Commentary by Lt. Col. Thomas Ste. Marie
2nd Space Operations Squadron commander
Stories are good. That’s why we enjoy watching movies, listening to stand-up comedians, and reading books, but not listening to speeches and lectures. For me, stories can address complicated issues in ways that can be provocative, entertaining and can stay with you. My story thus far starts and ends in the same place: Schriever Air Force Base and the 2nd Space Operations Squadron. Since this article will be published on the day of my change of command, I thought I would share my story so far and some of the lessons I learned along the way after coming full circle from second lieutenant to becoming a commander, 18 years later.
1) Remember your roots — I believe that remembering where you came from will help you know where you are going. It ensures you will develop in a way that doesn’t compromise your core values and help keep you true to yourself.
2) Forget your ghosts — Now that said, the ghosts of who you may have been in the past may or may not be exactly who you are now. The thing to remember is that ghosts are long dead. Dovetailing into the above tip, all plants grow beyond their roots. Embrace the fact that you have grown while remembering who you are and the lessons you learned.
3) Own it — Whatever you do in the Air Force or in life, make it your own, put your personal stamp on it. You may have heard many senior leaders say this before because it is so universally true. It is true in the moment, because we should all have personal pride in our mission and our effort and ourselves but it is true for the future too. You never know if you will get a second shot. You may have to live with some of the decisions you made in the past. So make good ones.
4) Build your team — This was one of my favorite parts of command and I will admit to one thing: When building my teams, I cheat. I like to stack the deck. I will find the best and somehow find a way to get them on my team. For me, I recruit character and I train skill. Show me someone who has integrity, puts service before themselves and is dedicated to excellence and they can be trained to any task — and they will grow beyond it.
5) Mentor your people — It’s not just about building the team to perform for today — it is also about building the team for tomorrow — the next generation. One of the main responsibilities of a leader is to make more leaders. Tell your stories to those around you. Develop them to take your place; it’s the best part of the job.
6) Truly put service before self — Servant leadership is an ancient philosophy, one that existed in ancient China and many other cultures long before Robert Greenleaf coined the phrase in modern times. It is about sharing power, putting the needs of others first and helping people develop and perform to their very best. To use a sports analogy, if you aren’t willing to put your boots on, get dirty with the team and dive for the ball, then why are you in the game?
7) Lead with your heart — Dr. Lance Secretan is probably not someone you have heard of, but he is widely acknowledged as one of the most insightful and provocative leadership teachers of our time. His leadership view goes straight to my personal beliefs: “Leadership is not so much about technique and methods as it is about opening the heart. Leadership is about inspiration — of oneself and of others. Great leadership is about human experiences, not processes. Leadership is not a formula or a program, it is a human activity that comes from the heart and considers the hearts of others. It is an attitude, not a routine.”
8) Leave it better than you found it — After his death, the founder of the Boy Scouts, Robert Baden-Powell, left a letter in his desk written to all scouts. It included the passage: “Try and leave this world a little better than you found it.” This advice is as true in the wilderness as it is in the workplace.
9) “Let it go” — Borrowing a line from a recent extremely popular movie (which if you have not seen “Frozen” feel free to come by my home where it is performed three times daily by my 8 and 3 year old daughters). We have to be able to do everything I just said, and then step aside and let the next generation take the lead. Walter Lippman said, “The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind the conviction and the will to carry on.” This is the nature of our lives in the military. I wish I didn’t have to go but I do so confidently knowing that the next generation is right behind me ready to take GPS, and our Air Force to the next level.
10) Remember to say “Thank you.” — Our various achievements are rarely our own. There are leaders who guide us, peers who encourage us and followers who support us all along the way.
And so then, I will close this article simply with some notes of thanks. First is a heartfelt thanks to my family — they are my inspiration for everything that I do and without their seemingly endless support and patience I never could have started this race, let alone finish it. My thanks to the senior leadership team here at Schriever AFB for their trust and confidence. To return to the GPS operations squadron and serve as the commander of this amazing unit has been humbling. My thanks to my fellow commanders — without them (and their families) this journey would have been nearly impossible. Sir Paul McCartney famously wrote and recorded that he got by with a little help from his friends — nothing could be more true. Finally, my sincerest thanks to the men and women of the 2nd Space Operations squadron. It’s been a tremendous ride. When I set off on this journey with you two years ago we said we were going to do things a little differently. We said that we were going to both work and play hard. We said that we’d have each other’s back. We said we’d look back and be proud of our mission and each other. Well, together, we broke records with the mission while forming a family that will last for years to come. My thanks to all of you for everything you did to support me both professionally and personally. It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as your commander. And as I become a member of the 2 SOPS Alumni Association (now for the 2nd time) I will close this article with one final thought — whatever you are doing, whoever you are leading or following, know all the stories and be proud of the one you are writing for yourself.