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A matter of perspective

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --

One of my favorite quotations is “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you can.” It is attributed to John Wesley. However, there are many shorthand, modern derivatives passed along today: Be all you can. Bloom where you are planted. Make the most of every opportunity. After much use, these phrases may roll off the tongue with ease, but go unnoticed. Or, noted but not actively applied to life.  What does all that look like in action, anyway? 

While attending the recent Lieutenant Professional Development Program Leadership Panel, we were seated around the lunch table, and a participating chief asked me to share one of the best lessons I learned as an Air Force Company Grade Officer. I paused for a moment to reflect. I found myself recalling Wesley’s quotation in light of my very first assignment 21 years ago as an acquisition project manager, subsequently serving as the Deputy Chief of Protocol at the Electronic System Center at Hanscom Air Force Base. As a core acquisition officer, I had been “volunteered” and recoded as a protocol officer for the last year of my tour at Hanscom. My attitude about the change in vocation and the timing of that change was less than enthusiastic. But thankfully, by the end of that year, and for every year to follow, I would remember that protocol assignment as one of the absolute best years in the Air Force. At this new assignment, I would learn a fundamental lesson regarding the value of making the most of every opportunity, of serving selflessly and often times unnoticed, and in learning wherever and whenever learning was possible. And so, I shared with my lunch companions a short glimpse of my walk that year.

I remember the rain falling steadily on the oversized black golf umbrella I gripped and sheltered under at the Hanscom airfield. It was cold that day, and as I awaited the plane taxiing to the red carpet, I wondered how it was that I was making a contribution to anything meaningful, or better yet, learning anything useful. I was jammed into the duty of greeting distinguished visitors, filling drinks and snack trays during the refreshment periods, running errands, building itineraries and chasing other protocol projects. I needed a purpose. There had to be more than this.

And then the Center commander offered and encouraged the Commander’s action group and protocol officers working in support of his meetings the opportunity to observe the meetings and discussions from the briefing projection room. This was only allowed if our support for the events did not wane in the process. I accepted the offer, and began attentively listening to the meetings scheduled during my times of protocol support. What did I have to lose? I had to be there anyway. In so doing, I learned to serve quietly to enable the senior leaders to leverage their time.  I learned why the SES and general officers were visiting the base, what the major program issues were, where every program dollar was invested and which programs were in jeopardy. I also observed the senior leader interactions, critical thinking and risk management techniques, discussions and debate — all of which would shape how I would manage my own program schedule and resources many years later. The problems that were identified and worked out were interesting, but the understanding of base and program issues gained from the observations was priceless. 

It was not until I attended the Hanscom LPDP with my peers that I fully comprehended just how much I had absorbed during my protocol tenure. I gained a healthy appreciation for support functions and how our executive services team worked to support our leadership. I also knew every program on the base, where the money was going, why programs were funded as they were and what the vision was for the future of the Electronic System Center. How did I know so much? I was only a protocol officer, as many of my peers had commented and reminded me. I took advantage of any and every opportunity I could learn from and made the most of the time I was given during my last year at Hanscom.

I had been encouraged by the center commander to watch, listen and learn. And I did just that. What had initially been seen by me, my peers, and my previous program office personnel as a waste of time and energy proved to be a tremendous acquisition of perspective. Humbling to reflect on what I might have missed otherwise.

As we finished our lunch at the LPDP, I was encouraged to hear the participants discussing what each could do to make the most of the opportunities they have now. I am once again challenged to do likewise. My hope is you will as well.