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Wild Blue Yonder on the Air - Ep. 25 - Hap Arnold Executive Leadership Series #2

  • Published
  • By Dr. Elizabeth Woodworth

Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other US government agency.

Dr. Elizabeth Woodworth: 2022 is the 11th year of the Air War College General Henry Hap Arnold Outreach Program, featuring talks by Air War College students and faculty focused on the power of storytelling and strategic leadership. Through the years, our speakers included civilian leaders in the DIA and the State Department, as well as their military colleagues, including missileers, hospital administrators, coast guard, helicopter pilots, Navy pilots, special operations, reservists, and attorneys. This year's cohort of Hap Arnold speakers consists of officers in the Air Force, the Army, the Kentucky National Guard, Marine Corps, and two international officers. Their jobs are as diverse as they are, fighter, mobility, and test pilots, instructors, dentists, acquisitions, infantry, cavalry, intelligence, air defense, and human resources. Through the last few years, we've spoken to live audiences nationally throughout our region, locally, on Zoom, on Teams, via audio, and again, face-to-face and in-person. I am Dr. Elizabeth Woodworth, Director of Research and Electives at the Air War College. I teach classical rhetoric, creative thinking, and coach the Hap Arnold team.

Our namesake for this program, Henry Hap Arnold, was born in the 19th century in 1886. In 1907, Arnold graduated from West Point, just a few years later, the Wright Brothers taught him how to fly. He is one of our earliest military aviators and served with distinction in World War I. In World War II, he became the commander of the Army Air Forces, and he grew the force to 2.5 million troops and 75,000 aircraft. Hap Arnold, who earned his nickname from associates for his happy disposition, ultimately attained the rank of five-star general and the title of First General of the Air Force. He died in 1950, having laid the groundwork for the Air Force we have today. We honor his memory with this outreach and strategic leadership program, whose goals are threefold. One, we want to share the mission and vision of the Air War College with our community.

Our mission; to educate senior military and civilian teammates to serve as critical and strategic thinkers able to serve as national security senior leaders. Our vision; we are the foremost college for air, space, and cyberspace education and thought, preparing the world's best joint senior leaders. Two, we want to create a bridge between the college, its students and faculty, and the population we serve, the American people. And three, we want to connect to those we are serving alongside. We want to be courageous and unafraid to be vulnerable for our peers and those we are proud to lead. We want to inspire. Thank you for sharing this time with our HAP Arnold speakers.

Lt. Col. Nick Feranec: I'm sure many of you listening in podcast land have seen Star Wars, right? And if you haven't seen it, you're at least vaguely aware of the concept of the force. So basically, it's the energy field created by all life forms that connects everything in the universe. The Jedi, the good guys, they try to connect with the force and use the force for good. But the Sith, the bad guys, they try to bend the force to their will to exploit the dark side of the force. Okay, now that we're all Star Wars experts, I wanted to tell you a little bit more about the dark side, the dark side of leadership, the side nobody told me about, the side that can burn out the most driven leader or even grind that leader's marriage down to nothing. But I'm not telling you my story to dissuade you from seeking leadership. In fact, it's quite the opposite. I'm telling you my story so you understand the importance of building a strong foundation of resilience before you experience the dark side of leadership. Mental, physical, social, and spiritual strength will allow you to overcome the dark side and reap the amazing benefits of being a leader.

So my story begins, my first week in the Air Force. It's been almost 20 years, but I do remember some of it. Remember the anticipation, the excitement, all the people, and holy cow, the paperwork. But most clearly, I remember attending my first meeting with the squadron commander. He was my boss's boss's boss. I mean, it was just a staff meeting on a Thursday morning, nothing special, really. But I remember so vividly the way this guy sat at the head of the table, took a briefing in some acronym-filled foreign language. He asked the most intelligent questions, and he owned the room. He was at the pinnacle of a successful Air Force career. And from that moment on, I set a goal to be him. Well, honestly, I didn't want to be him exactly, because I was hoping to avoid that inevitable male pattern baldness that occurs around age 40. But you get the point. I wanted to be a squadron commander. It turns out, that's exactly what the Air Force wanted for me too. And over the next 14 to 15 years, they put me through the paces to get there, including many different jobs to gain depth and breadth of experience and plenty of education and training, including professional military education at every rank.

And you know what the funny thing is, in the entire time, I never heard a single negative thing about being a squadron commander. Shame on me for blind ambition, right? It was always the most rewarding job. The job where the rubber meets the road, the job where you own the organization and the people in it. And fortunately, I got my chance. After being selected, I was warned, but it felt more like a joking kind of warning. "Oh, you're going there? Good luck." But what did I have to worry about? Nothing. I got this. My second day on the job, we had a suicide. She was a 24-year-old Air Force civilian, had recently earned her master's degree. From what I heard, she was one of these young people you meet and you think the sky's the limit. Now, even though she wasn't in my unit, actually, she sat right with my people. So my team knew her really well. And we went through the grieving process together. Shame, guilt, anger, sadness, the toll an event like this takes on a unit is indescribable, and it put me on high alert.

Apparently, there is a dark side of leadership, and I was just getting to know it. Shortly after that incident, I learned a hard lesson about enforcing discipline and holding people accountable to our, I would say, rather impersonal military standards. The good news, I made it almost five months before having to discipline anyone. But from my perspective, that was actually expected. My unit was mostly Air Force civilians and officers, all college graduates, most of them with advanced degrees. And it ranged in age from mid-20s to probably early-60s. The first instance involved a female civilian. Let's call her Betty. Betty was around 50 years old, former Air Force officer, flawless record. I just started hearing rumors that Betty was causing trouble wherever she went. She was completely unprofessional to colleagues while on a trip to DC. She actually cussed out an Air Force officer in a meeting. She had another altercation with a co-worker. From what I learned, she thought her car got keyed, so she went out and keyed the guy's car. She thought that did it. And of course, they get into a fight. Anyway, the list goes on. Her supervisor counseled her, and I had discussions with her along the way to understand what was going on. But nothing seemed to work.

So Betty received a letter of reprimand from yours truly. It's discipline that wasn't necessarily going to kill her career, but also wasn't taken lightly by someone that had been around the block like Betty. But we talked about it, and she was determined to fix things. Well, fast forward a few hours to that night. While my wife was out grocery shopping and I was at home playing superhero dad for my three boys, Betty calls me, in tears. She's obviously intoxicated, and she tells me she doesn't have a reason to live anymore. So picture this, with my three young boys at the dinner table, I have my personal phone up to my left ear, and I'm listening to Betty and trying to explain all her reasons to live. And I grab my government-issued cell phone to start calling everyone I thought could help while I had Betty on the line. My wife to come home for the kids, first of all, and Betty's supervisor, Tony, for Betty's address and to let him know what was going on. Then to a 911 operator to send police to Betty's address for a wellness check, and then to Betty's adult daughter because the police couldn't find her, and apparently they were supposed to meet later that night.

This went on for almost three hours. Fortunately, very fortunately, there was no suicide that night. But Betty's saga continued in a downward spiral. A few months later, I found out that Betty was having an affair with an officer from a foreign military. In our line of work, that is something that our security professionals do not take lightly. More to the point, they escorted Betty off out of our building almost immediately. My job was then to formally suspend Betty's security clearance and assist with the investigation. And Betty and I spent several more nights on the phone throughout this process discussing her reasons to live. In the end, it was my decision to end her career in the Air Force, which was the hardest of all. And the dark side of leadership was starting to consume me. Because the Betty issue was hardly an outlier, I made several similar decisions to hold people accountable that repeatedly messed up. One berated her subordinates and created toxic work conditions. Another showed up to work drunk and hid alcohol in a coffee cup. And while I made sure to connect these teammates with available resources to help them through extremely difficult transitions, I never thought twice about how it was affecting me.

The stress associated with impacting the careers of established professionals with mortgages and car payments and families at home took its toll on me. Sleepless nights, health problems including a recurring chest pain, weight gain, strained personal and professional relationships, and an unhealthy daily dose of alcohol to wash it all away. I was headed in the wrong direction. Then I had my Darth Vader moment. For you Star Wars fans, you know the one in Return of the Jedi when Luke is getting zapped by the Emperor's force lightning and Vader is standing there in the middle of it and he has to make a decision to save his son or remain loyal to the dark side? Well, my moment wasn't quite as dramatic, cinematically speaking, I was just sitting at home one night, flipping through Netflix, several drinks passed, having a drink because I liked the taste, had just had a fight with my son before he went to bed. My wife was barely speaking to me and it hit me, I imagined force lightning hitting me. It was time to make a change. That change first required a mental shift, acknowledging that the positive experiences I had in that job far outnumbered the bad.

The times I helped someone get that next promotion or celebrated a junior officer winning an award or even welcomed a newborn child for a teammate, those moments were plentiful. They were the reason everyone describes the job as so rewarding. Another big part was getting back into a fitness routine. So cue the Rocky music and enter my beautiful Peloton writing yoga enthusiast wife. I also started reaching out to close friends for support, especially those in command. And finally and most importantly, leaning heavily on my faith. Honestly, it wasn't long at all before I found my way back to the good side, to the amazing rewarding side of leadership. So you see, if I can do it, you can certainly do it. And your opportunity will be just as rewarding as mine. But you need to come into the job with a solid foundation of resilience, strong mental health and an optimistic outlook, strong physical health and a consistent routine, strong social health and a trusted support network, and strong spiritual health that provides you with purpose and perspective. My hope for you is with the knowledge of the possible challenges ahead, you can prepare yourself and ensure your Jedi mastery of resilience is more than enough to overcome the dark side of leadership.

Host: Nick, thanks again for your story. We've got a question here through the audience participation chat. Have you been able to recognize other leaders struggling with their situations and have you been able to take the time to share your experience to help them out? 

Feranec: To be honest, I don't think I've honed my radar as to witnessing others struggle with their situations. Fortunately, I was able to help out another leader that was going through a similar situation. In fact, it was the squadron commander of the sister squadron that had the suicide that I mentioned in the speech. And so that certainly, I would say, helped me to understand what was going on. And then like I've heard others say, telling this story is a little bit difficult for me, both because it impacted me and my family so much. And I felt like I was sharing secrets that I shouldn't be about people. And so that's why I changed names in the story and things like that. And so I'm even a little bit nervous now that this recording is going to go up and somebody might hear it. But in the end, I think it's most important to share these experiences and that's why I've chosen to record my story and share it with everyone. I think in the future, I certainly will, this opportunity to both write this story and share it with this audience has certainly given me that courage to share these lessons learned. And so yeah, I would say overall, I probably haven't in the past, but I will going forward. So thank you.

Lt. Col. Stephanie Wilson: I love work. I like going to it. I enjoy being in the service. And that's not to say that every day is fantastic or magical, but I try to get the most out of the time I'm at work. And if you're going to do something, you might as well be there and be present. Your presence is a present. It's something I know I've heard before, and it's something I truly believe. I had the pleasure of being a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, an Air Force officer, a leader. And I've learned in all those different positions that giving people your time and your presence is such a gift, because time is something we just cannot get back. And if I know that presence is a present, then I know that I am a gift. Then why in the world did it take me so long to figure out how to be deliberately present for those I love? How to truly value presence? As I mentioned, I love work. And I love work because I love people. I enjoy being in the thick of things. Some people may call that nosy, I like to call it inquisitive.

I love everything about my job and being present. And I've navigated my 20 years of military service, 2 commands, deploying countless TDYs or business trips for civilian emissaries, and let's just say a lot of time away. I prided myself in knowing that although, I cannot give my family the quantity of time that I wanted, I could give them quality. I would work to produce great parties and moments and memories. But ladies and gentlemen, I was there physically, but I was not truly present mentally. For even in the middle of those moments, I remember thinking of the next thing, the next day or the emails or the things I would need to answer. The fitness I would need to do, that mess in the corner of my living room that I would probably need to fix. And oh, did my husband get the groceries the way I asked him? My brain would be racing, trying to mentally manage all the things and maintain control. Therefore, I was not truly present. Two months after I took command of my first squadron, we found out I was expecting our fourth child. A fourth child was wanted, although, the timing was not exactly what we had anticipated.

This pregnancy would keep me from seeing half of my unit, due to the safety of me and my growing child. This pregnancy would have me out of work during a major critical inspection. This pregnancy would test my ability to a juggle life now and in the future. But I will say, even with all of that, from the moment I saw that stick change color, I was in love. And I knew that we could make this work. And I could do this with my other three and be present for my family, right? Right? As a new commander, my family also included 78 of America's sons and daughters. And they could count on then Major Wilson to attend events. I waddled into graduations from professional schools. And I figured out pregnant lady Pantyhose to attend award ceremonies. And I was there as the loudest cheerleader that they needed. The disciplinarian, when they need that... Needed that as well. I would be present for them the way I thought a commander should and I was everywhere until that day. And the moment the doctor took the heartbeat of my child, and instead of sounding like the thud, the thud, the thud, the thud, the thud, the thud, that many parents pray and hope to hear, we heard the thud, the thud, the thud, the thud, the thud, the thud.


That little life's heart was skipping again and again. And the doctor looked at me and said, "Stephanie, you have got to slow down. You need to relax and be present with your child because whatever stress you're feeling, he can feel it and it's not helping." [chuckle] Well, and they did not make me an Air Force officer because I was passive. So I looked at him and said, "Of course, [chuckle] I can rest and slow down. Let's do this." So I took advantage of every three days. I got one hour to sit in a room and not think about anything. I learned to relax my mind and spirit and be present for myself and present for the life I was growing. And on a stormy day in July, a nine-pound little boy was born, and he was perfect. The rest and being present, it worked. And I was able to introduce this little Wilson wonder to the rest of my wonders. And my heart was full. And one might think it was this moment I learned that it was better to be present mentally and physically.

Nope, I did not learn that. Didn't learn it at all. I jumped back into the fray. I mean, dove head first like the boss that I am. Except now, I didn't just have three kids. I had four. And I was trying to nurse one, lead, lose weight, prepare for that inspection I was worried about, free of pregnancy, plus we got orders to move. And I also still had a husband, that whole sister thing. Because I am a gift, right? I need to be shared until that day. After a move and a month of promotions and travel and birthdays, I looked over at my firstborn son, and he looked off. I mean, he was the kind of off where his skin tone was the wrong color. I am a Black person. And I will let you know that Black people should not be gray. And that is not the color for us naturally. My husband and I thought maybe our son needed fluids. Because like a young person, he had a cough and kept swallowing the phlegm. We're like, "Hmm, we think you just need a little fluids. And I'll just take you to the hospital for what I thought would be a short visit." And then the nurses came in and took his vitals. And then more doctors came in.

And then they moved his bed closer to the triage center. And then they told me he was not getting enough oxygen. And they told me the fix wasn't working. And then the fix they have tried caused his heart to be below stroke level. So he had to recover at that. And my son looked at me frightened. And I couldn't even let him know, I was there other than with my voice. And I couldn't even be too loud because they were working on my son. They were there. And all he wanted was the presence of his mother. I couldn't be there; I couldn't get close enough to let him know I was still there. I later sat in the pediatric ICU after the ambulance transferred us, and I watched my son trying to sleep. And I grabbed my cell phone because I knew at that point my husband and I needed help. We need the presence of others to juggle our other children and our pet and our life. We couldn't do it alone. So I took a picture of my son. And on the book of faces, I posted a message that said, "We need help." And I pressed Enter and my phone died.

At that time, I don't know if my message made it but all I knew was I tried. I woke up from passing out because I wouldn't call what happens at a hospital, sleeping. And a nurse said, "Do you need some assistance?" And I'm like, "I need a phone charger." She laughed and she's like, "What you got, iPhone, Samsung? I got them all." So I plugged it in. And ping, "Hey, I'll be driving T tonight to take on uncle duties, my brother." Ping, "Hey, when will you bring those other 3 kids so my buddy can have his mom and dad, my Air Force best friend?" Ping, "Stephanie, don't worry about work. We're praying for your son. Let me know how to help." The general I worked for, "Hey, girl, I'm downstairs because I think I guessed the right hospital from your picture and I need them, to you to tell them I'm your sister so I can come upstairs." It was a message from my sorority sister because she had, thankfully, guessed the right hospital and came into that room at 5 in the morning with a sweater for me, a magazine for my son, and a smutty romance novel because she said "This kind of book requires no thought, can be dropped in a minute, make you laugh at the odd predicaments, but lets you be physically here present with your son."

She showed me what it meant to be fully vested in present. Thankfully, a few days later, we moved to a regular hospital room and another one of my friends came to check on us. And she leaned back and listened to my philosophy of that quality versus quantity of time, I spoke about at the beginning. And she knew that sometimes quality can be bad. It's bad when that person is not present. And it's bad when the full presence of that individual is not with the individuals they're trying to give it to. And so you should make time to spend good and fulfilling presence with others. That is when I had my epiphany. I'd spent so long to find presence by physically being present when I really needed to think about how I gave deliberate presence to my family as I had to my work. How was I being fully present? So I made the choice to change.

Keep in mind, I'm still a charger. I still love being in the thick of things. But I learned to better rhythm my life, to take time to find quiet spaces for my mind, to give full presence back to my family and myself. I learned to have business hours and respect them. And I'm more comfortable with the fact that "no" is a sentence that requires no explanation. Presence is the present I can give to my family too. They deserve it. Leaders, listeners, work hard to be deliberately present and make space for those you love just as you make space for those you lead. Remember, your presence is a present. And those you love deserve that gift too.

Host: Great job, Stephanie. Great job. I've got a question for you. As your responsibilities in the military continue to grow and the demands of your organization require more of your time, how have you used the lessons you discussed to prepare for your future in giving the presence to all those who demand it? 

Wilson: One of the things that I learned recently was this thing called a Dutch door leadership concept. You know how we talk about, "I have an open door, anyone can come in and talk to the commander or the leader," "Yeah, not so much." That's a time suck. So instead, I have more of a Dutch door. Well, I will meet someone kind of there and say, "Have you used the leaders that are in place from me all the way to you?" And then if not, I ask for the opportunity for those individuals to grow in their leadership and to provide mentoring before they come to me, unless it's something that only the commander or only that person in my position can handle. For my family, as the kids have gotten bigger, one of the things that we've worked hard on is we have a family email account and calendar. And that really kind of takes a lot of pressure off of one person keeping everything in their mind. And they can see it, they can add to it, they can see the white space in it. And I work very hard to make sure there's white space. And my kids even notice they know the thing.

So I offer presence by restricting access at certain times, both personally and professionally, which has helped my mental and physical life get a lot better.

Host: Stephanie, leadership's getting more challenging as we balance retaining talent and getting the mission done, what are your thoughts for achieving both of these priorities? 

Wilson: So we have that quote that we use a great deal about, and it depends on how you feel. Mission first, people always. People first, mission always. It really kind of depends on your focus. To me, I truly believe that nothing can be accomplished without healthy people. And healthy people requires them to be physically and mentally sound. The only way they're going to do that is if they see their leadership doing the same. And so I have to work really hard to make sure that we understand our roles that we need to accomplish. We also give when we need to give, and then we flex when we need to flex. I work my hardest not to make the work we do harder than it needs to be. So things like when we have unit PT, I took advantage of the fact that the youth center and daycare centers open at a certain time. Well, then why would I schedule fitness to open before our families could drop off their kiddos? That's just adding a stress that doesn't need to happen. I make sure that on calendars, I understand the school calendars of the local communities around me. They're on my commander's leadership calendar.

That way, when an exercise comes up and it looks like it's around the 1st day of school, [chuckle] like it has happened in the past, or it's near a major holiday, that you take those kinds of things into account when looking at things for individuals. And it's not just those that have families nearby, but also our single and geographically separated individuals, that they are offered the same amount of leniency, of flexibility that those that have little people at home or are taking care of older family members. For myself, I try to model that and work really, really hard to balance both work and home, knowing we all serve a boss, knowing that I joined the service and serve 24 hours, 7 days a week. But that does not necessarily mean I have to be staring at someone 24 hours, 7 days a week. And I keep those reminders up and around my home because I need those physical reminders to keep me balanced. Thank you.


Lt Col Nicholas Feranec
Lt Col Feranc is assigned to the Air War College, Air University, Maxwell AFB, AL. He received his commission as an acquisitions officer in 2002 from the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) at Saint Louis University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering management. Lt Col Feranec has served in various program management, test, and engineering roles across multiple space, ISR, aircraft, foreign military sales, and other classified acquisitions programs in his twenty-year career. He has also held multiple staff jobs at the Wing, Center (NAF-equivalent), and HAF levels. He served as a security cooperation officer in the United States Embassy in Canberra, Australia, where he was responsible for foreign military sales and other military cooperation and security assistance activities with the Australian Defence Force. Lt Col Feranec holds a master’s degree in business administration from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA and a master’s degree in defense and strategic studies from The Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. 

Lieutenant Colonel Wilson
Lt Col Wilson is an Air Force Officer and assigned as a student to the Air War College, Air University, Montgomery, Alabama. She is currently the Academic Year 2022 Class President. A career Missile Maintenance and Munitions Officer with over 20 years’ experience, Lt Col Wilson has served in multiple key command and education positions. She was previously an instructor at the Leader Development Center at Air University helping new squadron leadership teams learn how to thrive in command. Lt Col Wilson was the 90th Missile Maintenance Squadron Commander and the 90th Munitions Squadron Commander at Francis E. Warren Air Force Base (AFB), WY, leading over 350 maintenance airmen between the two command assignments. She completed Intermediate Developmental Education as an Air Force National Laboratory Technical Fellow at Sandia National Labs, Kirtland AFB, NM, and served two assignments in the Pentagon, first as the Chief of Weapons Safety Issues, Safety Office and, second, as the Deputy Division Chief for Strategic Plans and Policies in the Directorate for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration. Furthermore, Lt Col Wilson’s operational experience as a missile maintenance and munitions officer supported Defense Threat Reduction Agency Inspections at Voltkinsk, Russia, and downrange forces during her deployment controlling intra-theater munitions movements at HQ CENTCOM. Lt Col Wilson is a graduate of Clemson University (2001, B.S. Biological Science); Embry- Riddle University (2004, MAS, Human Factors in Aerospace); and the University of the Rockies (2017, PsyD, Organizational Leadership).  Col. Wilson is currently Director of Staff for Air University

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