Commentary by Lt. Col. Kieran Denehan
11th Bomb Squadron commander
BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. (AFNS) — The only thing that amazes me more than approaching 24 years in the Air Force is how quickly time has flown by. Thus, I was grateful for the opportunity to share some thoughts for this article, because it made me sit back and reflect on all the people, places and adventures, good and bad, that I had the fortune to meet, go to or experience in my career.
As far as examples of great leaders go, I could spend several pages writing on any one of the many outstanding individuals I have worked and served with over the years. Yet, all of them are similar in that they share several traits, which I believe were the key to their organizations’ success.
Among their most important traits were enthusiasm, a positive attitude and the abilities to listen and “read” their people to determine what motivates each individual. One particular leader stands out in my mind and does so because he was not an experienced and respected senior officer or noncommissioned officer, yet demonstrated many of aforementioned traits at such a young age.
I’m prior enlisted, and going through Basic Military Training is tough. Going through BMT and being handpicked to lead other new recruits is even tougher.
As our dorm chief in BMT, Airman 1st Class Denny Cook faced the daunting task of getting a group of strangers from very different backgrounds and experiences to work together in a very demanding environment.
He was constantly under pressure, top-down from our training instructor who demanded steady improvement from the flight, bottom-up from his flight-mates who constantly bickered and fought for the first week of training, and from outside-in as he worried for his young wife and 8-month old daughter back at home. For a 19-year old in BMT, he bore the weight of the world on his shoulders.
The easy thing for him to have done would have been to threaten or punish us in order to get us to perform. After all, he had the authority to do so, the motivation to get through BMT to provide for his family, and the knowledge that he did not have to make friends since he would likely never see any of us again after our 30 training days were over. It also seemed like the likely response to stop the petty juvenile arguments that plagued the dorm.
Instead, Airman Cook took it upon himself to inspire rather than intimidate, to listen rather than yell, and in doing so, showed us we were a lot more talented and capable than how we saw each other and ourselves.
The ways he did this were many.
First and foremost, he learned what motivated each individual. He figured out that if you gave the guy from Connecticut a pat on the back and a “great job,” he would polish the floors until they gleamed.
He challenged the north wing of the dorms to beat the south wing in pushups and run times.
His special project was teaching the kid from New York City how to shine his boots so it actually looked like there was polish on them, and he would sit down with the clueless kid and work with him for hours.
He was able to motivate so effectively because he did a heck of a lot more listening than talking, and teaching instead of yelling.
Airman Cook would also sit down with guys and talk about their families and their futures or be the first one to share a package from home. He genuinely showed he was interested in them. When things went wrong, as they often did those first few weeks, he would never lose his good-natured smile, and his Georgia drawl never got faster or louder.
After what seemed a decade back then, BMT was finally over and we all went on our separate paths.
Mine took me through several twists and turns over the years, but I always tried to make sure it crossed Denny’s once and a while for several reasons.
First, he made such an impression on me that I wanted to make sure we kept in touch throughout our careers. Second, I felt it important to tell him that the more I learned about leaders and leadership the more I saw how remarkable his was during our short but demanding time together.
I have learned that all effective leaders share common traits, traits exemplified then by young Airman Cook, and that I was very fortunate to see them so early in my career.
Hence the parody title of this article, “All I really ever needed to know about leadership I learned in BMT.”
Finally, I had to show him that it had taken me a few years, but I finally learned how to polish a mean boot.