Academy Superintendent: Cadets must learn to lead with - and without - directions

Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson (U.S. Air Force photo)

Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson (U.S. Air Force photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- My husband and I have twin 12-year-old boys, perhaps a rarity for a woman in my position - three-star Air Force general and superintendent of the United States Air Force Academy. However, one recent weekend my boys helped crystalize for me some of the work we're doing to modernize the education and training experiences at USAFA.

The boys redirected my attention from paperwork to a new Legos project. Like many families, we have a used car worth of Legos in our boy's rooms.

As I took my place on the floor, I asked what we were going to build and where were the directions. They looked at me with amusement. There were no directions to guide this session. We were going to build whatever came to mind, using the pieces we had in front of us, and since among the three of us we couldn't agree, this would be a competitive Lego session - once a Lego was placed, I'd lost my chance to use it forever.

I quickly realized I was out of my league.

As I leveraged my operations research degree from USAFA, albeit 30+ years old, combined with my analytical abilities sharpened at Oxford, I found I didn't have the skills to create from scratch. I had lost the edge I'd gained as a young girl growing up in Iowa, riding horses, climbing trees and discovering the world around me.

How could this be - I served as Air Force aide to two U.S. presidents, I led Air Force wings with thousands of people and most recently I worked with our NATO allies across the globe? I clearly have had my share of success. However, at this Lego session two 12-year-olds reminded me that to be creative - to have the agile mind necessary to take building blocks that in a pile amount to nothing and transform them into something productive - requires the freedom to experiment, to try new configurations and to learn from mistakes.

That's when it dawned on me that my Lego session was not unlike the experiences we're prescribing for many young adults, our cadets included.

As at other elite colleges, our students come to us accomplished and we provide them the instruction manual for how to become even more accomplished. "Follow these directions and your Lego set will look exactly like the back of the box." And there is some importance in being able to follow the directions.

However, in the complex, interconnected world to which they'll graduate, we're finding this isn't always the case. They'll more likely face a metaphorical floor with ideas, materials and constraints scattered across it, many of them not quite designed to fit, and they'll be expected to create something great.

Hence, we are adapting our approach at the Air Force Academy. Rather than prescribing every minute of a cadet's experience, we're challenging them with new opportunities and giving them more responsibility for their time so they can explore, discover and create.

We know they won't always use time as wisely as we'd hope - but "wise" use of time is not ours to decide. One could argue many endeavors are "wastes of time," until they're successes.

In fact, it is our responsibility to trust that these young men and women, who were so accomplished when they arrived, will find ways that we'd never think of to link their "blocks" into something of value - my smartphone comes to mind.

We also remind ourselves that practicing responsibility for how you spend your time, learning to take risks, fail and recover, and being held accountable when a choice, in foresight or hindsight, was the wrong one, are exactly the character and leadership qualities we need in our airman leaders.

Airmen have always been agile thinkers. At USAFA we're simply finding ways to ensure they have the time to practice their mental agility before they graduate to serve in our United States Air Force: to build with or without the directions.