Listen, learn and lead: COMUSAFE takes the reins

Master Sgt. Chuck Roberts
USAFE Public Affairs

***image1***He is here to lead U.S. Air Forces in Europe, but brings a leadership style keen on listening and learning from Airmen in his command. And after a month on the job, Gen. Tom Hobbins likes what he hears and is confident the command is heading in the right direction.

“When you look at the accomplishments of what our folks are doing, to include those people who are in Iraq and those people who are in Afghanistan, I think you’ll find that everybody is very excited because they get up in the morning, they look themselves in the mirror and they say, ‘You know, we’re making a difference – we really are helping people’,” said General Hobbins. “We are fighting this war on terrorism with extreme dedication, and I see everyone interested in staying and continuing the kind of work they are doing.”

The general can base that assumption from the hundreds of USAFE Airmen he’s encountered since assuming command. Although General Hobbins is no stranger to USAFE after serving as its director of operations during the air war over Kosovo, the general makes it a high priority not just to meet as many people as possible, but to learn from each encounter.

“I am very proud to be the 34th USAFE commander and am very proud to serve with (our fellow USAFE  Airmen) – it’s an honor,” the general said. “I’m really here to listen at first and try to understand what it is that people are doing and what it is they would see us do to make the team better. So I’m around and about asking those questions – are there methods and procedures you feel could be changed to allow us to become more efficient?

“I hope people will understand that I care about them and want to hear from them what I need to change – I value what they tell me,” General Hobbins said.

Such encounters also provide personal satisfaction, as was evident during a recent trip to Iraq that culminated with the general dancing with fellow USAFE Airmen deployed there.

“Every time I walk into a workplace, someone walks up to shake hands,” the general said. “They are very dedicated to the job they are doing and they are excited about it – that gives me energy when I meet people like that … it gives me strength.”

General Hobbins said their can-do attitude also fits well into a new direction for USAFE – a shift from a fighter aircraft-centric type of mission to more of a balance with the mobility-centric mission. The general pointed to the state-of-the-art air freight terminal at Ramstein and the Airmen who work there.

In addition to the general, the Airmen themselves are impressed with technology that allows them to support fellow Airmen and sister services downrange with timely delivery of critical parts and supplies.

“Airmen really want to be analyzers of information and not just inputters of information, so we’re seeing that change and that shift,” said the general. That mindset is in lockstep with Air Force initiatives such as Smart Ops 21.

Smart Ops 21 is a business strategy that aims to eliminate waste, save time and money and refocus Air Force resources on its core missions. It is all about increasing efficiency by identifying actions not contributing to core missions and that help eliminate waste.

“The USAFE team is up for that and I know they can come up with great ideas that are going to make us more efficient,” said General Hobbins.
The general’s optimism is derived in part from a leadership style that includes thoughtful decision making, but also encourages effort and initiative.

“In a command such as this that is already doing such a tremendous job, any change must be done carefully and in consultation with all involved. Have everybody in the room when making a decision and empower all to present ideas. That’s why I think we were so successful in Kosovo,” said the general.

However, even the most well conceived plans sometimes fail, but good leaders still stand among their people with equal support and enthusiasm.

“As the level of difficulty of a problem gets higher and higher, you need to rise with it, and you never want to lose confidence in your people if they fail,” said General Hobbins. “You want to demonstrate that, ‘Hey, we understand that people make mistakes and we want to learn from those mistakes. I do not believe in rule through fear and don’t want my commanders to rule with fear.”

Leadership and self-improvement also come from taking initiative and making the most of the opportunities life presents you, said General Hobbins, who keeps a copy of “Lincoln on Leadership” within an arm’s reach in his office. As a young officer, he recalled spending time “hanging around the ops counter” on nonflying days just in case a fellow pilot was forced to cancel a mission so he could step in and help out.

The general also experienced similar fortune by accepting an assignment turned down by the previous seven candidates. When General Hobbins, his wife Robbin and their five children arrived at Keflavik Naval Air Station in Iceland, they were faced with only one television station and brutal winds across a treeless land.

“It sounded bad but it turned out to be one of the best assignments,” the general said, explaining that their family became even closer since the lack of other entertainment forced them to spend lots of quality time together playing games.

It’s probably no coincidence the general and his family were able to cope successfully in Iceland. Taking care of family is high on the general’s priority list, and one he promotes for those in his command.

“You have an Air Force family which is an extended family, and you have your own family that you love and spend time with, but frequently we devote too much time to our careers and not enough time with families at home,” the general said. “I think it’s important to have balance.”

“I would like to encourage people to spend a little more time on the weekends dedicated to their families if they can. Your children learn and see what you do, and from that, life becomes successful for them as well.”