This is an adaptation of some words I gave at the retirement ceremony of one of my favorite leaders, Chief Master Sergeant Jen Larson.
I met Chief Larson at a pretty difficult point in my career. I was fighting an Air Force assignment so I could stay with my family for the end of my daughter’s life. I had just come off of a few years fighting to improve a wing-level program, ultimately giving up due to too many barriers. I had just been ‘non-recommended’ for a mid-tour award and was getting used to watching my peers promote without me. To put it mildly, the Air Force and I weren’t feeling a lot of mutual trust, and I wasn’t particularly ready to put a whole lot more of myself mentally or emotionally into my work.
In spite of this fact, just a few months after Chief Larson arrived as our new unit superintendent, for some reason I found myself voluntarily attending this two-week joint NCO professional military education course at the National Defense University, where I engaged directly with senior enlisted leaders of every service and, as is my way, challenged the conventions of military culture. Chief Larson had somehow convinced me to pursue this opportunity, and then gave me the extra homework of writing about my experience, to be published by the public affairs office upon my return. My commute to class was two hours there and back every day. I drove for four hours per day to learn and challenge and be challenged, with extra homework from Chief on top of it. That doesn’t sound like something I would agree to if I wasn’t ready to put more of myself into my work. This week I dug through our email exchanges from this time period to try and piece together what kind of jedi mind trick she had pulled on me.
Chief Larson showed up at a really important, fragile and pivotal moment for me, and she played an important role in restoring my faith–not in the Air Force, but in people. Maybe this is the millennial in me talking, but I don’t think our faith is best placed in institutions. Institutions don’t hold values. Institutions don’t care. People do.
She got to know my family and what we were going through. She drove the hour-long commute to our house, parked her beautiful, hand-painted, psychedelic car in our driveway, sat at our table, met our dying daughter, and spent the afternoon with us.
There are a couple of things that make Chief Jen Larson immediately, apparently different from a vast majority of leaders in the Air Force. The first is that she is an openly gay woman. The second is that she is an artist, made apparent by the always-changing, brightly colorful, spray-painted artwork that covers the car she drives everywhere. It was immediately significant to me that by driving around her exuberantly hand-painted car and being openly herself in the face of some pretty incredible cultural barriers, she existed in a persistent state of openness, vulnerability, and availability for my brothers and sisters-in-arms who don’t quite fit the mold. Though I am a straight, white male, in a few ways I also don’t fit the mold, and having a leader like Chief Larson felt significant… and uplifting… and hopeful.
Not just for me… but also for the fellow Airmen who didn’t come out to me until after DADT was repealed… and our fellow brothers and sisters-in-arms still fighting today for their right to be themselves while serving their country.
In the interactions that afternoon at our house and in all the lengthy conversations when she would stop into my office just to chat, Chief Larson gave me reason to trust her personally. What really sets her apart from an unfortunate number of leaders throughout my career is that she never lost it.
I was thinking about what I wanted to say for Chief Larson’s retirement and managed to boil it down to a single tweet for the day:
She pushed me to share my writing more widely, beginning with my little rants about leadership and innovation, which I would sometimes send her in the body of an email, and she would share it with unit and Wing leadership and then tell me they had liked it.
So I’m over here like… ok they like that? I guess I’ll keep it up then…
This month it was just announced that I was accepted into the Military Writers Guild, and my first thought wasn’t how I’d made this happen through all my hard work. It was Chief Larson and the incredible favor she’d done for me by how she responded when I expressed myself despite how imperfect my message or how I was conveying it might be, because while most leaders thought the most helpful thing to do was try and set me straight… provide some form of critical feedback… she recognized that what I needed most right then was someone who had my back. I’m not saying I don’t appreciate editing tips, but what gave me the will, focus, and motivation to keep fighting and writing wasn’t nitpicking about my grammar and tone. It was someone else providing a spark, some fuel, and shelter from the wind when my flame was going out.
The bullets that make up our Enlisted Performance Reports are supposed to end with an impact, which often takes the form of hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars saved, enemies killed or captured, vast swaths of populations impacted in some abstract way though some “mission related” metric. I’d argue that EPRs and Awards fail to capture the more important impacts which only the greatest leaders have. Those are the compounding, growing, seed-planting and fire-starting impacts that they have on individuals, not on systems, programs, or entire populations. Chief Larson was one of those leaders for me.
The Air Force is losing such an incredibly bright and colorful light with the departure of Chief Jen Larson. But because she brought some extra fire and spray-paint, and passed it on to countless others, demonstrating how to lead without compromising the power of our uniqueness, she’s leaving it a hell of a lot brighter and more colorful than when she got here.