Future ANG commanders learn to 'Make Progress Unhindered by Custom'

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Devin Robinson
  • Air National Guard

More than four dozen new and future Air National Guard commanders gathered in the National Capital Region recently for a week of networking, leadership training, and small group mentoring sessions with senior military leaders designed to set them up for success in their new commands.

Known in Air Guard circles simply as the “CLC,” the ANG’s Commander Leadership Course is a director of the Air National Guard program designed to give new group and wing commanders the opportunity to engage directly with national level leaders and their priorities in order to ensure greater strategic alignment between national and local level Guard initiatives.

For Brig. Gen. David B. Johnson, Ohio ANG chief of staff and interim CLC director, the opportunity for strategic alignment of priorities is absolutely critical for these new leaders.

“We have the Chief of Staff of the Air Force priorities, then we blend those with the ANG priorities, and then they go and they get chopped up at the state level, and again down at the wing level — so it's very easy in this big construct to lose sight of the big picture,” Johnson said. “Having firsthand conversations with these senior leaders really connects those dots and solidifies that strategic alignment.”

These in-person, face-to-face engagements were considered so critical by Johnson and CLC organizers, they ardently rejected any efforts to make the course virtual during COVID – opting instead to remain flexible and adapting quickly to evolving COVID health protection requirements and restrictions.

“With the OMICRON variant of COVID-19 surging over the winter, we really didn’t know up until about three weeks ago if we were going to be able to have this course,” Johnson recalled. “It had a pretty significant impact on our planning process, but we were committed to doing this course in person or not at all. We don’t feel there is a virtual option for this course.”

As COVID restrictions loosened around the nation, Johnson’s team was able to move quickly, putting together a week of training and senior leader engagements that drew nearly 50 students representing 26 states to this iteration of the CLC. Asked if he felt the course was getting “back to normal,” Johnson was optimistic.

“We’re close,” he said enthusiastically. “Planning for this course, we had to keep the numbers under 50 … but typical courses are going to be about 60 to 65. So, we're close to the mark, but just not fully there yet.”

For his part, Lt. Gen. Michael A. Loh, the director of the ANG, was on hand the first day to welcome the Air Guard’s future leaders to the NCR and strongly encouraged them to take full advantage of the opportunities their new positions afford them.

“This is your organization,” Loh said, pointing around the room at the assembled officers. “Here are the priorities, sure, but it’s up to you to take these priorities and make your organization what you want it to be – you’ve got to drive that change internally.”

Bold leadership, taking chances, and a class rallying cry of “We Make Progress Unhindered by Custom” served as common themes as the new leaders progressed through different training iterations based in part on leadership lessons of the heroes of American military aviation.

“One of the taskers that we gave the class was they were to read the book, “The Bomber Mafia” by Malcolm Gladwell, and his book really gets into bold leadership at the root,” Johnson said. “The Bomber Mafia talks about World War II aviation giants like Curtis LeMay who were revolutionary in their efforts to modernizing warfare in the face of popular opinion at the time. That's the message we want to get back to our folks is bold leadership, and that we need their creativity in these turbulent times.”

Continuing the theme of bold leadership, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr., met with the class and discussed the importance of stepping up to the challenge of leading when the going gets tough.

“It is really easy to lead in comfort and convenience, as a matter of fact, that’s probably not even leadership by my definition,” Brown said. “It is in challenging controversy where the real test of leadership occurs.”

Brown continued, suggesting that Airmen are searching for strong and bold leadership in times of stress.

“When things are not going well – either for the organization or for them – they are looking for how you are going to respond,” Brown said. “If you are cool, calm, and collected when you have challenges, your Airmen are also going to be cool, calm, and collected. They’ll worry a little bit, but they’ll know you got it.”

Despite the fast pace of the CLC and numerous briefings at multiple locations around the NCR, Johnson is confident that the core theme of the course will be the persistent takeaway for the new commanders.

“There are so many hopes that we have for these commanders,” Johnson said. “Ultimately, we want the senior leaders within our structure, these group and wing commanders, to be confident that that they will be supported in their decision process.”

Ultimately, the leadership examples of Curtis LeMay and the “Bomber Mafia” of the World War II era of military aviation analyzed and modernized through Brown’s challenge for Airmen to “Accelerate Change or Lose” serve as the core thread of bold leadership needed to face 21st century threats.

“We want them to make bold decisions because the current environment demands that of them,” Johnson said. “So just walking away (from the CLC) with the confidence of knowing that their senior leaders support them holistically and with all with all their might – I'm fully expecting that this is going to be a great confidence builder for them.”