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Wilson becomes longest serving Vice Chief in history: analyzing, innovating, succeeding along way

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen W. Wilson speaks about the National Security Strategy and Nuclear Deterrence during a seminar hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Washington, D.C., July 24, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Adrian Cadiz)

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen W. Wilson speaks about the National Security Strategy and Nuclear Deterrence during a seminar hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Washington, D.C., July 24, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Adrian Cadiz)

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen W. Wilson interacts with members of Team United States Sept. 24, 2017, at the York Lions Stadium in Toronto, Canada. More than 550 wounded, ill and injured servicemen and women from 17 allied nations competed as part of Invictus Games - a multi-national sporting event for wounded, injured and sick servicemen and women. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Chip Pons)

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen W. Wilson interacts with members of Team United States Sept. 24, 2017, at the York Lions Stadium in Toronto, Canada. More than 550 wounded, ill and injured servicemen and women from 17 allied nations competed as part of Invictus Games - a multi-national sporting event for wounded, injured and sick servicemen and women. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Chip Pons)

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen W. Wilson speaks with trainees from the Aviation Character Education Flight Program, the Pentagon, Arlington, Va., Aug. 1, 2018. The ACE program is a unique mentorship and motivational program for high school students and Air Force cadets. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wayne A. Clark)

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen W. Wilson speaks with trainees from the Aviation Character Education Flight Program, the Pentagon, Arlington, Va., Aug. 1, 2018. The ACE program is a unique mentorship and motivational program for high school students and Air Force cadets. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wayne A. Clark)

ARLINGTON, Va. (AFNS) --

When Gen. Stephen W. “Seve” Wilson stepped into his new job as Air Force Vice Chief of Staff in July 2016, he arrived as a “man of action” with more than 4,600 flying hours, including 680 combat hours, a former Global Strike commander and deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, among other distinctions.

That record is worth noting now, when, by punching in for work July 26, Wilson began his fifth year in the job, thus becoming the longest serving vice chief of staff in Air Force history. Wilson surpasses Gen. Curtis M. LeMay, who held the job from July 1957 until 1961 and Gen. Thomas White who was vice chief from 1953 to 1957.

How Wilson thrived and excelled in two different worlds within the same organization offers a window into his ability to analyze, adapt and perform. It also provides a glimpse into the Air Force’s changing culture and ethos.

All of it illustrates why Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. David L. Goldfein, refers to Wilson as a “fantastic” vice chief in a job that demands intelligence and political savvy, along with the need to suppress both ego and ambition.

When asked about the keys to his success, Wilson points to Goldfein.

Goldfein, Wilson says, “empowered the vice chief and he gives me free rein to try and accomplish the things that he’s trying to do for the Air Force.”

“He empowered me like he empowers everybody … to move out and take action,” Wilson said.

As important as being empowered, Wilson said, is the importance of having a talented, collegial “team.”

“My team is a diverse group; they bring really good ideas to how we approach problems,” Wilson said.

“I had a story about a very senior person who did not succeed. And he did not succeed because he had a staff that looked like him, thought like him, was educated like him, trained like him, experienced like him and ultimately it was their downfall. And so we really work hard to make sure we have a really diverse staff with different backgrounds and different ways of thinking. We all get along pretty well,” he said.

While he is serious about succeeding as vice chief and focused on results, Wilson is also known for being self-deprecating.

“I joke about it but I say, ‘Nobody will ever try to aspire for this honor. … They want to be Lew Allen.’ He was the shortest serving vice chief at three months,” Wilson quipped during an interview.

Wilson understands how to operate effectively to advance, in lasting ways, the Air Force’s capabilities, its policies and practices. He’s a tireless advocate for nurturing the entrepreneurial and innovative impulses of Airmen across the force.

“One of the other things about this job … is to help drive the requirements and ultimately the capabilities to keep our Air Force where it needs to be,” he said. “So the whole question of how do we build the Air Force we need and how do we build the Airmen we need? These are two key job jars that fall in the vice chief’s office.”

He was a catalyst behind the Spark Tank competition, a TV style contest that brought Airmen’s fresh, innovative solutions to chronic operational problems of all sizes. Wilson conceived and brought into being the Vice Chief’s Challenge as another way to get good, homegrown ideas noticed, developed and instituted.

Wilson was instrumental in creating a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to establish an “artificial intelligence accelerator” that combined Airmen with MIT students and professors to produce digital tools necessary for real world operations.

Wilson expressed the need for speed and innovation in a catchphrase that he often expressed – “You can’t beat the urgency drum hard enough.”

He is a trusted and valued partner for Goldfein, who himself served as vice chief of staff for a year.

“We all should honor and recognize Seve Wilson for this milestone and even more for being a fantastic vice chief,” Goldfein said.

“Vice chief is a difficult and demanding job. But because of his intelligence, drive and instinct, you don’t have to look hard to find examples where he’s made big differences. Our Air Force is smarter, more innovative and agile because of him. The Air Force is better because of Gen. Wilson. I rely on him every day and I know he’s made me a better chief. I will forever be grateful for his friendship,” Goldfein said.

Wilson, a bomber pilot, was instrumental in development of the B-21, the Air Force’s long-range strike bomber of the future. He is a tireless and influential advocate for nuclear modernization as well as the need for hypersonic weapons, the broader use of artificial intelligence and establishing multi-domain operations.

Fully aware of Wilson’s intellect and experience, Goldfein made sure Wilson was a prominent voice at high-level “CORONA” meetings, where the Air Force’s top leaders gather to confront and solve difficult problems, and make decisions about doctrine and priorities that set the tone for the entire force.

Lt. Gen. Clint Hinote, Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements, said Wilson “pushed us to adopt change to keep pace with our environment. Along the way, he has never shied away from asking ‘why’ or ‘why not?’ Without his leadership, we would have stayed in a downward spiral. With his leadership, we have established the Air Force as the intellectual leader across DoD for future force design.”

Yet, for all his attention to technology, innovation and hardware, Wilson is known for his efforts to address mental health and resiliency issues across the force and for his focus on Airmen.

Airmen, according to Wilson, “are our most important weapon system.”

That concept took form in an effort driven by Wilson named “True North,” an outgrowth of the Preservation of the Force and Family (POTFF) program that embedded psychologists, social workers, chaplains and “religious affairs airmen” in squadrons and groups. What began as a test at four bases, True North will grow to 16 bases by the end of the next fiscal year.

“His dedication to operationalizing True North is so much more than just a resiliency concern,” said Brig. Gen. Claude K. Tudor, director of Air Force resilience, who worked with Wilson on the initiative.

“This effort has strengthened unit readiness and ensured a lethal force to do whatever our nation requires. Through True North, he has been able to champion the human and fiscal requirements to embed spiritual and behavioral care providers in units. This effort has developed a strong sense of trust and confidence in the caregivers while helping to break down barriers and the stigma for getting care,” Tudor said.

While Wilson has no plans to slow down, he also makes sure he takes stock.

“It’s been an amazingly fun ride. All these jobs you’re in ultimately, it’s about people, it’s about relationships, it’s about enjoying what you do,” Wilson said. “It’s a real easy formula for success for our Air Force.

“First, you start with really good people; we get them the right education, training and experience and make sure they’re competent and proud of what they do and that they are personally and professionally fulfilled. And when we do all those things, it’s magic,” Wilson said.

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