Start with the why

Commentary by Lt. Col. Jay Fulmer

50th Operations Support Squadron commander

In his 2005 Stanford commencement address, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path.” Reflecting on my first eight months in command and “connecting the dots,” I am very proud of where the 50th Operations Support Squadron has come and excited about where we are headed in the future. I am also reminded of a conversation I had that has guided my organization’s philosophy on our journey to the next level.

As I prepared to transition from the 21st Operations Group to assume command of the 50 OSS, I had an opportunity to sit down with Col. Chris Crawford, 21st Space Wing commander, for a one-on-one meeting. Early in our conversation, he presented me with a book titled “Start with Why” written by Simon Sinek. While our conversation covered many different topics, from command to Crimson Tide football, the bulk of our meeting focused on this book and a simple, but powerful word: why.

There are three questions that must be answered by every organization. What do we do? How do we do it? And most importantly, why do we do it? The first two questions are relatively easy to answer. All units on this base know what they do. We are all able to describe the products, services or job function we do in support of the 50th Space Wing mission. We also know how we do our jobs. Through training, exercises and real-world application, we continuously hone and expand our expertise. Knowing the answer to these two questions can propel any organization to success in the short-term. The third question however, “Why do we do what we do?” is very difficult for people and organizations to communicate. It also happens to be the question that contributes most to our enduring and long-term success. According to Sinek, answering this question is critical because understanding why is what convinces people to buy into a program or change. It forces us to confront our purpose, cause and beliefs. Simply put, it is the reason you get out of bed in the morning. The book gives several examples of how special leaders, both in business and the military, understood the importance of why. I found that no one embraced the importance of this question more than Steve Jobs during his time at Apple.

Apple’s success through time is not typical, according to Sinek. Their ability to remain one of the most innovative companies year after year, combined with their remarkable capacity to attract a cult-like following, makes them a great example to demonstrate the power of starting with why. The company strives to challenge the status quo by making products beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly. And of course, we all know what they do…they make easy to use, electronic equipment ranging from phones to computers. Apple’s approach comes from the inside out. It’s not what Apple does that distinguishes them. It’s why they do it. Their products give life to their cause.

Every organization has highs and lows. Even Apple, with the death of Steve Jobs, has seen its stock price fall and many people question if they have strayed from their founder’s vision. I believe however, that as long as Apple remains true to its philosophy of “challenging the status quo,” it will remain a powerhouse company.

Not long after finishing the book, I began asking my squadron the why question. Why does the OSS do what it does? I received a myriad of answers ranging from, “We provide quality training for 50th Operations Group crews” to “We develop techniques, tactics and procedures “ to “We ensure each CMR’d member on duty is qualified and medically cleared to pull shift.” While all their answers were true, they told me what the OSS does, not why we do it.

I will admit that I am still struggling to put the answer to the squadron’s why question into words, but here is my thought on what our purpose is: The OSS, being uniquely positioned in the 50th Operations Group, has the advantage of seeing across all 50 OG mission sets and to impact the space operations squadrons, either positively or negatively. As such, the OSS is crucial to the OG as it adapts to changing paradigms while simultaneously posturing itself to meet any challenge of the 21st century. Current preparation initiatives to meet these challenges include innovative graduate-level education for our space operators, the development and testing of new techniques, tactics and procedures and the exploitation of new technology.

Just like Apple, we all are facing future worries. As the Chief of Staff of the Air Force has recently indicated, strains on manning and budgets will require Team Schriever to leverage our human and technological capital in new and innovative ways, going over, rather than through, problems. We should all be challenging our organizations to start with why in everything that we do; knowing that while we might stumble along the way, we will still be able to move forward even when faced with uncertainties.

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