Commentary: Find your role, make a difference

For several reasons, I’ll remember this wrench for the rest of my life. First, it will forever symbolize a portion of my contribution to the ongoing evacuation operation. More importantly, it helped me (re)learn some valuable leadership lessons.

On Aug. 17 at 1 pm, the 86th Airlift Wing and the 521st Air Mobility Operations Wing stood up our Operational Planning Team to begin preparing for the influx of thousands of Afghan evacuees into Ramstein Air Base. We received our first guests on Aug. 20. It has been non-stop, 24/7 operations since. As you can imagine, everyone was 100 percent involved, contributing any way they could…building tents, moving equipment, setting up fencing, placing cots, etc. Team Ramstein continues to accomplish the nearly impossible every day and will continue to do so until the last Afghan departs.

A few days into our operation, I was coming down from the air traffic control tower and saw an Operations Group member I recognized across the ramp. I walked over to him and asked, “What can I do to help?” He said: “Sir, I need a wrench. We have a group of 13 people in that tent we need to discreetly move to a different area. We need to exit through this fence juncture, but we don’t have a wrench to undo the bracket.” I said: “I’m on it.”

Off I ran to a building that I thought might have one. I burst through the door and asked if they had a wrench. They found one and off I ran back to the fence. We successfully loosened the bracket, moved the fence, and the next thing I knew, I was carrying luggage through the fence lane and helping two Afghan men lift an old Afghan woman in a wheelchair into a bus. Off they went, we refastened the fence, and the wrench went into my pocket.

When I returned to the wrench-owning building, the guy I borrowed it from said: “Keep it. You may need it again and I know you’re good for it.”

I carried that wrench in my pocket for three days. Literally every day, I encountered a similar scene. I’d find myself in a situation where someone needed a wrench. It was actually comical for people to say: “I need a wrench,” and out of my pocket a wrench appeared. I even got a call one day on my cell asking to borrow my wrench. Word had spread that I was the wrench guy.

While turning wrenches was tangibly rewarding, the time had come to put it down. My contribution to the mission and the organization needed to change. As I take some time to think and reflect, a few thoughts take shape:

You never know what problems you’ll stumble into. Do what you can to help

If someone really needs something, let them borrow it…or have it permanently.

There is absolutely goodness in “leadership” doing the dirty work, whether that’s turning wrenches, sweeping floors, or emptying the trash. No one is above what needs to be done.

But there is a time and a place. That time and place should be dictated by two simple questions: 1) what is your role, and 2) how does that role provide value to the mission and the organization?

While I could certainly add value by continuing to turn wrenches, my role and real value was in thinking, organizing, planning, and leading.

I still have the wrench. But instead of in my pocket, it’s on my desk…available to anyone who needs to borrow it.