Reimagining Leadership

February 24, 2023

NCLS dispenses character and leadership lessons to thousands of attendees

The 30th National Character and Leadership Symposium Feb. 23-24 attracted cadets, graduates, visiting students, permanent party members and community members to USAFA and provided plenty of inspiration and valuable lessons.

Lt. Gen. Richard Clark ’86, USAFA superintendent, officially opened the annual gathering Thursday morning in Arnold Hall.

Gen. Clark told the cadets and others in the crowd to listen to the various presenters over the two days and learn leadership lessons from their collective experiences.

“I’m so excited for this event,” he said. “This is a tried-and-true tool to help us develop leaders of character. We know that the speakers we’ve brought in have lived that life. They’re going to help us turn thoughts and words into actions and habits which will become our character.”

NCLS is a flagship Academy event focusing on character and leadership topics presented by distinguished scholars, military leaders, corporate executive and world-class athletes. The symposium is made possible, in part, through private philanthropy.

The 2023 NCLS theme is “Reimagine Leadership. Inspire Teamwork.” Speakers will inspire cadets, graduates, permanent party members and community members over two days.

Following are a few highlights from the 2023 gathering.

Crowd Reaction

Among attendees for the 30th NCLS gather was Gen. (Ret.) Norty Schwartz ’73, former chief of staff of the Air Force. His class has financially supported the annual symposium for years.

He’s proud that the gathering has transformed into such a high-quality event today.

“It has grown and expanded in ways that no one could have imagined,” he said.

Gen. Schwartz returns for the symposium regularly to be inspired and continue learning.

“I haven’t stopped learning,” he said. “It both inspires and challenges one’s thinking.”

C3C Simon Bidne said the NCLS speakers offered a wide range of perspectives on leadership, which was very helpful as he begins to develop his own leadership style.

“One of the reasons I came to the Academy was their emphasis on leadership,” he said. “NCLS gives you a big world view of military and civilian leadership, and you can see how they overlap and how they don’t.”

Bidne says the NCLS speakers never fail to deliver helpful suggestions that will help him at USAFA and during his upcoming career.

C4C Sophia Lopiccolo said she enjoyed her first-time NCLS experience.

She especially appreciated hearing from USAFA graduates who returned to speak at various sessions, especially the presentation by astronaut Col. Raja Chari ’99.

“The survive versus thrive theme was helpful,” she said.

Muse Keynote Lecture

Jared Isaacman has a vision to make space accessible to everyone. He outlined his hopes and his role in making them a reality during the Class of 1973 Muse Family Foundation Keynote Lecture at NCLS.

During an hourlong fireside chat-style discussion with a C1C Garrett Greenwood, Isaacman discussed the differences between leading a startup company and scaling it up, his flight experiences with the hope of someday going to space, and the disruptive nature of the new space industry.

CEO of Shift4 Payments, Isaacman is also a pilot, and he served as mission commander for Inspiration 4, the first all-civilian mission to space in September of 2021. He will lead the first of three missions of the Polaris Program, during which the crew hopes to demonstrate new technologies and conduct scientific research.

The program will “open up space to the many, not just the few,” Isaacman said. “This is the DC-3 moment for human space flights.” The DC-3 airplane helped make air travel economical and more accessible to the masses in the early 20th century.

Learn to Lead

Navy Lt. (Ret.) Jason Redman discussed the essential role that positivity had in his recovery from being severely wounded in combat as part of his Class of ’59 Leadership Lecture.

Redman, a former Navy SEAL, was shot in his arm and face when he and his assault team came under heavy machine gun fire in Iraq in 2007. After a doctor told Redman that it would take several years to fully recover, he realized that he had a choice to make in how he responded to that news.

“Recognize you have a choice,” Redman said. “When you feel like there’s no hope, there’s nothing you can do, it’s all outside of your control, understand we choose to drive forward. We choose to lead.”

Redman, now an author and motivational speaker, told the Air Force Academy cadets in attendance that they are the future leaders of the United States and called on them to find hope from within themselves.

“We need you to be the light in the darkness, to understand that it is about the content of your character and the caliber of your leadership,” Redman noted.

Peer Leadership

Brig. Gen. (Select) Raja Chari ’99 described his experience as an Air Force Academy cadet as the most impactful pathway to his future career in the Air Force and as a NASA astronaut. He noted that his education and training at USAFA helped him develop important peer leadership skills that served him well later in life.

“I think my Academy time was definitely the most difficult marathon I’ve run,” Chari said.

Chari also remarked that his military training taught him the importance of taking chances and not being afraid to fail. He recalled this lesson when his NASA flight crew experienced equipment problems during his second spacewalk.

“You are going to fail; that’s OK,” Chari said. “If you don’t fail, you’re probably not trying hard enough.”

Chari identified empathy, humility and accountability as the three most important leadership characteristics. Subordinates count on leaders to own up to their mistakes, Chari said.

“They don’t expect you to be perfect, but they do expect you to be honest and admit that you made a mistake,” Chari said.

Discovering Your Superpowers

Ted Colbert, president and chief executive officer of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, shared lessons he’s learned during his career in industry.

One nugget Colbert offered was finding the individual superpowers within one’s team. That’s accomplished by empathizing with team members and getting to know them, then ultimately identifying each person’s strengths and weaknesses.

When tackling issues, effective leaders look to those who have the strengths necessary to solve that particular problem, he said.

“When you’re working on a team, you have to bring to the team all of the superpowers that we all have,” he said. “And the only way we can get at those superpowers is to understand each other better. Empathy is so powerful from a leadership perspective.”

Colbert encouraged cadets to show up, work hard, surround themselves with positive influences, and be accountable.

He also said, however, that one has to “stay focused on results” as well.

“You have to get to outcomes,” he said.

Colvin Keynote Lecture

Dr. Eddie Glaude Jr. is pushing for an American society that understands its troubled history while working to value every American citizen.

“Leadership and character is the courage to confront our shortcomings and engage in self-examination,” Glaude told the full Arnold Hall auditorium during the Colvin Keynote Lecture of the National Character and Leadership Symposium. “It requires the ability to see the men and women in front of you as the complex creatures that they are.”

Despite clear progress, Glaude says, there is still evidence of a value gap in the nation when it comes to how the color of a person’s skin affects how that person is valued and seen.

That’s why the Princeton professor continues to advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion discussions and change. These discussions can’t be additive, he said, if they are to create change. They need to be essential.

“Data has shown that genuine diversity makes our institutions better. Companies with more diverse executive teams are likely to be more profitable, more productive,” he said. “When DEI is constitutive, we open ourselves up to be otherwise.”

Challenge Ceremony

The closing ceremony for the 2023 NCLS featured Chief Master Sergeant Randy Kwaitkowski, the command chief master sergeant at USAFA.

He challenged cadets to continue to stay curious and learn the art of leadership.

In highlighting the importance of teamwork, Kwaitkowski used the example of a highway HOV lane that’s only open to vehicles with two or more passengers. Like teams, driving in the HOV lane takes teams father and gets them there faster.

He said leaders have a profound impact on those around them, and he challenged the cadets to be officers who inspire and drive innovation.

“No single individual in this room is as smart as all of us in this room,” he said.

(For expanded coverage of the 2023 NCLS, check out the online version of Checkpoints in mid-March.)