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A Conversation with AFCLC’s Senior LEAP Scholar – Maj Gen Patrick Higby

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  • By By Lori M. Quiller, AFCLC Outreach Division

During its 10-year history, the Air Force Culture and Language Center’s (AFCLC) Language Enabled Airman Program (LEAP) has produced thousands of LEAP scholars utilized in exercises around the world.

Because participation in LEAP is voluntary and highly competitive, Airmen must demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language specified on the Air Force Strategic Language List, receive an endorsement from their unit commander, and compete via board process. Selection to LEAP hinges on applicants’ existing language proficiency, potential to achieve higher levels of language proficiency, and the Air Force language requirements.

According to Maj Gen Patrick Higby, LEAP’s highest-ranking scholar, the opportunities afforded by the program are more than worth the effort.

Higby said when he joined the Air Force in 1989, Airmen were only paid if they were in language billets, and those were usually associated with intelligence career fields. He took the Defense Language Proficiency Test early in his career, hoping it would eventually become useful. It was, and he was able to leverage his language/culture skills early on as part of a deployment in the German Navy. 

“When we set up a joint task force to respond to a humanitarian crisis somewhere, we bring in Airmen of different career fields, everyone from Medics to Power Pro operators. So, isn’t it more convenient if the person setting up our generators also happens to speak the language of the area we’re trying to help?” Higby questioned. “Having that force multiplier right there on your team is a perfect opportunity! American Airmen go in and make things happen, but it’s much more powerful when we do it with an awareness of the culture that we’re working in. There’s a lot of language and cultural talent in our force that perhaps is being underutilized, or our leaders are unaware of, so they don’t know to tap into it. That’s what makes LEAP and AFCLC so special.”

Born in Wiesbaden, Germany, Higby previously served in the engineering, intelligence, space, communications, and cyber career fields, at base, major command, and joint agency levels. He had the opportunity to command at the squadron, group and, twice, at the wing/installation levels. Now, as he prepares to retire in September, Higby looks back at how his advanced language and culture skills shaped his unusual career.

Higby was assigned to The White House Communications Agency from 2011 to 2013, and his last mission included accompanying President Barack Obama to Berlin, Germany. As the resident “cyber/IT guy,” he wasn’t expecting any cultural opportunities from the trip, but he was wrong.

“Having the speaking ability and the cultural sensitivity allowed me to give some inputs to the White House planning team to help them consider doing something to score diplomatic points with our NATO ally while in Germany. We were trying to uplift our relationship, and my suggestion to the planning team was that since we already had President Obama’s popularity with the Germans in our favor, why not leverage some of the charm of John F. Kennedy’s famous visit where he said, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ which was 25 years later misinterpreted as ‘I am a jelly doughnut!’” Higby laughed. “I suggested we have President Obama say, ‘Ich bin auch ein Berliner’ or to make fun of the earlier misinterpretation, ‘I am also a jelly doughnut,’ but the staff decided against it even though it would have lit the crowd right up! I also suggested we make his stage appearance a bit more casual. Due to the July heat, the President ended up taking off his jacket and rolling his sleeves up, so I guess he went with part of my advice.”

Higby said that even though his advice may not have been fully utilized, he believed having the advanced language and culture skills also gave him the credibility he needed to put forth his ideas in the first place. Because he was the Air Force One traveling IT/cyber geek for that trip, Higby said no one expected anything from him other than that skillset. For LEAP scholars, however, the stakes are often higher due to the missions, which means it’s up to the LEAP scholar to decide to speak up.

“The fact that you are in LEAP ought to give you a little more courage to speak up to the senior ranking members in the room,” Higby said. “The Air Force has sanctioned its LEAP scholars to think in a cultural context. If you don’t speak up and tell me you’ve got a better idea or that you have more information about the area we’re working in, then what good have you done on that mission? Here’s what too frequently happens with senior leaders…I’ll look at you, see your occupational badge, your rank, and I’ll automatically put you into a box based on what I see. But, I bet you have a whole bunch of talents and skills that go way beyond that rank or badge! We sometimes fail to leverage that capability if we don’t know what you can do. I guess permission or even being reminded of the permission to speak up when you have a good idea, is the cornerstone of innovation. Everyone on your team can and should have a voice, even if their advice isn’t put it into action, it should at least be considered. It will also give your team more insight into your ‘hidden’ talents.”

Higby also has some sage advice for LEAP scholars who are just embarking on their careers in the program, and it begins at home.

“You have to do the things well that the Air Force is asking of you first and then bring your LEAP skills to the table,” Higby said. “Have the boldness to speak up, especially when you see something you know isn’t going the right way or could go better. Don’t be discouraged if your advice is not implemented, but you know you owe that input to the team leader and the rest of your team. And for those on the fence about joining LEAP, jump in because it can open incredible opportunities for you! The fact you can continue your education and training in an area other than your primary duty is something you should always pursue to diversify your ability to contribute in a mission or even after the Air Force; cultural skills that are sought after by private industry as well.”

Following Higby’s retirement in September, Col (Dr.) Antonio J. Delgado will become the senior LEAP scholar. Delgado is the Flight Commander of the Hyperbaric Medicine Clinic, the largest hyperbaric chamber in the Department of Defense and the second in the nation, at the David Grant Medical Center, and is assigned to the 60th AMDS sq. The Hyperbaric Clinic is under the direction of the 60th Air Mobility Wing, Travis Air Force Base, CA. Col Delgado assumed this position 28 July 2019.

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