The world got a little tougher this week. It lost one of its best souls, Colonel Aaron “Chewy” Burgstein. He fought valiantly against a disease that tried unsuccessfully to define him. While it raged, he ignored it, running marathons, commanding organizations, and building his friends, colleagues, and teammates into an army of optimism. With this army behind him, he battled and survived far longer than science predicted. But eventually, he had to carry the fight to the other side, where he undoubtedly met whatever awaited him with a smile and a handshake.
Chewy was an Air Force public affairs officer. He spent his adult life serving his country, a veteran of the most turbulent security environment in modern American history. He served in an Air Force that was on war footing from his first day in it to his last.
He was an expert in his field. He knew how to communicate and how to advise others in doing so. He crafted messages impacting nations, alliances, wars, and diplomacy. He knew how to highlight the right things in the right ways to inspire and uplift any audience. He understood the value of truth, and managed to safeguard his integrity while relating difficult truths to others. He also insisted that the message was the most important part of the job, and that the messenger’s job was to yield center stage to the ideas themselves.
Aaron was a commander like no other. He didn’t celebrate with his people. He celebrated his people. Every day, he made them the objects of his efforts. He took pains to know them and to develop each of them. He humanely escorted some to other walks of life while unleashing in many others the latent passion for a life of continuing service. He had a way of bringing out the best in people. Of helping them find their personal balance. He had a way of making himself and his own interests invisible to those he served. This is what we mean by selflessness.
Of course, Chewy was also so much more. He was a peerless father and husband, a dear friend to all who were lucky enough to know him, and a counselor and strategist of the first order. He always had a book in his hand. He didn’t just consume ideas. He wrestled with them and probed them. We were classmates at the Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. We would stand at the doors of our adjacent study carrels and debate the lessons of the Sicilian Expedition, the rise and fall of the Luftwaffe, and whether cyber should be defined as its own domain. He had a way of arguing without being antagonistic. He was always a fencer, never a slasher. He was upbeat about academic disagreements. He saw them as signals of healthy debate.
Of course, we also argued about more important things. Like the role of airpower in the destruction of the Death Star, and whether wookies should be considered more adept at amphibious landings than Marines (Aaron joked with our classmate, Marine Maj. Nate Huntington, about whether there was a difference between wookies and Marines). These were questions even Obi Wan couldn’t answer, but we batted them around like they were serious issues, keeping the banter going until someone relented.
Chewy’s love of Star Wars gave him his nickname, but it was also central to his worldview and interpersonal style. He believed in making things interesting and lively. “When in doubt, adventure.” Most of all, he believed in making things funny, most often by poking fun at himself and his passion for stories about heroes and villains battling one another a long time ago, in a galaxy far away.
The common thread running through Aaron’s many roles was leadership. He took it as a personal duty – irrespective of rank or position – to get leadership right. His reason was simple: when machines fail, we can replace or adjust the machine and adapt. When leaders fail, people don’t know how to react in the heat of battle, and we lose, potentially with grave human consequences. He was an astute enough student history to know his logic was sound.
He thought about the subject of leadership incessantly. He talked about it ceaselessly. As fellow squadron commanders at Charleston, we would trade emails about the situations we faced. He always had insights that were well beyond me, but he never took notice of his own wisdom. He just kept testing himself and searching for new answers, techniques, and approaches. He wrote and published articles. He did all of this for its own sake rather than for any sort of validation. He was intrinsically committed.
In the course of knowing Chewy, I saw things in him that I decided to put in my own repertoire. Things worth emulating, or at least trying to incorporate in my own approach to leadership. I never quite got them right in the ways he did, but I was much better off having tried. Chewy believed in sharing ideas. I can’t think of a better way to honor him than to share some of what he taught me. Here are a few of his lessons.
Believe in People. Leading isn’t about rank or position. It’s about inspiring and elevating the human spirit. You inspire not by managing things, but by leading people. You have to genuinely care about not just the mission, but the men and women who perform it. Aaron believed the best way to both cultivate and demonstrate this principle was to spend time with people – to be an involved and emotionally available boss and teammate.
“The most important thing a leader can do for his or her Airmen is to give them time. Time to get to know them, their goals, their motivation and their challenges. They take the time to talk to their Airmen about their future. They take the time to help their Airmen when they are in need. A good leader makes the Airmen their top priority. When you talk to that Airman across from you, be sure that they know that their issues are one of your top priorities.”
In other words, the popular image of the hard-nosed, tough-talking leader is not the style Aaron adopted. Instead, he listened. He connected. He chose patience over petulance and gentleness over power at every turn. He constantly watched the work environment to measure how much people wanted to be there. He considered that a strong indication of their commitment level, which he saw as a mirror of his own leadership. His track record proves that leaders can extract better performance with a human touch than through direction and control.
Start with the facts, and if possible, end there. Aaron always said that the facts of a situation are usually enough. When we focus on the facts, they usually light the way, allowing us to save the heavy analysis for when it matters most. This was his way of keeping things as simple as he could for himself, his troops, and his audiences. I remember asking him for advice once concerning a disciplinary issue in my squadron. I explained it to him at length and in detail. He said “OK, now leave out all the descriptive language and just recite the facts.” When I did so, the way forward was obvious. Sometimes, Chewy was Yoda.
Stay Positive. I’ve never met a more optimistic person. Talk to the people who knew and worked with him and you’ll hear the same thing again and again. Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) was Aaron’s trademark, and he believed in it. He wouldn’t abide negativity, and constantly sought to find and convert it. He never fell into the trap of saying “if you don’t do this or say that or believe in this, you’re in the wrong line of work.” He always formulated ideas positively. He believed it was contagious, and that optimism could actually enhance productivity while steeling people against the pressures of the work environment. PMA was Aaron’s version of “The Force,” a unique and powerful thing capable of overpowering adversaries when effectively harnessed. He used The Force for good, and taught many others to do the same.
Stay Healthy. Fighting with a chronic health issue has a way of building perspective, and Aaron let that perspective register. He knew he couldn’t take care of anyone else if he didn’t first take care of himself. He saw it as a duty. He ran all the time while refusing to take credit by classifying himself “a runner.” Nonetheless, he was indeed an avid distance runner who scarcely let a day go by without piling up mileage.
I bumped into him just before the Cooper River Bridge Run a few years ago. We chatted and talked about the race as the sun came up. Once the gun went off, he got into his zone and zipped away, leaving me in the dust for the entire 10k. So much for him not being a “runner.” I spent the next year trying to improve my time, inspired by his commitment to staying in shape as he worked through the array of challenges cancer had left on his doorstep. As far as I could see, he’d politely stepped over those challenges and focused on what he could control. In doing so, he won the ultimate victory. He refused to mope or wallow. He just kept moving.
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That’s leadership, isn’t it? It’s about keeping your eyes forward and inspiring others to move forward with you. It’s about focusing on where you’re going rather than coming up with reasons not to go there. It’s about looking back enough to navigate forward, and not much more. It’s about paying attention to the road ahead, and running toward the obstacles that await rather than sitting down and hoping in vain that you’ll never need to confront them. Aaron was a running metaphor of these ideas. His example will continue its steady jog, personified by the scores of people he influenced, the leaders he created, and the PMA he cultivated far and wide.
Aaron once wrote that leadership is “not rocket science. It’s harder.” He was commenting on the fact that leaders don’t have handy rules that guide them in every situation, and can’t expect the certainty provided by the laws of nature. They have to rely on judgment and intuition. Most of all, they have to know the people they’re leading. But even if he thought it was difficult, he made it look easy.
Aaron believed so passionately in the power of PMA — his version of “The Force” — that he marked every day by reciting three positives, and encouraged his friends to do the same. Here are my three for today:
- I knew Aaron Burgstein.
- I’m a better person for knowing him.
- Even though he’s gone, his example endures.
Here’s to a man and a leader who will never be replaced, but who will hopefully be mimicked for ages to come . . . and to using The Force for good.