I recently attended the funeral of my friend and fellow U-2 pilot, Lieutenant Colonel (ret) Chuck Cunningham. It was a sad day as he left his wife Troy and four wonderful adult kids well before his time. As I listened to numerous stories told during a celebration of his life, I realized Chuck was a true leader in every aspect of his life - from Air Force officer and pilot, to husband, father and friend. He truly embodied every aspect of the five characteristics of strong leadership we’ve written about in this blog. Let me explain... Competence - when I needed a thorough refresher training flight on the flying characteristics of the U-2 Dragonlady after six months of deployed operations, the base commander in California immediately assigned Chuck as my instructor pilot. He was, without question, the best instructor and evaluator pilot in the 9th Reconnaissance Wing; Courage - there was no mission too difficult for Chuck in a demanding single-seat flying environment – during the course of his impressive career, he flew in every combat operation the U-2 was tasked for - from Korea, to Afghanistan, to Iraq, to the Horn of Africa - Chuck bravely mastered each threat situation and got the mission done every time; Commitment - Chuck was adamant about accomplishing the most difficult deployments and missions. He never hesitated at volunteering for a short notice combat rotation and deployed on more than his fair share of rotations over Holidays; as a result, he was gone during many important family events;
Compassion - Chuck truly cared about his people and their families – just like he cared about his own wonderful family. He always spent quality time with the men and women in his squadron - whether it was his maintenance technicians out on the line in the middle of the night, or the life-support specialists who suited up the pilots before each mission. Chuck clearly knew that the same emotions he was experiencing about being away from his family over the Holidays were going through his people’s minds as they accomplished their duties without complaining;
Character and Integrity - Chuck was a man of his word and I never once doubted his honor and integrity during the 12 years I knew him. A simple handshake was all you needed from him to seal the deal.
There are obviously leaders in every organization and business - they are almost always competent and committed. But not every leader rises to the level of care and concern for their people and families, plus has the courage to be honest and transparent in every situation in life. Mastering all five of these characteristics forms the baseline of a strong, impressive leader. Chuck Cunningham was truly an impressive leader to model your own life after and he was quite simply a great American. I salute his life of service and excellence, and hope his memory lives on for many, many years!
Jake Polumbo is a Founding Partner and a Senior Consultant in Two Blue Aces Consulting. TBA provides executive-level services to our clients focusing on their business needs. Along with 6 other General Officers from the U.S. military, TBA specializes in strategic reviews, business plan development, leadership training and executive-level assessments & evaluations.