When I first started flying fighters some thirty-plus years ago, I read the biographies of the commanders I wanted to emulate and realized they all had a very similar career path. In the first 14-15 years of their career, they established themselves as highly competent fighter pilots, then spent 2-3 years in non-flying staff assignments and Professional Military Education before returning to the cockpit to command a squadron—the Air Force’s basic warfighting unit. More often than not, the squadrons these leaders commanded were comprised of the aircraft they had flown earlier in their career. To me, the path to a command position was clear—the best pilots were selected to lead our flying organizations. At the time, it made perfect sense. As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more mistaken.
My early years in the Air Force followed the “standard” path, and I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to command a fighter squadron. I spent every day learning to be the best fighter pilot I could be and it appeared I was right on track for the career path I envisioned in my early years. Then, the unexpected happened…I ejected from an F-16 earlier in my career and suffered damage to my neck that ultimately required surgery. As a result, I was medically disqualified from flying aircraft with an ejection seat—there would be no more fighter assignments for me. I was devastated, as I felt I would not be able to command at higher levels, and my career opportunities would be limited at best. That’s when I learned that my earlier premise on the path to senior leadership was all wrong.
Thankfully, the Air Force General Officers with the responsibility to select the next generation of leaders knew they didn’t need the best pilots to command a flying organization…they needed fliers who knew how to lead. I was honored to have the opportunity to command three Wings, the Air Force’s major warfighting organization. All three Wings had different missions and were comprised of completely different types of aircraft. I was more than a little uncomfortable taking command of these organizations, as I knew the people within the Wing had much more experience in the mission areas than I did. However, I knew my role wasn’t to be the best tactician or crew member…my job was to lead.
As I took command, I first focused on understanding the Wing’s mission, and how we supported the goals and objectives of the command echelons above the Wing. I spent time in each of the subordinate units so I understood how they contributed to the Wing’s mission and what their working conditions were like. Most importantly, I looked for the leaders within each unit—those who were committed to making their unit successful, that willingly accepted every challenge—and I empowered them.
In each case, I built a leadership team that I could trust and depend on. I provided them with clearly defined goals and objectives, the metrics we would use to measure success, and did my best to provide the resources they needed to make it happen. I made sure they understood what decisions could and should be made at their level, and what decisions and authorities needed to remain with me. At that point, I put all of my effort towards helping them succeed. If they didn’t have the right resources, the right people or the right training, it was my responsibility to help them resolve the shortfalls. If they were not able to meet stated goals and objectives because they didn’t have what they needed, then I failed, not them. If they stumbled along the way, I did my best to help them up, dust them off and get them back on track. In all three cases, the Wing was extraordinarily successful, largely because we were able to fully leverage the talent that resided within the organization.
I enjoyed being a line pilot more than you can imagine. However, there is no greater pleasure—or privilege—than helping an organization achieve its maximum potential. That’s what leaders do.
Rev Jones is a retired USAF Major General, and was assigned to the Pentagon as the Headquarters USAF Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Plans and Requirements when he retired in 2014.