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Reflections of a loyal heretic

Physical fitness will always be the foundation of 2nd Lt. Thompson’s, 49th Wing Public Affairs officer, daily resiliency practices, but his personal goal is to overcome more difficult physical challenges every year. Thompson’s goal for 2019 is to train and compete in an Ironman Triathlon in 2020. (Courtesy photo)

(Courtesy photo)


For the past two years as commander of the 517th Training Group and Assistant Commandant of Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, America has entrusted thousands of its sons and daughters to my care. The previous Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, emphasized the importance of these service members in the 2018 National Defense Strategy stating, “The creativity and talent of the American warfighter is our greatest enduring strength and one we do not take for granted.” Our obligation as leaders of these warfighters is best captured in a single phrase, “to whom much is given, much is expected.”

As I reflect on the past two years, I offer three things for your consideration as good stewards, learners, and leaders: NERDS are awesome.

NERDS rule!

Your leadership philosophy shapes you and your team; and our purpose matters.

At the Presidio of Monterey, home of the 517th TRG and DLIFLC, most of our 3,000 students from all four service branches use buses to get around the Army post. If you pay attention, you can often see three service members sitting on a bus stop bench, looking at their smart phones, and not talking to each other. I take an informal poll every two weeks when I speak to Airmen at in-processing to find out how many of them got eight hours of sleep or more the night before. Typically, only 30% to 40% of the Airmen say they got eight hours of sleep.

These are just a few indicators, along with the number of mental health crises our Airmen are experiencing, we need to step up our game as leaders to develop our people. We need to arm them to make choices, which optimize their capability as learners, increase their resiliency and enhance their overall effectiveness.  

As part of our campaign to improve performance of our Airmen, we have started sharing with Airmen that “if you follow NERDS, you will be successful.” Informed by Doyle and Zakrajsek’s The New Science of Learning, the fundamentals of resiliency, and the need for disciplined conduct to achieve goals, we offer the NERDS acronym: Nutrition, Exercise, Relationships, Discipline, Sleep.

Nutrition. To optimize brain function, learners, and we’re all learners, must stay hydrated and eat healthy foods. Particularly for those living on their own for the first time, the dining facility can be fraught with junk food peril. However, you need to reduce sugars, increase complex carbohydrates, and stay hydrated. Although you may get to see the dentist for cavities or the medics because you pass out in formation during one of my long-winded speeches, your plan of living on three energy drinks a day is not going to help you learn Mandarin. Did I mention vegetables and staying hydrated?

Exercise. You need 30 minutes minimum of aerobic exercise three times per week to optimize your neurological effectiveness as a learner. From a mental health and resiliency standpoint, exercise is powerful for fighting depression and anxiety. Plus, exercise is a perfect way to take a break from studying.

Relationships. A strong web of relationships with the people around you will optimize your effectiveness and resilience. You must build relationships with the people around you. Invest time in getting to know your classmates, the people in your flight, people down the hall in the dorm, the soldier at the bus stop, or the Airman you’re often next to in formation because you’re the same height. When you have a tough time, they will be there for you and you’ll be there when they have trouble. Make no mistake, you will have a difficult time at some point in training, because life happens. You may struggle in class, a loved one may be sick or die, breakups happen, disagreements happen, and old friendships end. With the pressure on you to perform well every day, getting likes on Instagram or a few texts will not be enough. A strong web is not built with one strand, it’s built with an interlocking set of strands.

Discipline. Because of our Oath of Service, our actions must be guided by the following priorities; the nation, our service, our unit, and mission. To be most effective in meeting our obligations, we must practice the self-discipline to make positive choices optimizing Nutrition, Exercise, Relationships, and Sleep.

Sleep. You need seven and a half to nine hours of sleep a night, even more for teenagers, to optimize neurological functions in the brain associated with learning. Not only does sleep enable learning, it also helps our mood, improves our ability to handle whatever life throws at us, and helps us prevent disease. Choose sleep over social media, texting, and gaming. Sleep is a miracle drug.

Your leadership philosophy shapes you and your team.

I highly recommend you develop a leadership philosophy, whether you lead a team of two or a global enterprise of thousands. Live by it. Communicate it. Be the change you want to see. My team has four parts. Essentially it’s my personalization of our service core values. It’s how we must think about everything we do. Yours will be different, but here’s mine:

Mutual respect. Regardless of rank, position, or authority, we treat people with dignity and respect. Mutual respect enables trust, which enables teamwork. We succeed or fail as a team and mutual respect is the foundation of success.

Do the right thing for the right reasons. The reasons are nation, service, unit, and mission. These drive our conduct as wingmen and leaders in service of something greater than ourselves. Always take the hard right over the easy wrong.

Lead by example. Air Force service is a human endeavor and we are a social species. We respond to the behavior of our teammates. Regardless of rank, position or authority, we have influence over our teammates with our actions and attitudes. I expect every Airman to choose to be a positive influence on their team.

Continuous improvement. We must improve ourselves and our teams to make the Air Force capable of maintaining America’s advantage. Being the most powerful Air Force in the world is not a birthright, we have to earn it every day. To that end, I expect every Airman to be a loyal heretic--loyal to our nation, our service, our unit, and our mission, while challenging the status quo in a constructive way. Continuous improvement requires us to take smart risks and fail forward.

Our purpose matters, here’s our “why.”

Despite the persistent conflict around the globe we see daily in the news, the world has enjoyed a degree of peace since World War II, which is unprecedented in recorded human history. This era began after the United States emerged as a superpower, enabled by American values, economic power, and military power. America’s military power is made possible by the decision advantage delivered by DLIFLC graduates across the intelligence community and the foreign area officer enterprise.

We are living in a period that future generations will refer to as an interwar period, like the period between World War I and World War II. History and human nature indicate this is so. Preparing for war, by training the best linguists in the world, helps us maintain peace through strength and postures America to win when it becomes necessary to fight.

We remember Airman 1st Class Austin Burroughs, an amazing young man who we lost tragically. Austin left an indelible mark on the people who knew him. He continues to inspire us. In the words of General George S. Patton, Jr., “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”

Thank you to the amazingly talented and committed men and women of the 517th Training Group and DLIFLC. It has been the greatest privilege of my career to serve with you. As General Jimmy Doolittle said, “I could never be so lucky again.”