I learned about leadership from that

  • Published
  • By Col. Michael Eltz
  • 944th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

It was May of 2003. I was TDY to Nellis, having dinner at Gordon Biersch with my friend Jack. I hadn’t seen Jack in about 5 years, since we were Lieutenants together at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. In the 90’s, I was a communications officer, trying desperately to get into pilot training, and Jack was working in the test world at Eglin. He had already graduated pilot training and was going to fly the F-16, but was sent to Eglin with the promise of an F-16 training slot at some future date. The Air Force was just ramping back up pilot production after the post-Desert Storm drawdown, and Jack had a fresh set of pilot wings but no guarantee of ever flying again. Jack was a good friend and mentor to me and I sought his advice often; he inspired me to pursue my goal of flying.

I should also tell you that Jack was a great human being. Smart, friendly, hardworking…the guy everyone wanted to be around. I respected him greatly, which is why I have never forgotten our dinner conversation that night in Las Vegas.

In 2003, I was a newly minted flight lead, flying F-15Es in Alaska. The Air Force had kept their promise to Jack and he was flying F-16s at Shaw. We both happened to be TDY to Nellis that May and were catching up over dinner. It was really great to see him.

20 minutes into our dinner conversation, however, he interrupted me in mid-sentence and said, “Dude…What happened to you?”

I had absolutely no idea what he was asking.

He said, “Last time I saw you, you were working your butt off to get into pilot training. You wanted nothing more than to go fly the F-15. Now, you’re living in Alaska, you’re flying your dream aircraft, and you’ve done nothing but spew negativity and bash the Air Force since we sat down at the table.”

All I could say was, “Really?” I thought I was just, you know, talking. The way pilots talk. Solving all the Air Force’s problems over a beer. But I had no idea I sounded so negative. It was just normal conversation to me. From Jack’s perspective, I regarded the Air Force as the most inept organization in the world, thought the mission didn’t matter, and believed our senior leaders were actively looking for ways to mess things up and break trust with their Airmen.

Whoa. My head was swimming. Did I really say all that? Jack said, “Pretty much.”

I guess I had what you would call an epiphany that night. I didn’t know I sounded like that when I made casual conversation. I didn’t realize that in five years’ time I had changed so much; from a hopeful young Lieutenant to a bitter mid-level Captain.

And Jack was right, I had every reason to be happy. The Air Force had been extremely good to me.

I feel like the blinders came off that night. In the weeks and months that followed, I looked at who I chose to associate with in the squadron. I listened with fresh ears to the conversations at the duty desk, at the club, and at social events. There was definitely a cadre of “grumpy old men” in the squadron. Great pilots and WSOs; well respected, competent, but for whatever reason, they were full of vinegar and spittle. For reasons I still don’t understand, that is the crowd I had fallen in with. I had never recognized the negativity for what it was, I figured that’s just how warriors behaved. I obviously also had no idea how much it had rubbed off on me.

For the first time, I also saw the other half of the squadron. The ones who were spending less time talking and more time doing. The ones that were actually pleasant to be around. They seemed to be getting better opportunities, quicker promotions, and better assignments. I wouldn’t say this other half was optimistic or ultra-positive. They just weren’t negative.

Hmmm. Perhaps negative individuals more often receive negative outcomes, in turn making them more negative and continuing the spiral.

That was 16 years ago, and I’ve never forgotten it. I am hyper-sensitive to negativity to this day. I extract myself from conversations with negative people. I choose my words carefully and make sure to contain a problem where it belongs. An issue in my unit does not mean the Generals are all nuts and the Air Force is fatally flawed.

I have NEVER seen an effective leader that was a negative person. I believe that is the single biggest attitude flaw an Airman can possess. Negativity is contagious, and can destroy a unit faster than almost anything. Put a negative person in charge and you can watch a unit disintegrate almost overnight.

Optimism is free, and in infinite supply.

As my career has progressed, my interactions with Captains and Majors have turned into discussions with Colonels and Generals. And without fail I’ve seen that the Airmen who lead successful organizations possess not a shred of negativity. They go from recognizing a problem to finding a solution, and skip that part that negative people spend so much time wallowing in. And here is another thing I’ve learned: our senior leaders are extremely smart. They sincerely care about their Airmen. They see a much bigger picture than does the angry Airman down in the squadron. And they are trying in earnest to make the best decisions with all of the information available. It’s probably safe to have a little trust in them.

But I also know that somewhere, in some squadron, there will always be a disgruntled Airman telling his buddy that the Generals are all bonkers, the Air Force is doomed, and nothing we do will ever change that. But that person will not be me.