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Failure can be a learning opportunity - if leaders help

By Air Force Lt. Col. Chris Todd | 3rd SOS commander | July 9, 2015

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — It was a very early morning during the spring of 1993 at Hahn Air Base, Germany.

There was a loud knock on my dorm room door. I shot out of bed still in a sleepy stupor to answer it, not knowing who was going to be on the other side.

Then my heart dropped into my stomach as I stared into the disappointed eyes of my squadron superintendent, Senior Master Sgt. Larry G. Thornton.

The officers and other senior members of the squadron called him "Thumper."

At that moment, I could have easily thought it was because of how loudly he knocked on dorm room doors.

But I knew that wasn't true. In fact, I still don't know why they called him that, but I do know one thing - I have never forgotten how terrible I felt at that moment to have let him, and the squadron, down.

I was a communications-computer systems operator assigned to the 602nd Air Control Squadron at Wueschheim Air Station, Germany.

That unit deactivated in the spring of 1993, and because I was the most junior Airman in the squadron, I was designated the guidon bearer for the deactivation ceremony.

As a young comm troop, I was honored to be in front of our squadron of weapons controllers, operators and maintainers.

I was intent on trying my hardest to be the best guidon bearer out there that morning.

With aspirations to attend college, I was also in the middle of the application process for the United States Air Force Academy.

The evening before, I had an interview with my Academy Liaison Officer at Bitburg Air Base, which was about an hour away.

The interview went well, and I was on my way back to my home base. But I got lost on the German back roads with just a small map and no sense of direction in that foreign country.

What I would have given for a navigation app on a smartphone right about then.

I finally found my way, but not until after 4 o'clock the next morning.

I was supposed to wake up a couple hours later to start getting ready for my guidon duties, but I was tired, having stayed up all night trying to find my way back to the dorms.

I made the fateful decision to sleep - just for a little bit.

I slept through my alarm, turned it off or didn't even set it correctly. I just know I never woke up in time to get ready.

Worse, I had the guidon in my dorm room, so it was not as though someone else could have easily stepped in to take my place.

So, the squadron commander sent his superintendent to get me.

When I answered the door, Thumper saw I wasn't dressed for formation and took the guidon from my room.

He said to me in a very stern voice, "I will talk to you about this later," and stormed off to the deactivation ceremony.

The next day, I had to report in to the squadron commander in service dress and with my tail between my legs.

Thumper could see I was a wreck. I beat myself up about my behavior more than he, or the squadron commander, could ever have. And he knew it.

In April that year, I received my appointment to the Air Force Academy.

My unprofessional actions could have easily sealed my fate. But Thumper went to bat for me.

He felt I was a good troop, and must have done some great salesmanship to convince my squadron commander not to pull my application package.

Over the next few weeks, my superintendent picked me up from my despair.

He made sure I didn't slip into a negative attitude, and he used this unfortunate event as a teaching point for me.

He taught me about responsibility and accountability, and to never take either of those for granted. These lessons have lasted through the rest of my career.

From my experience, there are three takeaways from my story that I'd like to leave behind for others.

First, never forget from where you came, and never ever forget the people that played a factor in where you are today.

My military performance is just a small reason why I am here writing these words. The fine men and women of every squadron, at every base, and at every career milestone of mine were instrumental, in every bit, in my successes (and to fixing my failures). And I'll never forget that.

Second, most mistakes are recoverable. As military professionals, we should not be averse to making mistakes.

Rather, we should learn from those mistakes so we, and others, should not have to learn the same lessons the hard way.

Today, as the squadron commander of a "young" squadron, I see some of the same negative traits that I demonstrated many years ago. I also see these as a challenge to the supervisors and leaders in the squadron to mentor our "young" force.

We accomplish our wing mission on a daily basis, but at the same time, I encourage everyone to also focus on one of our wing priorities of developing "highly trained, motivated, and resilient Airmen."

Sometimes that involves taking the same approach as my superintendent did many years ago.

And lastly, always trust your superintendent. I did back then, and I still do. Of course, it's a different relationship that I have now with the superintendent. Together, we have collectively "been there, done that."

We tell stories about our past and how Airmen today make similar (or the same) mistakes we did. Never forget that. We complement each other's leadership style and make an effective leadership team.

I know I couldn't do this squadron commander job without our superintendent. And I know I couldn't be in this seat without Thumper's mentoring when I messed up.
Thumper retired as a chief master sergeant and the 1C5 functional manager at U.S. Air Forces in Europe.

After I took command, I sent him a note thanking him for his leadership, his mentorship and his faith in me more than 20 years ago.

I have never forgotten Thumper. I will be eternally grateful for his mentorship and guidance as my superintendent.

He played a huge factor in where I am right now and the kind of officer I am today.

Thank you, Thumper.