Commentary by Lt. Col. Michael Wulfestieg
21st Space Operations Squadron commander
VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — In mid-August 1988, just before Vice President George H. W. Bush headed off to join the festivities at the Republican National Convention, he talked briefly with then President Ronald Reagan as they stood together on the tarmac of a military airfield near New Orleans. During that exchange, the vice president was reported to have said, “You will have left this country better than you found it . . .” Those plain yet powerful words clearly articulate the simple goal that many people strive to achieve: striving to make a positive influence on family, friends, neighborhoods, in their jobs and even within themselves on a daily basis.
As members of the U.S. Air Force, some might say we have dedicated ourselves to helping make the country and the world a better place. Motivated to uphold the ideals of the Constitution, and living out the core values, each day we approach the duties and tasks in our current jobs with the knowledge that our actions help the A.F. and DoD fulfill their assigned missions, which in turn improves safety and security of people around the world. But, many programs, processes and organizations I have been involved with through the years aren’t operating at maximum performance, sometimes due to my actions, but also many times due to my inaction. So, what is preventing the realization of increased efficiency and success? Why aren’t improvements quickly being identified and incorporated to enhance these projects, units or communities?
There are numerous impediments to our attempts to “make things better.” Downward-directed changes to manning/funding/organization, time constraints and personality/relationship tensions can all interfere with our progress toward our goals of easier, faster and better.
So, what can you do? Actually, I think it is pretty simple. It basically comes down to attitude. How do you deal with day to day problems — are they roadblocks or are they opportunities? For example, what is your response to being handed that undesired additional duty or special project? If you view it as a waste of your time and unwanted distraction from your primary duties, then you may struggle to see the true worth of that extra job to you and your unit. If you approach it as a chance to help your unit or your commander with a “must do” task and throw a little extra effort, enthusiasm and/or creativity into it right up front, you might quickly improve operations, compliance, and morale. Sure, it is going to take some additional work on your part to update a continuity binder before you hand a program to the next person, but often times that effort to firmly establish or improve a program can also make it more efficient for you as well. So, if it makes it easier for you to manage, and it enhances continuity, isn’t that worth the work?
I would say don’t stop with making improvements on the job, but continually seek out ways to make other areas in your life better too. Is there a relationship that has some rough edges that you can help smooth out by simply listening? Is there a volunteer opportunity in the local community that needs your specific talents to help achieve a program goal? Can you help be a positive influence on others by simply following the laws while driving or picking up a piece of trash lying on the sidewalk? The answer is yes, all of the above! But, sometimes we need to be reminded that it is our opportunity.
One vivid example of this daily initiative is my late grandfather. He never avoided a chance to put his time and energy into an organization or project to improve the lives of others. Whether it was a leadership role on a community board, service in the military, managing a local business or appointment/election to a local or national government position, he used his personal strengths and talents to make a positive influence on those around him. Based on his attitude and skills, he was frequently asked to take on ever-more increasing responsibilities and complex challenges, which he typically accepted with full knowledge that it wouldn’t be easy, but, it was the right thing to do. He knew he could make a difference. As a result, he found ways to make a positive impact and he left a long line of companies, communities and organizations better than he found them.
While not many of us will have the chance to lead a project or unit that directly influences the lives of thousands or millions of people, that doesn’t mean we should put any less energy into improving our programs or organizations. Do a quick assessment of your personal strengths and find at least one small way to improve the tasks you are required, or that you volunteer to perform. Clean out the paper or electronic files, update the continuity book or completely revamp your assigned program to increase efficiency. Initiate a cross-talk with others doing similar duties to identify the best practices. Suggest a process improvement to your supervisor, take those five extra minutes each day to work on your pushups or sit-ups or simply make an effort to provide an encouraging word or smile to a coworker. You might be surprised how little effort it really takes to make a big difference and you can take pride in knowing that you did your part to “leave it better” than you found it.