When the clock tolled midnight and the calendar flipped to a new year last month, I know I was not alone in my eagerness to say, “Good riddance!” to 2020 — a most challenging and dismal year in many ways. We are all too familiar with the litany of hurdles and life changes COVID-19 brought to bear: ever-changing safety measures, second careers as parent-teachers, job insecurity, constant mask-wearing, an ever-climbing number of lives taken by the virus, limited-to-no travel, restricted social contact, and the resulting feelings of isolation and loneliness. Our lives and the world in which we live have drastically changed.
Even as COVID-19 was gnawing away at the normalcy of all of our lives, a spotlight was shown on a persistent and unfortunate “normal” aspect of life for many Americans — the systemic racism and social injustices that people of color face each day. For many white Americans, the killing of George Floyd by several police officers is what opened their eyes. However, Black Americans and other minorities have always been aware. They have lived and experienced injustices their entire lives, and know there are two Americas. They know what Amanda Gorman, our National Youth Poet Laureate, knows, that “what just is / isn’t always just-ice.”
The United States held a historic (and divisive) presidential election this year. Then, on Jan. 6, in protest of the election results, citizens of our nation mounted a deadly assault on our Capitol building. The past 365 days have been unprecedented and difficult for all; they are days that ushered me down a road of self-doubt, and left my mind smattered with uncertainty and questions. I asked myself: Am I a good husband? Am I a good sibling? Am I good at my job? Am I racist?
Then, I questioned the state of our Airmen. They all have struggles that are exacerbated by the fact they are away from home with few opportunities to return, new to the Air Force with a weak sense of belonging, or due to the color of their skin, their gender, or sexual orientation, may feel excluded. Our Airmen have a lot on their plates, their minds, and weighing on their hearts. What am I doing to support our Airmen? What are we, as an organization doing to support them?
With the hopefulness that comes with the blank slate of a new year, I attempted to reframe my doubts and concerns, and turn them into guideposts on a road to positive change. One of my favorite fitness instructors, Robin Arzon, has a catchphrase that comes to mind: Flip the script.
What may appear to some as merely semantics, the way we frame our thoughts dictates how we live, how we treat others, how we see the world, act and react.
I examined the phrasing of my questions and altered them: “Am I a good husband?” became “How can I be a better husband?” “Am I racist” is now “How can I increase my awareness of how I view race, privilege, discrimination, etc.?” and, “How can I put my increased awareness to work to become a catalyst for change?”
In regard to our Airmen, I reformulated “What am I doing to support our Airmen?” to “How can I better serve and support our Airmen?” That led to, “How can I encourage Airmen to communicate more openly with me and how can I better listen?”
Here are some ideas to start your reframing.
How can I better communicate with my leaders? / How can I better listen to my Airmen?
Whether they are designated by position or not, we are surrounded by leaders. Leaders span the ranks and every grade. Talk to them. Share your ideas; let them know your frustrations. Propose a course of action so we can accelerate change. Whether the issue is isolated to your work center, spans the base, or the Air Force, we know that change, however uncomfortable, is necessary.
Leaders, we must listen and act. I know I have not listened consistently nor thoroughly enough. We must open our ears, identify our biases (white males fill roughly 70% of the 86th Airlift Wing’s leadership positions), take off our blinders, and listen deeply. What are your Airmen trying to tell you?
What can I bring to the team?
The collective strength of our teams will get us through these tough times and eventually bring us back together. Bring your energy, willingness to be a good follower, and an open mind. Lean on your team and garner strength from them. As mutual trust develops, you will likely find a greater sense of purpose. You may not always realize it, but you are a valuable member of your team.
Leaders and team members, recognize that our wingmen could be struggling, and their teams play a larger role in their lives than usual. Give them the teams they deserve. Encourage your wingmen, teach them, mentor them, and empower them. Remember, “The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” (Phil Jackson)
How can I accelerate change?
In my experience, the Air Force is better than many organizations when it comes to inclusion, but I am a white male (spoiler alert) and collectively we are the problem. As there are two Americas, there are two Air Forces. Everyone has to be part of the solution, but our leaders, especially the ones with white skin, have to step up. We must be deliberate in breaking down the barriers for Airmen of all backgrounds. Look for those who do not look like you and get to know them, learn from them, and mentor them. We all need friends, teammates and mentors in our corner. If we are going to improve, we must own our unconscious biases and deliberately take actions to make changes.
In 2021, I am striving to listen more, grow, learn to be a catalyst for change, and hopefully become a better human and leader.