Commentary by Lt. Col. Michael A. Wulfestieg
Commander, 21st Space Operations Squadron
VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — Several years ago, while I was first assigned to Schriever, I started researching my family’s military history and legacy. It was about the time, as a young captain, that I was beginning to understand some of the broader perspectives on duty and service, and really coming to grasp with the challenges of leadership and followership. What I discovered within the stories of my family members was obviously not unique to just their lives, but their experiences and lessons have made a stronger impact on me because of my personal blood bond with these individuals.
I scanned through family genealogy charts and books put together by relatives, and I was surprised to find a few interesting highlights through the years. For instance, one distant relative, a private serving in the Revolutionary War, was lost when his boat overturned crossing the Hudson River. Another example is one of my great-great grandfathers made the rank of captain during the Civil War. And then there was my father’s namesake, who gave the ultimate sacrifice the day his minesweeper was destroyed in the Mediterranean sea during World War II. All of these stories served to amplify my personal feelings of duty, honor and country.
While searching the Internet, I also found references to more recent family history documents. One, a transcript of an interview with my grandfather, himself an Army major from WWII and the Korean War, was supposedly located in the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Nebraska. At the time, I didn’t dig any further, as my attention shifted to more pressing issues, such as my kids’ school and sports events, learning new jobs and moving every couple of years. In the intervening years, my grandfather passed away, and I almost forgot about that old transcript.
A few months ago, during a family gathering, I was motivated to reinvigorate my search. I was intrigued by what the document might contain, as it was listed as more than 60 pages of “spoken word,” from an interview conducted a few years before I was even born. After a few roadblocks and delays, I finally tracked it down, and with the help of some friendly librarians in several local communities, I was able to get a copy of the entire manuscript. So one Saturday afternoon, I sat down in a dark corner of the research department to read it on the only working microfiche card reader.
What amazed me was how it was like my grandfather was right there next to me, I could hear the words and the laughter clearly as I read through his responses to the interviewer’s questions. The majority of the text focused on his eight years working in the U.S. Postal Department in Washington D.C., and it had a distinct slant toward politics, such as congressional interactions and presidential campaigns. But what I found most interesting were his perspectives on duty and leadership as they related to the events of his day.
He talked about shrinking budgets, rapid changes in technology and significant personnel “reductions in force.” But he also mentioned the chances for innovation, leveraging best practices to improve efficiency and working closely with industry to execute contracts that delivered the right product at a fair price. However, my favorite portions of the interview revolved around the people, the interactions with coworkers, subordinates and superiors. And although his experiences were a bit more politically-charged, as one might expect serving in the heart of D.C., he highlighted the importance of looking past the “easy” personnel choices, and making the right ones, based on an individual’s expertise and performance. He said that hiring well-qualified people for specific jobs meant they typically required less oversight and very often delivered outstanding results.
So how do those lessons relate to my current job and duties in the Air Force? Well, they serve as a reminder that fiscal constraints, manning fluctuations and technology challenges are not new, even if they are different today than my grandfather faced 60 years ago. More specifically, the narrative reinforced the importance of working closely with people, giving them a chance to leverage their talents and creativeness to tackle difficult problems and looking for the opportunities in the challenges we confront.
The final lesson was that being a leader, at any level, is not easy. It can take a lot of time, there are always unexpected setbacks and hurdles and personnel choices are tough. But doing the right thing, working hard and giving it your best pays dividends in the end; often resulting in promotions and even more desirable assignments. Almost sounds like “integrity, service and excellence,” but he was an Army guy — how could he understand the Air Force core values? Maybe you should take a peek into your background and see what lessons you can learn from your predecessors.