The General’s Corner—“General”-y Speaking
Brigadier General Matt Barker, Texas Air National Guard
Our military is a leadership laboratory. When veterans return to civilian life, employers appreciate their attention to detail, work ethic, and no-nonsense approach to workplace challenges. I think this is because military service immerses new members in complex situations with diverse teams, often under pressure with risk of physical harm. Success in these conditions requires a unique brand of leadership, which is why our armed forces devote a great deal of attention to professional military education and growing ethical, competent leaders at every echelon. I’m going to tell you about four of them I was privileged to work for.
It’s said you can learn as much from bad leaders as good ones, but when I reflect on my Air Force career, I focus on the great bosses I had who showed me the ropes, lifted me up, and gave me an honest “vector check” when I needed it, even if I didn’t know it at the time. As a new lieutenant serving as a Minuteman missile launch officer, Dave was my primary crew commander and mentor. A history buff and passionate baseball fan, our conversations over many long drives, and long alerts buried in a launch control center beneath the North Dakota prairie covered the Civil War and the playoffs, but also his thoughts on leading people in the profession of arms. I was brash and probably a bit arrogant, and I appreciated his steady leadership and coaching. He helped me see myself the way others saw me, and a portion of that truth hurt. But that truth was exactly what I needed to refine my leadership approach and follow in his footsteps as a crew commander, then flight commander. 25 years later I still value his friendship and remember the challenges we faced together.
When I started flying, Justin was my supervisor for my first operational deployment to Turkey in 1997, helping enforce the United Nations no-fly zone over northern Iraq with our radar aircraft. I immediately noticed his genuine engagement with everyone on our large crew, and how deeply cared about people, not just the mission. The extra time he took to learn their stories and circumstances gave him unmatched authenticity and set an example I’m still trying to follow. Tensions were heightened in the region at that time, and Justin’s sense of humor and calm demeanor on the jet set us all at ease and helped us focus on the tactical problems at hand.
Leaving that assignment for Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, I met one of the most impactful leaders of my career, to whom I’m indebted for helping me refine my long-term Air Force goals and then lighting my fuse to send me chasing after them. This squadron commander was relentless in the pursuit of excellence. From our EC-130’s maintenance readiness to the unit’s standing in the base sports leagues, he led by example and demanded results. His callsign was “Stormin,’” and you didn’t want to be caught in that storm if you weren’t working to help the team move forward. As that squadron prepared to shut down, he was able to keep morale high and imbue our Airmen with a sense of pride and purpose right up until the very last flight. Loyal to his people, he personally worked the details of our follow-on assignments as 400 of us raised a parting glass and scattered to our new bases still bound by the camaraderie he’d fostered.
Great bosses make the best out of tough situations. As a major, I was assigned to Headquarters USAF, at the Pentagon. Any veteran who has done a staff tour will tell you they’d rather be back in the field, and Pentagon duty amplifies one’s longing to escape the bureaucratic grind and get back to his tank, ship, jet, or jeep. Anything but another meeting or PowerPoint presentation! Throw 10 or 12 Majors and Lieutenant Colonels with that mindset in an office full of cubicles, assign them an endless deluge of position papers, weapon system specifications, and other “special” projects to work (after fighting Washington traffic for at least an hour), turn on the coffee pot and wait for the fun to begin. For my office, the one bright spot was our Division Chief, Colonel “Buck.” Buck was as old-school as it gets. He had a razor-sharp wit and was brutally honest no matter who he was talking to. He also enjoyed a smoke (frequently), so we learned early to keep our jackets handy, because we usually had our impromptu meetings with him “al fresco,” despite the weather. I’ll spend a little more time discussing him because of his unique character and the ripple effect his style had on those who worked for him.
Buck knew how frustrating it could be chasing paper, spending hours churning out briefings that could be rendered irrelevant overnight by a budget decision or congressional mandate. As a seasoned officer and commander, he also had the big picture and knew the value of the work our team did, even when the daily grind distracted us. We had one of the largest portfolios on the Air Staff, and Buck reminded us on a regular basis of the national-level impact we were making. He also appreciated the impact the work could have on our families, and did everything he could to ease the stress. While other offices held late night sessions in the office to respond to higher level mandates or congressional inquiries, he’d send us home at a reasonable hour with the understanding to keep the phone handy.
Buck’s leadership philosophy was “Professionalism, Accountability, Communication, and Teamwork,” a “PACT.” He said it was a pact you made with yourself first and then with those you are privileged to lead. He lived that pact, he ensured that his officers upheld it, and I still remember and use it today. After I spent two years in his Division, a Colonel in Florida reached out to him about hiring me to lead one of his squadrons. We were undermanned, and my tour was supposed to last one more year—the obvious answer was no. But Buck gave a glowing recommendation and released me early, setting me on a path to command that you could say was my first big break. He wasn’t rewarding me, he was betting on my future leadership potential to benefit Big Air Force, and I’ll be forever grateful for his confidence.
I guess I’m lucky in that I’ve had more great bosses than I have room to list. I’m also lucky to still be experimenting in the leadership laboratory, trying to synthesize all the best traits of all those great bosses, trying to pay forward their investments in me. If we served together, you probably recognize at least one of the leaders I described, and if we didn’t I’m sure you can substitute those bosses that made you who you are. And for those of you still in the laboratory, thanks for of taking care of America’s sons and daughters who put it all on the line for us. You’re growing the next generation of awesome bosses.
Until next time, stay frosty and Hold the Line.