Leadership about opportunity and desire

By 1st Lt. Jason Christie | AFMAO Port Mortuary operations officer | Nov. 22, 2013

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — As I watched my Pittsburgh Pirates have an amazing season this year, I came across an article about their manager, Clint Hurdle. Each day, Hurdle sends out an email with a thought of the day to a list of around 1,000 people that's still growing. He signs them, "Make a difference today. Love, Clint." I couldn't help but think of how that simple phrase, "make a difference today" can mean so very much to everyone in our Air Force family. I don't intend for this to be a leadership lesson or to recite principles that everyone in today's Air Force can recite from memory, but instead illustrate how every day, leaders in the Air Force can and do help Airmen in need and answer Hurdle's call to make a difference.

I've long thought it takes two things to be a leader, opportunity and desire. Both need to be present for leadership to emerge. An individual can have all the desire in the world to lead, but without an opportunity, unfortunately that desire may go idle. By that same token, without desire, that same individual may just watch the opportunity pass them by.
Six years ago, I received support from a small group of Air Force leaders who, to my great blessing, saw the opportunity and had the desire.

In March 2007, I received the news that my 6-week-old son was diagnosed with cancer. At work on the morning of his initial diagnosis, I was confident I knew what was coming based on some discussions with my father, a physician's assistant. Though I may have thought I knew what to expect, I am not ashamed to admit in the hour before the appointment, I isolated myself and sat in the dark underneath the desk in my classroom wondering what this meant for my son and my family.

At the base clinic, I met the first individuals who shaped my view on life and leadership. First was the ophthalmologist who had come to work expecting a normal day and had to give us the horrible news. By his side was his nurse, both of them struggling for words and apologizing because as eye-care providers, they'd never had to do something like this. They comforted us, all the while lacking comfort themselves and offered what support they could. Next was the staff sergeant who worked in medical administration who cut the first of our many travel orders to the specialist four hours away and helped us navigate the TRICARE system. To this day, I'm indebted to her for her help and ability to talk me through anything.

At the first appointment with the specialist, I learned the treatment may take years and would involve monthly trips to the specialist and twice a week local appointments. During this week-long medical whirlwind, in the back of my mind anxiety about work ate away at me. Would I miss doctor appointments so I could be at work? Would I be able to be with my son at the hospital? After the appointment I went back to my unit, a training detachment of 19 NCO's, and broke the news to my Detachment Chief. He brought everyone in and there was never any hesitation when they said, "Take care of your family. We'll take care of work." They had the desire and took the opportunity to be my wingmen and leaders and I'll be forever grateful.

It took my son more than two years to be cancer-free and while the effects will be with him for the rest of his life, the love, compassion and efforts of my Air Force family who helped me care for him will remain with me forever. I'm sure we've all heard the stories out there of those leaders who care at first, but soon grow weary when it takes too long or involves too much effort. What we fail to do as an Air Force is tell the stories of Airmen leaders like the ones I encountered, who on a daily basis gave me a shoulder to cry on, lightened my load at work and gave me a laugh when I needed it.

I was the beneficiary of some extraordinary leadership and I endeavor to pay it forward each day. Being a leader isn't about what you wear on your collar or on your sleeve. Being a leader isn't about getting up in front of people and speaking or about emails, taskers and metrics. Being a leader is about taking care of your fellow Airmen and in its simplest form, all it takes is the desire to seize an opportunity. Being a leader means, as Clint Hurdle would say, making a difference today.