NCLS focuses on one’s warrior ethos 

The 28th annual National Character and Leadership Symposium (NCLS) at the United States Air Force Academy was, for the first time, conducted virtually Feb. 24-26 due to the ongoing global pandemic.

The event still included an impressive slate of speakers who focused on the 2021 theme of “Warrior Ethos as Airmen and Citizens.”

The virtual gathering kicked off on Wednesday, with Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown talking directly to cadets in a closed session.

USAFA Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark ’86 opened Thursday’s public-facing sessions with stories related to warrior ethos from his personal experience — including one leadership failure he wasn’t proud of.

In 2009, as a colonel, Clark was deployed to Iraq and headed home for leave. When he arrived at Baghdad International Airport, he found he was the senior officer on the flight and was placed in charge of those onboard.

He was less than thrilled, so he assigned a tech sergeant to the task. When the flight was delayed, Clark went off to the Distinguished Visitor Lounge at the airport while those under his charge sat on the terminal floor and waited.

Once airborne, the plane stopped in Mosul to pick up additional passengers. Another delay frustrated the colonel, who again sought out the DV Lounge where he relaxed.

When the flight was ready for takeoff, Clark says he was again frustrated by the fact that the passengers had to enter through the small crew hatch. He let the crew onboard know his displeasure.

When he headed to his seat, he caught a glimpse of two coffins on the plane. His heart sunk.

“This total sense of dread came over me, because I realized what kind of leader I’d been that day,” he admitted to those attending virtually. “I realized that I checked my leadership at the door when I came into that airport at Baghdad. I forgot that, if you truly have a warrior ethos, it’s not something that you leave behind when it’s convenient. It’s something that you have with you always. It’s who you are.”

Clark encouraged the NCLS attendees to focus on three things during the annual symposium — listen, connect and reflect on one’s individual warrior ethos.

“Warrior ethos is that intangible code, those intangible personal ethics, that allow us to overcome adversity,” he said, “that allow us to achieve success even in the most challenging situations … and against some of the most significant threats that we can face.”

Following are several highlights from the three-day gathering.

PME Hard

This year’s Class of 1959 Leadership Keynote Lecture featured John Troxell, retired senior enlisted advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His session was titled “Preparing for the Worst Day in Your Life.”

Troxell emphasized to cadets that current and future global challenges may place the future airmen and guardians in combat situations that may qualify as the “worst day” of their lives. He noted that the National Defense Strategy indicates there are “two-plus-three” imminent threats around the globe today — China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and various terrorist organizations.

To prepare for potential bad days in the future, Troxell encouraged cadets to strive for a condition he calls PME Hard.

“In order to be best prepared for the conditions we face on the worst day of our lives, we have to be physically, mentally and emotionally hard,” he noted. “Not just tough, but hard. The true definition of hard is the exact opposite of soft — not easily penetrable by any of the conditions that you can face in combat.”

He said all military members — regardless of their jobs — need to be fully ready to serve as such a hard warrior. To achieve that desired state, it requires plenty of practice, physical fitness and strong leadership, he added.

He also noted that effective leaders need to embody three important characteristics:

  1. Presence. You have to be present and share in the hardships and experiences of the people under your command.
  2. Persistence: Leaders need to be prepared for that worst day. “You can never take shortcuts,” he said.
  3. Performance: “The best leaders say, ‘watch me and follow me.’ A leader who leads through their personal example will gain the respect and will gain the morale of the troops who will rally around them on that worst day.”


Engine Analogy

Col. (Ret.) Mo Barrett ’93, a former C-27A and C-5 pilot, walked the virtual audience through her presentation “The Internal Combustion Engine of Decision and Action.” She used the analogy of an engine to compare how life, like machines, propel individuals and organizations forward. The right inputs and a collaborative approach can bring about the desired results.

“We can work together to help each other accelerate our actions toward success,” she explained.

Barrett suggested that each individual brings his or her background, career experiences, past mistakes and beliefs to the team. By leveraging those different perspectives on a team, the best outcome is possible.

She encouraged attendees to view others for the potential they have to help the team.

“Everyone we meet is more than the label we pin on them,” she said, “more than the judgment we make about them.”

In addition, she noted that cumulative impact of experience, teamwork and leadership pays dividends when difficult choices come up.

“The best split-second decisions take years to make,” she said.

Lt. Gen. Richard Clark ’86

John Troxell

Col. (Ret.) Mo Barrett ’93

Watch the Academy's NCLS 2021 videos

Warrior’s Edge

Dr. Jannell MacAulay ’98 spoke about her research and efforts to optimize human performance.

It’s seemingly common knowledge that honing one’s craft and exercising one’s body are important. She claims it’s just as important to train and command one’s mind to deal with stressful situations.

By developing a warrior’s edge, she said, leaders can become fully engaged and present so that they can make rational rather than emotional decisions.

Our nation’s global competitors are competent in achieving their mission. What can set the U.S. military apart is the ability to perform well in high-stress situations, she said.

“Can we do things when the pressure is on?” she asked. “Can we show up in a world-class way when it really counts?”

She encouraged attendees to develop mindfulness techniques that allow warriors to focus, cope and thrive even when times are tough on the job or at home.

MacAulay advocated for the practice of “Mindful Minutes,” which she had previously implemented as a commander. Such practices help individuals “command our mind” and elevate overall performance.


Courage Award

As the Thursday sessions concluded, Chesley Sullenberger ’73 announced the establishment of a new award by the Academy and the Association of Graduates. The Sullenberger Award for Courage will recognize a graduate or graduates who have met a challenging situation and shined. Sullenberger said the award will not be presented every year — only when an individual or group of graduates has displayed the courage necessary to be recognized.


Art in Listening

Thursday’s final presentation was a cadet-led, question-and-answer session with Marillyn Hewson, executive chairman and former chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin Corporation. As part of the Class of '73 John and Lyn Muse Keynote Lecture, Hewson talked about her rise to the top leadership role at Lockheed Martin.

Answering a question about her own “warrior ethos,” Hewson credited her parents for the example they set as hard-working and principled individuals.

“When I think about warrior ethos, I think of my parents,” she said. “They really did embody the traits of that.”

Determination and self-reliance were key values Hewson said she learned after her father died when she was just 9 years old.

When she began her career at Lockheed Martin in the early 1980s, Hewson said there were few women in the leadership pipeline. She said it turned out to be less of an obstacle as she rose through the ranks.

“When you’re involved in a team, you come in with the mindset of where you add value,” she said. “You establish your credibility, you work hard, you perform and your team recognizes you as a valued member of the team. Frankly, my gender wasn’t an issue after that.”

Responding to another question, Hewson said the key lesson she has learned as a leader in business was her capacity to listen. She said it’s been important to slow down and listen to customers and hear about their needs, and it’s also been important to listen to employees and address their concerns and needs.

A particular lesson she’s learned during the COVID-19 pandemic was the need for communication.

“Your team is looking at you to see what you do in a moment of crisis, and what they’re looking for is stability and optimism,” she said.

In the midst of a crisis, Hewson suggested leaders need to communicate three to four times more than they typically do. Those open lines of communication are vital.

“Checking in, making sure they know what you are doing, telling them how you’re managing through the crisis,” she said. “And most importantly you have to be positive, you need to be optimistic. Leadership matters — it matters in good times, but it particularly matters in times in a challenging crisis situation.”


“Things that Matter”

Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal (USMA ’76), who admitted he is still on his leadership journey, presented the Falcon Foundation Bud Breckner Keynote Lecture Friday morning. He is the former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, the U.S. and International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan, and the Joint Special Operations Command, which led the nation’s deployed military counterterrorism efforts around the globe.

The main focus of his presentation was the importance of empowering people in an organization, especially those on the front lines who perform most of the day-to-day operations. “The battle’s going to get won up front,” he said.

He recounted the 1978 crash of an airplane outside of Portland, Oregon, which was a new airplane flown with an experienced crew and pilot. Despite that experience, a technical glitch with the landing gear led to extended time in the air which ultimately caused the plane to run out of fuel. It crashed, killing 10 people on board.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded a lack of communication in the cockpit was a major factor in what should have been a preventable tragedy. “Part of the problem was empowerment. People didn’t feel like they could speak up,” McChrystal said.

“Empowerment is a product of leadership. It’s something we give as leaders to the organization. If you are able to empower people, you can do almost anything,” McChrystal noted.

One way to empower people is to keep them informed. “The thing that stops us is cultural aversion to that. Give them access to information, then instead of giving them a specific directive, give them an outcome we need to achieve,” he said.

With that type of empowerment, he said, leaders should accept the risk of failure in order to also accept the possibility of success.

In his own leadership experiences, McChrystal started his Army career as a micromanager. He found that was not scalable as he rose in rank with larger commands.

“At each level, I became more and more comfortable with empowering people,” he said.


The Lone Survivor

Marcus Luttrell, who delivered the Class of ’77 Mr. and Mrs. Enix Heritage Lecture, was the only member of his four-man SEAL team who survived Operation Redwing.  He was one of two snipers on the team that journeyed into the mountainous border of Afghanistan and Pakistan in June 2005 to gather intelligence on a Taliban leader with ties to Osama bin Laden.  Facing more resistance than they expected, the other three SEALS were killed, and he was seriously injured.

A rescue helicopter carrying 16 special operation forces was shot down, killing all on board, leaving him on his own.  Locals, honoring their tribe’s custom, protected him from the Taliban for five nights, until he was rescued.  He was awarded the Navy Cross for his combat heroism.

The NCLS event was interactive, consisting of a moderated discussion and a question-and-answer session.

When asked how he got through the experience and its aftermath, he pointed to the value of intense training, telling the listening cadets that stress serves a larger purpose.

He told listeners that seeing his friends die was the hardest part of his ordeal, much harder than his injuries and his time evading capture.

After healing from the wounds, he again deployed, and admitted to doubts.  Once they encountered the enemy, however, he said his training snapped back in and he was fine.  He added that part of his happiness with returning was the positive example he set for other troops.

Luttrell expressed his gratitude for the support the Air Force had provided during his career.

When asked to offer advice to cadets regarding how to be a good officer, he said that they should “Show respect to get respect.”  He also advised young officers to listen to senior enlisted personnel, who have so much to teach, and finally, if they make a mistake, they should own up to it.


One Leg Up on Life

Maj. Christy Wise, ’09, spoke about her unique Air Force journey, to include her status as the sixth Air Force pilot - and the first female - to return to flying status after an amputation.

Her presentation began with a video about her accident and recovery.  It opened with the then Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Mark Welsh ’76, speaking about her situation and saying how strongly he supported her return to the cockpit.

Capt. Wise, an HC-130 pilot, was visiting friends in Florida in April 2015.  While paddleboarding after dark in a quiet cove, a fishing boat hit her.

She related that, in ambulance, she was already starting to think of getting back to flying.

Maj. Wise told listeners that the video we saw was the one she had sent to the medical board requesting a return to flying status.  She laughed about including Gen. Welsh, calling it a “Nicely veiled threat” to the medical board, with its strong implication that she would appeal the board’s decision to the Chief if it didn’t support her quest.  “It worked!” she said.

Following the amputation, she underwent eight months of rehabilitation in San Antonio.  While positive and grateful to be alive, she did admit to feeling moments of doubt and depression.  A competitive athlete at the Academy (skiing and club soccer), she’s wondered, “Can I still be an athlete?”  She was told about the DoD Warrior Games, which became a huge part of her recovery.

Remarkably, she competed in the Warrior Games at Quantico, Virginia, nine weeks later.  She has earned 11 Warrior Games medals and competed in two international Invictus Games.

Maj. Wise is quick to credit many others in her recovery, particularly the other five amputees on flying status.  All sought her out and offered their assistance and support.  In fact, she had already met one of them, Ryan McGuire ’08, while at Laughlin Air Force Base for pilot training.

Regaining flying status required her to demonstrate a mastery of some of flying’s worst-case situations, to include lifting 150 pounds with her prosthetic side and egressing up and down the stairs.  She also had to pass the full physical fitness test.

Since returning to flying, she has deployed to Iraq, and is now at the Academy, preparing to become CS-13’s AOC.

Maj. Wise and her twin sister Jessica started a non-profit, One Leg Up On Life, that provides prosthetic limbs to patients in Haiti.  Appropriately, their first event was a paddleboard race in the cove where she was hit.