Command Chief Knocks Leadership Message Out of the Park


Chief Roger Towberman is one of the more well-regarded of the Air Force’s senior enlisted advisors. There are good reasons for that. As I wrote last year when he tackled the subject of the “Whole Person Concept” in a particularly impressive way, Towberman has a great sense of humor and a notable allergy to nonsense.

But maybe the more powerful and persistent reason for his popularity among airmen is the thoughtfulness with which he pulls apart, discusses, and presents complex ideas relevant to the development of his people. I came across another such example today, and believe it’s quite worthy of sharing.

In the message below, attributed to Chief Towberman and posted on social media, note how he skillfully employs the occasion of reflecting on the loss of a popular culture icon to reach into the minds of his NCOs and deliver a key message about cross-generational leadership.

This week we said goodbye to a music and pop icon and like many of you, I’ve been listening to a lot of David Bowie the last couple days. Since I believe you can find leadership lessons wherever you look, I’d like to share with you one of my favorite Bowie lyrics and how I think it applies to taking care of our Airmen and the mission they love.

From the song “Changes,” here’s one of the best lines in all of rock and roll: “These children that you spit on, as they try to change their worlds, are immune to your consultation; they’re quite aware of what they’re going through.”

When the song was released in 1971, Rolling Stone said it could be “construed as a young man’s attempt to reckon how he’ll react when it’s his time to be on the maligned side of the generation schism.” I have always felt the song, and this one line in particular, had something very meaningful to say about “generation schisms.”

If you judge a younger generation for trying to change their world, they’re not going to listen to you. That statement was true in 1971 and it’s true today. We currently have a generation schism in our Air Force as many of our SNCOs and flight-level leaders are proud members of “Generation X,” while nearly all of the Airmen they’ve been tasked to lead are equally proud members of “Generation Y”. These generations are very different and it’s challenging at times for them to understand each other.

To be sure, we’ve all seen evidence of this. Y wants to “collaborate,” but X sees it as “hand holding.” Y wants to see how they “fit in.” X wants to know why it’s so hard to “just do it and be done with it.” You all know examples and you may have very strong opinions about which side is right, but rather than an X vs. Y discussion, I’d like to reflect on Bowie’s words.

The fastest way to make your Airmen “immune to your consultation” is to criticize their efforts to change the world around them. Every idea won’t be a good one, but listening to those ideas with an open mind and providing constructive, meaningful feedback, with a true intent to “get to yes,” will strengthen your team and better our Air Force. Keep in mind that for the first time since the 1960s, we have more Americans in their 20s than any other decade. Those numbers make them strong and give them courage to walk away (after all, they’ve got 42 million friends who have their backs).

If our great Airmen see our Air Force as a place their passion and good ideas go to die, They.Will.Leave. I promise you, “they’re quite aware of what they’re going through,” and they are not only capable, but also motivated to change their world.

Listen, coach and help them through those changes. Your Airmen and our mission will be better for it … and somewhere Ziggy Stardust will be smiling!

Leadership isn’t easy, even if some folks make it seem that way. Of course, it’s also not “rocket surgery,” even if too many contemporary Air Force leaders make it look that way.

In its high form, leadership is mostly about effective communication that gets beyond simple preaching and actually reasons with them. This respects the audience’s intellect and engenders their respect … which begins to influence and persuade. This is dramatically distinct from directing people what to think or believe and using rank or authority as a cudgel to beat it into them.

Towberman obviously gets that. He knocked this one out of the park. Older generations bitching about the habits of young people … it’s not only useless, but alienating and ultimately ineffective. Every generation believes it is more intelligent and committed than the next, and every generation is wrong about that. Towberman breaks from this counter-productive but predominating mentality and gives his SNCOs a different — and much more constructive — way to think about the phenomenon. He wisely chooses a device that will resonate with many of them, which will help his message stick. Every time a SNCO listens to a Bowie tune, s/he might reflect back on this message. It’s a genius tactic.

To the extent Towberman is able to get airmen within his sphere of influence to not only listen but emulate his approach as they influence others — and to the extent the Air Force’s general officer laggards can secure the resources for airmen to act on the impulses the Chief is impressively cultivating — this provides a rare glimmer of optimism juxtaposed against an otherwise grim service backdrop.

Most amusing: this Chief just took the Public Affairs community to school on how to effectively incorporate music into a leadership message. Hope they’re taking notes.

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