Command - The First Six Months

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Eric Chumbley
  • 52nd Aerospace Medicine Squadron
I’m not one of those guys who had to be talked into competing for command. I knew I wanted to try for a squadron when I returned to active duty. Whether I am doing a good job of it is open for debate, but six months into command, I am happy with the decision…when not sitting in a meeting. True, I am in Germany at a wonderful little base with a straightforward mission, which really helps! And I followed a commander who had the squadron in super shape when I arrived, which also helped. But because relay races are often lost when passing the baton, I believed nothing was so good I couldn’t foul it up when it was my turn. So I talked to a lot of good people before I arrived. It is remarkable how accurate people’s predictions were, how helpful the advice I received has been, and how important a very few lessons have proven. What follows is a personal reflection on my first six months in the seat, trying to apply what I learned.

Many people and resources insisted the first 90 days in command would be a challenge. In fact, I heard a lot of interesting metaphors, but the consensus was that we all have to go through it, and life improves around that time. Retired Col. John Knabel is a former U.S. Marine Corps F-18 and U.S. Air Force F-16 pilot, but in 2017 commanded the 178th Wing in Springfield, Ohio. He told me taking command for the first time would be like taking that first hit in a football game. It shocks you. It demands your attention. But you shake off the pain and say to yourself, “yeah, I recognize this. I can do this.” You’ll see his name again. Col. Chris “BIG” Bird, now the 355th Medical Group commander at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., told me the first 90 days felt like physical drowning when he took his first squadron command at Tyndall AFB, Fla. (Sorry, Zombie, I’m sure it won’t be like that for you!) Other people expressed the same sentiment in less graphic terms, but the thought was nearly universal. Those first three months are tough.

While at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio during the Residency in Aerospace Medicine, I lived across the street from Col. Bret Burton, Air Force Material Command deputy surgeon general, as well as graduated squadron and group commander. We ran together once a week, except when we trained for the Air Force half marathon he talked me into, when it was three times a week. On those runs, I got an in-depth education in command. He told me a two year command breaks down into three blocks. The first six months are learning, the middle twelve are implementing, and the last six are transitioning. I had almost forgotten this early on. But around the four-month point, our team crafted a strategic plan for the squadron. We began to implement it in January, which marked the six-month point. For a number of reasons, it just didn’t make sense to start sooner. For the next year, we will work it before starting the last six months of transition. My colleague, 52nd Medical Operations Squadron commander Lt. Col. Becky Elliott, confirms having experienced this phenomenon, just as Col. Burton had projected. She is in her final six months.

Let’s return to Col. Knabel. Fighter pilots tend to tell it exactly like they see it. His first response to my question about what a wing commander wants from a squadron commander was, “don’t make me do your job,” referring to commanders who refuse to discipline, but instead pass the buck. I face such times with his words in my cranium. His second was, “be yourself. The Air Force chose you to command for a reason.” Don’t try to be anyone but yourself. But try very hard to make it your best possible self.

Another interesting nugget is to always say “yes.” That’s from Col. Lee Harvis, now Pacific Air Forces surgeon general, and if my understanding is correct, the first RAM selected for a star in quite a few years. His advice requires some explanation. My natural tendency is to want to protect my people, and much of the popular leadership and productivity literature urges us to learn to say “no.” To achieve great results, we have to focus, right? But the rest of the answer is, “and here’s what it will cost you.” So he was actually saying the same thing in another way. We all work for somebody, and that person has a mission. When I get a tasking, I owe it to my boss to let him know what the bill will be. If I don’t have the resources to do everything I was doing before as well as his new tasking, he gets to decide where I’ll focus. But I think Col. Harvis was going a little deeper. We don’t want to let great opportunities for our people to pass by. Retired Col. Russ Turner, a graduated commander now working at the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, echoed that. What has surprised me is how much I now value it when people in my squadron follow this advice! Please don’t lead with “no.” Tell me if you can meet commander’s intent, and tell me the cost. We’ll sort out details later.

The next gem from Col. Burton appears to flip the rest of it on its cranium. Upon taking command, first ask for help before offering it. He told me it would be better to put myself in debt to others. He believed it would demonstrate humility. He was right! It would have been fake to ride into town full of bravado. Excited about the potential, yes. Ready and willing to help the team, absolutely! But hopefully, admitting my weak spots early on told my fellow commanders, three letters, and squadron teammates that I was there to learn.

I’m also forever grateful to Col. Burton for this: Communicate your expectations early. What chance does your team have of fulfilling expectations if they don’t know what those expectations are? Col. Burton had delivered letters outlining his expectations for his direct reports when he was in command. So I did the same for each flight commander and flight surgeon I rate. Each of us knows going in to a feedback session what we’ll talk about, and the person I rate already has an idea of what I’ll say.

The last bit of advice I will recount is to get your core leadership team together often and don’t make big decisions without them. Those include your deputy and your squadron superintendent. These wise words came from USAFSAM commander Col. Alden Hilton, and old friend from internship at Scott AFB, Ill. Sharing the load has made a difference. I value their counsel and assistance. Col. Hilton said it helps decrease pressure to always be at the office, and it makes it more likely I’ll actually go on leave once in a while. Right again. In fact, I’m actually on leave on one of the days I’m writing this. My deputy has the stick, and I’m not a bit concerned things are spinning out of control.

Lessons Learned
Show up with your priorities straight. I knew my “why,” and that was important. Col. Knabel was right about that first football hit. It does shake you up. I think you can either let it set you back or remind you that what you’re doing is a real job with real people and real consequences. But you also feel like you’re drowning in a river of queep until you learn to triage the demands on your time. Your “why” determines how you triage.

Show up with a plan. General Eisenhower is said to have stated, "in preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." There are probably some good reasons that man wore five stars. When you make your plan before command, you consider your priorities (see above), estimate your early mission objectives, and determine how to accomplish them. Then when your first plan makes first contact with the enemy and goes to pieces, you fall back on your priorities and make a new plan. But it’s easier since you’ve done it before, and it’s far more applicable, because you now have eyes on.

Communication is a really, really, big deal. Bigger than I ever realized, and I thought it was a big deal before. When two people in my squadron aren’t getting along, it’s likely they haven’t communicated expectations to each other. When I am unhappy with somebody’s performance, it’s often because I didn’t communicate expectations clearly. Remember in medical school how we were taught if we find ourselves getting angry at a patient, think about personality disorders? I believe when we see emotional temperatures rise, we should first look at communication.

Prepare for false summits. Three weeks into the job, I had a really funny thought. I believed I was getting the hang of this job. Then we sat down in a readiness meeting. I rejected my premature conclusion, which had been just flat out stupid. But it happened again in December, a story I can’t tell in this forum. My guess is I’ll continue to have grandiose thoughts of competence from time to time, only to become disillusioned shortly thereafter.

Final Words
People did not come to me with these ideas. I looked for people who were doing things I thought were cool and I asked. I hope young flight docs are doing the same, whether or not they are preparing for command. I also recommend supplementing good advice from trusted mentors with solid reading. Because if you’re like me, you’re not usually willing to bug people with your questions before 0700 on a regular basis. Unless I’m bugging Col. Burton, who brought it on himself when he talked a reformed offensive lineman into running a half marathon. Here’s an abbreviated list of books I found very helpful:

Growing Physician Leaders: Empowering Doctors to Improve Our Healthcare, by Lt Gen (Ret) Mark Hertling. New York, NY: RosettaBooks; 2016.
Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, by Simon Sinek. London: Portfolio/Penguin; 2013.
Commanding an Air Force Squadron in the Twenty-First Century: A Practical Guide of Tips and Techniques for Today’s Squadron Commander, by Brig Gen (Ret) Jeffry Smith. Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press; 2003.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster; 1989.