HomeNewsArticle Display

Women’s Leadership Symposium

I am really happy to be with you here today, it’s important to me…so much so that when I got the invitation, I was supposed to be out of town, and I asked my exec to replan the travel. We woke up in North Dakota this morning in Grand Forks. I know there’s some people here from Minot, anybody here from Grand Forks? Awesome. So we woke up in Grand Forks this morning but we flew back so that we could be here today and have a chance to visit with you.

I strongly believe it’s important to discuss and address the barriers that prevent women from reaching leadership positions in the Air Force. I want to talk about it any chance we can…they’re not going to get fixed by ignoring them…so I’m happy to be here to talk with you.

I knew I wanted to be here, but I struggled a little bit by exactly what I wanted to say. And my CAG [commanders action group] and speechwriters did several versions of it with me trying to find exactly what. Went through several drafts trying to find the right message, being really conscious of not wanting to stand up here and kind of mansplain things. (Laughter). And I want you to know that I approach it with the same humility and the same love that I feel toward my wife and my daughter who’ve been big influences on my life.

And all the women that I have served with, and I don’t mind using the “L” word when I talk about Airmen and I include you in that. So thank you for having me here today and I look forward to talking to you for a few minutes and then I’ll look forward to having a discussion with you.

Now, if you’ll humor me for a moment, one of the guys that I’ve been mentored by and taught by is one of my predecessors in this job, General Hal Hornburg. I got a chance to visit with about seven of the former COMACCs [commander, Air Combat Command] before I came into the job, and one of them is General Hornburg. I had a bunch of his notes and things and this is an example that he used. He really likes talking about diversity. He came into the Air Force post-Vietnam when the Air Force was just about torn apart with racial incidents coming out of Vietnam. And he felt like it was really his responsibility to help heal that. So he would do this exercise. So if you will, play along with me. I modified it a little bit.

Everybody in the room raise your hand. So if you consider yourself white or Caucasian, keep your hand up. If you grew up on a dairy farm, keep your hand up. (Laughter) See that didn’t take long. If that dairy farm was south of the Mason Dixon line, keep your hand up. OK, so I’ve already ran out of questions. I’ve got five questions, but what happened was, it only took about three questions to where I was the only person in the room just like me. We could pick some other ones and you could work through it, but the point is, we’re all unique. We all come from different places to find ourselves in the Air Force. We have different Moms and Dads, different educational experiences, different life experiences. One of the things I really like about being in the Air Force is, just that. Again, growing up on a dairy farm in east Tennessee, fairly sheltered life, my first airplane ride was after I graduated from high school. Being in the Air Force has meant I got to see the world, but more than that, I got to serve with Americans from all over the country that had different experiences than me and to learn and grow from that.

So General Hornburg uses this exercise to say, “Hey, you know diversity is important. That’s what makes us an Air Force, that’s what brings all the different skill sets and ideas that we bring.” And it’s not something to fear, it’s something we should embrace as an Air Force, and count as one of the sources of our strength.

Yesterday Chief Batten and I toured a med group at a medical treatment facility. How many people in here work in med groups or medical treatment facilities? Some. It was probably the best med group I’ve been in, as much as you can tell from a 30-minute tour, but here’s why I thought it was. When we walked in the building, our tour was led by a tech sergeant who’d been empowered by his leadership to be our guide and take us around the squadron. Every place we went they had an officer or NCO that talked about that particular section in the hospital and what the challenges and successes were there. They talked to me about the way they decided what their priorities should be every day. They have a status board, just a white board, not a computer, not a PowerPoint slide, that talks about how many people are deploying this month. Kind of lays out what the challenges are for the hospital, they update it with erasable marker, and they gather around that board every morning and have a standup to set their daily schedule. They conduct patient follow ups, where the leadership of the hospital, once a month, meets a patient at the door when they come in and goes around with them throughout the hospital to see how the treatment is, to see how long it takes, to see what happens and to see where the bottlenecks are. And all the practitioners in that hospital, whether they are in leadership positions or whether they are primary providers, also do time as providers. So it’s a pretty cool med group. I also noticed when I walked in, that the entire leadership of that med group were women. So from the med group commander and the chief, and the two squadron commanders, were all women. And we’ll come back to that, because I think there is a correlation there as we walk through.

OK, like many military people, my cultural heritage is Scotch-Irish. And what that means is, the people that I’m descended from came over to the United States, most of them around the time of the potato famine in Ireland. Somewhere Irish that had lived in Ireland, Catholics. Some were from protestant backgrounds where the English forced migrated into Ireland to try to take it over by moving farmers in there. And then they made their way to the United States and they settled in the areas where nobody else really wanted. Mostly coming down the Appalachian Mountains, and being around those mountains. They lived up in the hills, they practiced their own strength, religion, like Presbyterianism, instead of Episcopalians who were down in the low ground. And they kind of allowed them to live up there as long as they would fight Indians and make that happen up there and not down in the low ground. They kind of developed their own culture, it was based on personal courage and leadership, close family ties and a homogenous group. One of the former Secretaries of the Navy, a guy named Jim Webb, is of Scotch-Irish heritage, and he wrote a book about it called Born Fighting. And he says the

U.S. military kind of took its culture from the Scotch-Irish people because they came down from the mountains to go fight the wars, when it was time to go fight the wars. And that means our military culture, particularly in line units, like infantry units, fighting units were built on some of those sayings. A leader is supposed to show personal courage, supposed to know the people individually, and supposed to be really close knit ties. And the other things he said about those people, my people, is although they come from close families, they are willing to take people in, people that are different. I’m an

East Tennessean, the racial balance in east Tennessee is probably something like 95 to 98 percent Caucasian, some places less than that. And people in east Tennessee are fairly welcoming to people that are different.

But there’s a catch, the catch is as long as you kind of act like us. We don’t care if you’re black or white or Asian, or where you came from, as long as you kind of act like us. And in a lot of ways, I think the Air Force is like that, and we’ll talk about what that means for diversity.

We welcome people from different backgrounds, different sexes, genders, from different racial backgrounds. But along the way, we kind of filtered it with practice, experience and with education, to where as you rise up the ranks, we reward people that start to move toward having the same perspective and same views. So that by the time you get to the general officer corps, which is almost completely white male, but not completely, the people who are white male, have already been taught and selected to have the same viewpoint on life, the same approaches, talk the same.

Chief Batten and I were talking outside, Chief Batten was raised in Cape Cod, he’s a Boston Red Sox fan and should have that kind of accent, but because he moved around in the military and to listen to him talk he sounds a little bit like me now, because he’s adopted some of that culture that comes with being in the Air Force. So we’ll come back to that.

So what does it mean, our highest ranks are probably the least diverse group in the Air Force. What does that mean for people from other regions that are forced into that culture that we started with, started with for men, for white men? What does that mean for people of a different racial background or people of a different gender? When I was at Air Command and Staff College, I went to Air Command and Staff College in the daytime and did a Master’s degree at night. Our group was pretty diverse from the different services, and there was a Navy pilot in that class, a helicopter pilot, and I remember one night we were talking. So we were in Montgomery, Alabama, and we were talking about racial integration in the military, and we got to a point in the discussion, and my Navy pilot friend said, you know there are places in Montgomery that I’m still not comfortable going to. And at that point I realized that to him, to me, the otherness that he presented to me was that he was a Navy pilot, he was also African-American. That otherness didn’t really come home to me until he said that. Then I said, oh, yeah, but to me you’re a Navy pilot, but you’re also an African-American Navy pilot living in Montgomery. So I recognize the stress that puts on all of us.

So why do we care that our senior ranks don’t match the demographics of our enlisted force or the Air Force as a whole, or of the country? My experience as a squadron commander, as a group commander, as a wing commander twice, as the Air Combat Commander says, is that people like to see someone like them in leadership roles. They like to think, if not necessarily I want to grow up to be that person, but they like to think that there is somebody up there that can see the world like they do, can see them as they are, can think about it.

And I’ll tell you a story from my day as a wing commander. When I had anybody get a DUI, they had to report to the wing commander’s office. You guys know how this goes, you try to create disincentives for people not to do things and one of the things people come up with is if you do X you have to go see the wing commander. So one day I had a young man come in, and he came in really confidently, really strutting into my office. Now he was an African-American Airman and I perceived that as a lack of respect or a lack of seriousness for the problem. You know and I yelled at him and told him to go back outside and let the Chief tell him how to report in to see the wing commander, and come back in and we would talk about it. Last year I read the book, Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, I don’t know I any of you know that book, and one of the things I learned from that book is that young man had learned to survive in the neighborhood that he came from, to show confidence, to show strength at all times and not back down from anything. So I approached him from my context, instead of from his context, because I didn’t understand it. Because I didn’t know what he was communicating to me when he came in here.

So people like to know that there is somebody that will understand them. And diversity necessitates that its leaders still bring all those Airmen into our team. So what do you do and how do you do it?

Here’s another General Hornburg story. General Hornburg was the commander of Air Education and Training Command, before he was the commander of Air Combat Command. He had a young African American Airman ask him at an all-call, “Sir, where are the black role models?” Gen Hornburg says, you know his first thought was that he had just replaced a great one in General Lloyd “Fig” Newton, who was the AETC commander before him. Others that came to his mind were Lieutenant General Hopper, who was his Vice Commander, and Lieutenant General Danny James, who was his roommate from Vietnam. The more he thought about it, the more he found himself short of names. And he started thinking about the essence of the question, so he called a man he had met at training session named Darren McDew, you guys probably know General McDew, the AMC commander, he’s now the TRANSCOM commander. And he asked General McDew that question and General McDew, without pause, said, “The next time someone asks you where the role models are for African Americans, you say, ‘you’re looking at one.’”

The point being that it’s up to all of us as leaders to be able to reach out and to be able to mentor across those boundaries, across those borders. So don’t fear diversity. Don’t fear reaching out, mentoring and teaching people that are different than you are, practice it. It’s kind of scary at first, like any other thing we do, but the more you practice it, the easier it gets.

I’ve been shaped by several great women in my life. I can talk about my mom and the way the times changed. My mom was the number one student in her high school class of about 25, she didn’t go to college because my dad wanted to. And she worked and sacrificed so my dad could go to college and make a home for us and so my brother and I could go to college. We talked about that some, and I had no idea about that when I was a young man growing up and the sacrifices she had made. My wife is a formidable woman, she’s a writer, and she writes kids novels for twelve year olds. She’s got two out there and a third one being written. She’s a Fi Beta Kappa graduate of William & Mary. Very capable woman. I could not have done what I’ve done in the Air Force without the sacrifices she made. We all approach that in our own way, but it’s true, that I couldn’t have. I have a daughter, Rebecca.

(personal information deleted) When Rebecca was born, six months before Desert Storm, probably the thing that changed my life more than anything else was holding that little girl. Watching her talents and thinking that there were people who wanted to limit what she could do because her chromosomes were different from mine, and for no other reason.

Beyond that in the Air Force, I joined the Air Force in the Stone Age, in 1981, there were no women flying, there were no women in fighter squadrons. Why? I had some role models there. Some women intel officers, that came into fighter squadrons and carved out a place for women in the daily business that we did, without being flyers. As an ops officer, the first female F-15 pilot at Langley came into my squadron, Kathy. Another followed her, Samantha Weeks, and went on to be a Thunderbird and is the group commander at Nellis now in the Adversary Training Group. I was a pilot training group commander and now for the first time I had large numbers of women that flew and dealt with the issues that go with that. With family issues, with taking time to have a baby, with working those things into a career. At one point my wing scheduling shop at Columbus had four pregnant instructor pilots in it. It’s a great place, I’d go check on them, except occasionally I’d poke my head in there and say not today. (laughter) I went from there to Seymour-Johnson where women made their inroads into the navigator force probably faster than any of the pilot force includes some tremendous women. Flew combat with those tremendous women in my back seat on occasion and dealt with some really super squadron commanders here for the first time, one of which is sitting in the room here with us.

So, I’ve been changed because of that exposure and because of that experience. And I’ll tell you one story about one of those women in particular. I came to the F-15E, and there’s a small difference here but it’s important, I flew the F-15C, an air-to-air airplane in some culture, and I came as the wing commander to Seymour with the other airplane. My assigned instructor pilot to teach me the new airplane, was a young woman named Katie. She attended the Air Force Academy, she flew the F-15C and she had moved over to the F-15E, so they figured she could explain it to the colonel. She could explain the differences to him and walk him through. She was a phenomenal instructor pilot, an exceptional fighter pilot and a superb flight commander. She was just as at home being a flight commander as a woman and bringing flowers to people who had birthdays, and cakes and celebrating babies, as she was being in the flight room with chalk all over her hands and spit coming out the side of her mouth, when we told her she turned into Combat Katie when she got around the airplane. And she was equally at home in both of those worlds. She made a tough decision that many women have to face, about what you are going to do now, when it’s time to decide between your family and a career. And Katie determined it was time to leave the Air Force.

I went to her going away party, she meant a lot to me. In her speech Katie said, I’ve thought about this and I’ve decided that the secret to life is being able to be fearlessly yourself. Be fearlessly yourself in the environment that you are in.

And that’s what I want to talk about for the rest of this talk. So when Katie got out of the Air Force, we lost a great leader. I would’ve liked to have figured out a way to keep her. I asked her, Hey if I badger you for six months will that make a difference? She said, no, no sir it really wouldn’t. OK, I’ll skip all that, we won’t do that. She’s a tremendous wife, mom, still a leader, she raises money and builds apartments for homeless veterans in the area where they live. I think she’ll probably be Congresswoman Katie at some point in her life.

So we kept her in the nation, but could we have done more to keep her in the Air Force?

What can we do when you face that decision, to help you make that decision and to find a way so we can keep you if you want to stay and grow up to be a senior leader in the Air Force? You can’t ignore it, it happens and the decisions that people have to make. Kathy, our first F-15 pilot, we were able to work and get her into the Air Force Intern Program, away from flying. She could use that time to have a baby and start building her family and then still return to fly. She returned to flying but ultimately she made the same decision Katie did and left and moved on.

So we’ve come a long way in removing those barriers, but there is certainly much more that can be done.

Go back to that Med Group, it was different, and I’m still thinking about what made it different. I think maybe it was that leadership change that was willing to be fearlessly themselves and approach the problems of that med group in a unique way that they brought to it, and work out solutions.

And what I want to leave you with is, I don’t want to make you all turn out to be me. I don’t want the price to joining the Air Force senior leader ranks to be becoming like everybody else.

I want you to be fearlessly yourself, as you grow up in the Air Force and I want you to help us become an Air Force where being fearlessly yourself doesn’t shut off the opportunities for you. And help change us into being the place that can accept that.

So mentor and lead all your Airmen as you find them, men, women, all the different groups that we bring to the Air Force. As you step forward, be fearlessly yourself and help us make that world that we want to get to a reality.

Thank you for your time and thanks for letting me come join you.