Leading a diverse force

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Michelle Chang
  • 51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs

“There is a place in the Air Force for everybody,” said Lt Col Tamekia Payne, 51st Force Support Squadron commander in her “Full Range Leadership” lesson during the fourth quarter Flight Commander Leadership Course (FCLC) at Osan AB.

This concept is one I think about often, as I remember wrestling with it far before joining the military. Do I believe there is room in the U.S. Air Force for everybody? Is this true and do I see it being encouraged in our Air Force? Do I personally advocate for this as a leader?

Joining the military, I experienced some nervousness as to whether or not I’d fit in or find my place in the ranks. I was a design major from a liberal state university, with absolutely no background or family history in the U.S. military. A daughter born to an immigrant family, I suppose it made sense for me to feel a bit uneasy. Was this an organization where I could really belong?

Currently, I sit as the officer in charge of the Command Information section in the 51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs office. Ironically enough, it’s the section that regularly produces products just like the one you’re reading right now. And I love my job. Of all the career fields this artsy design major could have ended up in, this was the one.

Heading into the FCLC course with the unique perspective of a public affairs officer, I was pleased to find that the program had something for everybody with its broad lesson sets and diverse instructors.

FCLC was beneficial in the abundant resources it provided and “good to know” information as a flight commander leading Airmen, but what I found most valuable were the discussions, themes and take-aways of what it means to be a passionate and transformational leader.

As we navigated through conversations about full range leadership, followership, emotional intelligence, unconscious bias and so much more, the theme of diversity kept striking me. This idea that our force is made up of such a wide range of personalities, backgrounds, perspectives and identities, and there is room for it all, even me.

During one of the talks in the course, U.S. Air Force Chief (Ret.) Anthony Brinkley said, “We need to be given permission to achieve, to be ourselves. Quit playing a role not made for you and own your difference!” And I just let this sink in.

Our diversity is our strength. It repeatedly says so in our National Defense Strategy. And in my short time being a part of this organization, I have become increasingly reassured of this.

As a voluntary service, our hope is that our force reflects the diversity of our nation. But in order for that to happen, the culture needs to welcome it and fight for it. Even through a history of strife and ongoing differences, are we able to unify under this same oath?

We still have yet to see the diversity of our force aptly reflected in the higher levels of leadership, but for the time being, I understand that from where I sit in this particular position as an advisor and communicator, I can impact change, however small.

I may still be fairly new to the Air Force and frankly, developing my “leadership style”, but as a leader in this organization, this is something I feel responsible for. I want to foster a safe space for Airmen to feel empowered and thrive in their workplace, and to advocate for them.

Are we as leaders challenging our ways of thinking and fighting for understanding? Are we considering the different perspectives of our teammates, and welcoming discourse?

As we discussed in one of our lessons, being aware of unconscious bias is just a first step. It is our responsibility as leaders to be proactive and regularly review ourselves to continuously become aware of these blind spots. It is our responsibility to take measures and instill steps to prevent them from, maybe unintentionally, affecting decisions that will inevitably impact our people.

Perhaps that looks like looking around the room and recognizing when there’s a lack of representation and doing something about it. Maybe it looks like taking time to listen to the stories and experiences of our teammates and fighting to understand how their life has shaped the way they operate and interact with the world around them.

Being in a public affairs office, I have the unique opportunity to empower the differences of each of our team members to creatively find ways to tell the story of the Air Force; to find and recognize the diverse Airmen who make the mission happen every single day.

In my shop alone we have folks that range from a bubbly Puerto Rican with a New Yorker accent who actually grew up in Florida, to a true East-Coaster from Jersey who joined well into their thirties, to a Chamorro “che’lu” (Chamorro word for brother) all the way to a small town farm girl from the middle of bum-chops nowhere in Kansas.

This diverse set of experiences is reflected in the approaches we have to jobs, projects and storytelling. Our voices and personalities are reflected across our platforms, while communicating the mission at hand.

Walking away from this course, I found myself feeling empowered to lead in a way that’s passionate and inclusive, excited for a leadership style that celebrates diversity, inspires change and encourages Airmen to be competent agents in getting after the mission while being authentically themselves.

To this day I come back to our U.S. motto “E Pluribus Unum,” or “Out of many, one.” Our strength is in our diversity, and I am hopeful that every day we’ll continue to take strides towards becoming an even stronger force.