In the Arena

  • Published
  • By Col. Chris Worley
  • Air Force Technical Applications Center commander
As an Air Force, we are facing challenges and change. Whether driven by threats, transformative technologies, or constrained fiscal realities and shifts in theater strategy, our environment remains dynamic and ever evolving.

In fact, over the course of my 20-year career, I don't recall our military shouldering as much as we do now. How do we build the leadership needed to guide us through these and future challenges? I believe we should not be afraid to let our Airmen fail. Let me explain...

In my career I've witnessed terrorists' attack, wars waged, our personnel numbers grow and now shrink. I, along with my peers, seized every opportunity to study and develop leadership. As officers we believe the pursuit is imperative, only to realize along the way, rank was irrelevant to the necessity of the skill. In our studies on the topic we found models in leadership in enlisted and officer, professional military education schools and lessons from history, and of course our observations. If challenges and change were to be a constant, we wanted to know how best to meet and overcome them when they arose. So, we actively tried to apply what we read, saw, and observed...and, speaking for a couple of us...we failed...a lot!

Each failure--and there were some real doozies--provided insight and lessons which we applied to every new leadership responsibility. Sometimes this worked out, other times...not so much. But we kept jumping in and refused to hide from a challenge. Regrettably, we also witnessed many of our peers, upon failing themselves, craft very different responses from the experience. I speak of those we see now leading from fear. You know...the ones those who avoid challenges, run from risk, despise innovation and embrace a culture of "safety" whereby career sustainment, (and often enhancement) are driven by not rocking the boat rather than placing oars in the water and setting a course.

This "fear" approach boggles the mind, doesn't it? Why surrender to fear? Is it because of job security, or fear of not getting the best stratification? Or, is risk now like parachute pants, so 1980s? Our Air Force heritage is most definitely not risk or fear averse. Look at retired Gen. James Harold Doolittle, retired Maj. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell or retired Col. John Boyd...they defined our service, wrote its history and failed...often. Sometimes dramatically. Yet, they learned from their failures, got up and started leading all over again...and in doing so, defined airpower for our country and generations of Airmen.

There is a fantastic quote by former President Theodore Roosevelt which speaks to this; often referred to as his "In the Arena" speech:

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

As each of you pursue your own studies into leadership, I ask you read and reread this quote. Understand what it says, and reflect upon history with those who lived its spirit. If we as a service are to overcome the many challenges we now face, we'll need leaders who learn from failure, take prudent risk and don't cower from the difficult or unpopular. We need Airmen in the arena, now more than ever.