fears or doubt I may encounter. I also realized this sensor is temporary, and I chose to transform it into a vector check that I have to continue to learn and continue to lead. Self-pity serves nothing but itself, so I leave that feeling of doubt behind me and keep on pushing forward and believe in myself. I will continue to work hard and continue to evolve into being the leader I want to follow.
I recently finished my draft performance report for 2020 and I have no idea how the push lines will be written. I leave that to my leadership to figure out. We’ll see if I maintain a positive trajectory and earn an opportunity to serve as a Colonel in the Air Force. In the meantime, you’ll see me doing what I do best: leading with positivity and punching doubt in the throat, no matter what rank I hold.