Lorenz on Leadership -- Strengthening the Air Force Family

  • Published
  • By Gen. Stephen R. Lorenz
  • Air Education and Training Command Commander
"I also want to thank my brothers and sisters in the Air Force family." 

If you have attended as many promotion, retirement, and award ceremonies as I have, you've heard these sentiments many times. We may not phrase it in exactly the same way, but the meaning is clear. When we reach certain milestones and take time to reflect, we recognize that the bond we share with others in the Air Force is stronger than for most co-workers in the business world. This is especially true when we factor in the emotions of deployments and combat. The term "brothers/sisters in arms" is no accident. As we live, train, sweat, and bleed together, these bonds grow so strong that the only language we have to describe our feelings for each other is the language of family -- the Air Force family. 

It would be a mistake to take these bonds for granted, however. If we don't respect and value each other, we risk breaking the family ties. This doesn't mean that you're always going to like everyone you meet in the Air Force, but if you grew up with brothers and/or sisters, odds are that you didn't always like them either. Building a strong Air Force family means that we each share a commitment to our fellow Airmen and treat them in ways that reflect this commitment. 

I believe that we are all leaders, because leadership is influence, and we all have the ability to influence the people around us. I challenge you to be a leader in our family. You can influence others to build a stronger Air Force family by treating our fellow Airmen as family members. How? Here are some thoughts... 

A family laughs together. Our profession is serious business, but there is no reason that we can't have fun while we work together. When we smile and laugh with each other, we communicate a very powerful message: I enjoy being with you. Who doesn't want to feel like others enjoy their company? Laughing together goes a long way towards building a sense of family (as long as we are not laughing at someone's expense). 

Having fun and playing together is something that we should extend to our natural families too. If your unit is not having parties, picnics, or playdates together with the families, go to your commander and volunteer to organize a fun outing or get-together. I have found that the squadron, branch, division, or directorate that plays together, stays together, especially when the times get tough. 

A family cries together. When bad things happen to our family members, we are there for them. In our lives, all of us have issues such as aging parents, sick children, and financial difficulties. Moreover, our profession involves unforgiving activities such as flying or driving in convoys through a war zone, and we will almost certainly know someone who is injured or killed while on duty. When these bad things inevitably happen, family members are there for each other. 

For example, in AETC we have a squadron commander whose 8-year old daughter was recently diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. Since word of this got out to their Air Force family, they have been overwhelmed with support. Here's what they had to say when asked about how the Air Force family has helped: 

"Since this whole ordeal started last August, our family has been blessed by every area of the Air Force family imaginable -- AFROTC friends I haven't spoken with in 20 years, former F-117 drivers I didn't even know, civilian contractors and GS employees who are acquaintances at best, squadron and group friends, and lastly leadership all the way to the 4-star level. The Air Force family is a living, breathing entity that we are all a part of. You just don't get this kind of support outside of the Air Force or military!"

This is not extraordinary -- this is what families do, which leads to the next thought... 

A family sticks together and takes care of each other. On the day that an Airman raises his or her hand to take their oath of service, they are part of the Air Force family. They remain part of our family until we lay them to rest with a flag draped over their casket. During the time in-between, we try our best to take care of each other by offering a warm welcome when a new person arrives on our base, listening to someone who is lonely and far from home, offering practical help to those left behind when their spouse is deployed, and in many other ways. 

Last week, I had dinner with a Senior Airman who had been injured in the war. As we talked, I found out that he had grown up in foster care. He had been separated from his siblings, so when he entered the Air Force, he was alone. I couldn't help but think to myself - we are the only family he has now. We must make sure that he gets the care he deserves, because no one else will. In fact, we should go above and beyond to take special care of those who made big sacrifices in the line of duty. 

We should also give special treatment to the natural families of those who gave their lives in service to the Nation. I believe that when an Airman is killed or wounded, the units to which they were assigned should consider them "members in perpetuity." If they have been wounded, they should be invited to unit functions, and for those who have died, their next-of-kin should get a call from the unit on special days. It's the right thing to do. 

You never know when you are going to make a difference in someone's life, so we should all live in a way that maximizes our ability to touch the lives of others. This means that we should have a healthy focus on others, not on ourselves. As a wise person once said, we should not think less of ourselves, we should think of ourselves less. 

Our profession is all about service to others. We serve our fellow Americans by keeping them safe and free. We serve our fellow Airmen by caring for them and their loved ones. To me, that is the essence of "Service Before Self," and it truly sets us apart.