As a senior leader in our Air Force, opportunities often arise for me to sit down and mentor younger Airmen. Now I’m not saying I’m a better mentor than the next person you might meet, but perhaps it’s because I’m a little more seasoned or experienced (read: older) that Airmen seek my opinion on various issues. Leading Airmen is one of the greatest opportunities that I’ve experienced in my lifetime and I would argue, it is also one of your greatest opportunities, regardless of your rank.

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with several newly minted 2nd Lieutenants over lunch. As my lunch date approached, I considered several subjects to discuss with them…things I found important or thought they might need to know as new officers in our Air Force. The list was exhaustive! I spent several days trying to cram as many “lessons learned” in to my tool kit that I thought important to share. Things I wish I had known when I entered the Air Force over 20 years ago. Needless to say, the list was plenty long and I knew that a single lunch break wouldn’t be long enough to share all my thoughts and nuggets of perceived “wisdom,” but I was prepared to give it my best effort to set these curious and intelligent young leaders on the path to success.

As luck would have it, I was caught up in a few “marathon” meetings discussing pressing issues like looming humanitarian relief efforts, planned personnel moves and the week’s upcoming schedule. The meetings ran longer than planned and I quickly found myself in a rush to make my lunch meeting with my small crowd of young officers. I rushed to my truck to make my lunch date, I left my trusty notebook in my office and rushed out the door. Upon arriving at the dining facility, it hit me…my notebook…what would I talk about? It turns out, it didn’t really matter. What our Airmen really desire is to spend time with their supervisors, commanders, mentors and leaders. The key to good leadership is listening. Listen to what your Airmen have to say. Active listening is a skill set that must be learned and practiced in order to tune in to the message your Airmen are really trying to convey to you. The message my Lieutenants expressed on that particular day was really just their desire to learn and succeed in our Air Force. I passed on a few “lessons learned” from my 20+ years of experience of service and we all went on about our day.

Today, active listening is absolutely critical to leading Airmen. Our Airmen today aren’t really different than the Airmen that founded our service in 1947. Well, maybe that is only partly true but I would say that our Airmen today still require similar basic requirements to live a rewarding life while serving our nation. They desire to lead and be inspired by LEADERS. Airmen are resilient and highly intelligent but sometimes our Airmen experience real problems that need appropriate attention from trained professionals. The truth is, all of us experience difficult problems at one time or another. Some of us wear these issues on our shirt sleeve while others choose to keep our issues buried or hidden away to be dealt with at a later date, perhaps once we aren’t so busy or when we depart the service. Listening closely to your Airmen will draw your attention to the subtle cues that might otherwise be missed in passing conversation. Those subtle cues could be a cry for help…listen closely.

If you are one of those Airmen experiencing a difficult life issue right now, I’m here to tell you that there is no better time to deal with your problems than now. We’ve all heard the old adage that life problems are not like fine wine; they don’t get better with time. Personal, financial, relational, spiritual or other problems, are similar in nature, they tend to age poorly. In fact, these life problems typically compound if not addressed early and appropriately. Seek out the available help that is offered both on and off base as soon as you realize you need assistance. Your supervisors and commanders understand that Airmen can have issues…we have them too. The key to your future success is not defined by the problems you might experience, but rather how you tackle those problems in order to resolve them. Below are several entities, military, non-profit or other, where you might seek professional advice, counseling or assistance when necessary.

Supervisor, First Sergeant or Commander
Airmen and Family Readiness Center
Military Family Life Counselor
Mental Health Clinic
Military Health Providers
Veterans Organizations