30 Things I Learned In The Air Force

During my time in the Air Force, I’ve been lucky enough to lead two squadrons. Looking back, four years as a commander were some of the most stressful of my life, but also the most rewarding. It sounds cliché, but my job satisfaction really did come from making impacts on the lives of the people I worked with. A military leader can shape the wet clay that makes up young officers, and learn from some of the best senior noncommissioned officers in the business. I definitely learned from senior NCOs, in fact, I like to tell people they “raised” me; more than one of the good ones told me I had my head screwed on wrong at exactly the right times. It might have stung, but it made me a better officer as a result. I learned more from them than I ever did from the generals and colonels.

Over the years, I tried to impart that “NCO wisdom” on my junior folks, in particular, when I was leading units. This is the “list” I used to help me do that, but I can’t claim ownership of the items it contains. It’s just a conglomeration of things I filed into my brain over my years of service –- things that spoke to me and helped me grow as an officer and a person.

Related: 7 habits you need to transition to the civilian workforce »

The points at the beginning are very simple (maybe “tactical” is a better word), but toward the end they become more strategic in nature, and could be applied to life both inside and outside military service. Each one came from someone I knew or met at one point or another starting all the way back in my Reserve Officers’ Training Corps years: an instructor, a respected NCO, a supervisor, and even my parents.

I have found every one of these applicable to my life and career, and I know I’ll continue to apply many of them long after I’ve hung up the uniform. Some even extend into fatherhood, or to the relationship I have with my wife (like number 19, pick your battles). Some are more difficult to internalize than others. Personally, I have struggled with number 26, not being a cynic. The easiest one for me is number 22; a day doesn’t go by where I’m not cutting up with somebody. But every one of these speaks to me in some way.

I hope they speak to you, too.

  1. Anticipate questions and provide answers before they’re asked. This requires you to step into your boss’ shoes and think how he/she might.
  2. Be a part of the solution, not the problem. Never throw a problem on your boss’s desk and expect him/her to decide what to do with it. If a decision needs to be made, offer options, and make a recommendation. If you have a way ahead, or have already made a decision, say so.
  3. Don’t show all your cards unless you have to. If you brief slides week to week, only brief the changes. Don’t offer unnecessary information; it may result in unnecessary work. Don’t give anyone a reason to micromanage you.
  4. Bad news is like old fish. It doesn’t get better with time. Don’t wait to tell your boss that something’s broke.
  5. Don’t be afraid to provide feedback in an upward direction. When the emperor’s wearing no clothes, tell him.
  6. It’s okay to say, “Sir, I got it.”
  7. Know your suspenses. It is your job. Meet them or have a very good reason why you can’t.
  8. Be visible. The troops expect it, and so does your boss. Your face should be seen at unit PT, bake sales, chili cook offs, promotions, retirements, the military ball, Christmas parties, etc.
  9. Take calculated risks. Trust yourself to make hard decisions and live with the consequences. Ask forgiveness later if you have to; there’s rarely a need for serious damage control, and if there is, there usually aren’t career impacts.
  10. Don’t ask your boss what you can and can’t do. Be your own boss. Tell him/her what you’re doing. (Don’t say, “Sir, can I do _____?” or “Sir, do you mind if I _____?” Instead, say “Sir, I am going to do ______.”)
  11. Prioritize. You know what’s important and it’s usually not the freshest email in your inbox. Your boss’ priorities come first, yours come second. If you think your boss needs to reprioritize, tell him/her.
  12. You should feel about your troops the way you might feel about your kids. Be proud when they succeed. Be disappointed with them when they fail, hold them accountable, then get on with life.
  13. Delegate, because you can’t do it all yourself. Hold people accountable when it doesn’t get done.
  14. Have a brain trust. Every good leader has a small cadre of trusted individuals who they can go to for advice. It can be ex-bosses, your retired command sergeant major, a respected peer, your dad, etc.
  15. Multitask. It’s hard, but necessary.
  16. Find a happy place. When things are going badly, go there, and count to 10.
  17. Keep things in perspective. It can be hard to do, but try not to sweat the small stuff.
  18. Go with your gut because it’s usually right.
  19. Pick your battles. Issues are not always black and white. There are always two sides to a story, and sometimes, it’s better to let things roll off.
  20. Take things one step at a time. Problems can seem huge and overpowering. Don’t get overwhelmed; just eat that elephant one bite at a time.
  21. The most important job you’ll ever have is the one you’re in. Don’t think too much about your last job, or the one you want to be in next. Use your experience, bloom where you’re planted, and good things will happen for you.
  22. Laugh. Nobody wants to be around a humorless person.
  23. Don’t let your job be the only thing that defines you. Get a life. The military is important, but so are other things.
  24. Allow yourself time to recharge your batteries. Take leave, it’s there for a reason.
  25. Lead. Our country is in desperate need of leadership, and not just the military kind. Start now.
  26. Take opportunities. The military can turn the most positive person into a cynic. Don’t be that cynic. Turn every assignment, every deployment, every day into an opportunity to make a difference.
  27. Have faith. Whether it’s faith in the system, or something more divine, things tend to happen for a reason, and it usually works out in the end –- often, better than you might have expected.
  28. Never forget what your service means. Because you put on that uniform, your family’s safe and your country’s safe. Be proud.
  29. Remember the vets who served before you. Most of them had it a lot worse than we do today and we owe them our respect and thanks.
  30. Take care of the ones you love. Run out of “career” before you run out of “family.”