AFMC commander shares leadership perspective

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
The commander of Air Force Materiel Command signed a lot of autographs last week.

Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger, who still has the copy of the Contrails handbook she received after she entered the Air Force Academy in June 1976, is now featured in Contrails as a graduate of distinction, in no small part because she's the first woman to reach the rank of four-star general within the Air Force.

But the general had no idea what she was getting into when she got off the bus and stood before a three-story ramp that read, "Bring Me Men."

"When I asked my dad (about the service academies), he said, 'They're going to strip you of all your rights and give them back to you one at a time,'" Wolfenbarger told an audience in the Arnold Hall Theater during her presentation at the Academy's National Character and Leadership Symposium Feb. 28.

"My response to my dad, which I recall clearly, (was), 'I am an American citizen, and no one can take my rights from me.' You will all appreciate that my dad knew exactly what he was talking about."

Wolfenbarger spoke about the progression of women in the military since the Class of 1980 and about the leadership lessons she has learned over the span of her almost 34-year military career. She recalled that some male cadets believed Congress had made a mistake by allowing women to attend service academies and meant to prove it.

"For at least some, their fear was that as a result of women coming in, somehow the standards would have to be lowered," Wolfenbarger said. "As a result, then, their experience would be diminished in terms of their time here. I and my classmates spent the next four years proving to them that the standards do not have to be lowered and that women can survive and even thrive in this challenging environment."

Principled leadership

While she was a lieutenant colonel, Wolfenbarger was the lead F-22 Raptor program element monitor at the Pentagon. After pinning on colonel, she directed the B-2 Spirit System Program Office and commanded the C-17 Systems Group in the Mobility Systems Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. She became vice commander of AFMC in 2009 and assumed command of the major command in June 2012.

"I have shaped my personal Leadership 101 and 201 principles throughout my time in service, and I'd like to share those with you," she said. "I'm still working on Leadership 301."

The first principle of leadership, Wolfenbarger said, is "Do your job, and do your best."

"I am often asked to what I would attribute my success. My recipe is very simple," she said. "I approached every assignment my Air Force has given me with the drive to do my very best, and I have coupled that with bringing a positive attitude to work each and every day. It's as simple as that." As leaders, Wolfenbarger said we must motivate others on our team to approach their part of the unit's mission with the same drive and positive attitude.

From there, the general segued into her second principle: "It's all about teamwork," she said. "Nothing in the Air Force gets done in a solo fashion. Every accomplishment requires teamwork."

Next, she said, leadership means taking care of both the mission and the people.

"Taking care of our mission has two parts. The first is to work as a team to strive to excel day-to-day at getting what's in our mission 'job jar' done. That's what our Air Force has hired us to do, and we cannot fail," she explained. "But I maintain we have another responsibility as well. I maintain we must shoulder the responsibility for making our system, our institution, better along the way. I think no one is better positioned to do that, because no one knows more than us, each one of us, in whatever mission set we accomplish."

Taking care of Airmen goes hand-in-hand with accomplishing the mission, Wolfenbarger said.

"Our Airmen are our most precious resource, and taking care of them requires ... our leaders to establish a work environment that has a whole lot of characteristics," she said. Work environments must foster positive attitudes and be places where people want to work eight hours or more per day.

"The workplace needs to be a place where people feel they are rewarded for their hard work," she said. "There is a whole host of ways we can do that. Some of them are formal in terms of awards or rewards. Some of them are very informal and personal like a 'Thanks for a job well done' delivered directly from the leader."

And finally, the work environment has to be a place where people take care of one another, both professionally and personally, Wolfenbarger said.

"On the professional side, it is our responsibility to help our people achieve their true potential," she said. "What that means as a leader is sometimes you've got to let your best people go because that's the right thing for the individual, and it's the right thing for the institution."

On the personal side, leaders need to know where their people are mentally, she said. That means knowing what's causing their people stress, being good wingmen and making sure they get help from helping agencies when they need it.

"We are often in the best position to provide that assistance because we are with our co-workers, our Air Force family, for -- most days -- more hours in the day than we are with our actual families," she said.

Another leadership principle is that everyone at every level can be a leader, no matter where their name appears in an organizational chart, Wolfenbarger said. Lastly, and most importantly, leadership is about doing the right thing.

"The Air Force demands nothing more of its leaders and all of us than just that -- doing the right thing," she said. "We have no other agenda at play. ... Our obligation is simple. That doesn't make it easy, but it is straightforward. It's powerful, it's noble - it's uplifting."

Embracing Opportunity

Wolfenbarger also shared some Leadership 201 lessons, which she said she has recently compiled. It starts with embracing opportunities, even in constrained financial environments. The general outlined a reorganization of AFMC that has reduced its centers from 12 to five and returned nearly $3 billion to the Air Force.

"Clearly we now have a much more effective organizational structure," she said. "The concept was not new. My predecessors had wanted to take on either some part or the whole of something that looked like this reorganization for the past couple of decades.

"The environment was not right. The aperture wasn't open enough to drive through this historic of a change for this major command," she added. "It's this tough, tough fiscal environment we're in, one that demands more efficient operations, that allowed us to succeed in doing something that we've known for a while was the right thing to do for this command. My message to my workforce is that while this difficult budget environment is forcing us to make very difficult decisions, it also brings tremendous opportunity that I encourage them to embrace. I have never seen the aperture more wide open ... to have good ideas get a fair hearing."

Big changes, like the AFMC reorganization, require big buy-in from people both inside and outside the institution, Wolfenbarger said.

"I've found by making naysayers a part of the solution, being able to establish a middle ground even though that meant we needed to adjust the plan we originally put forth ... and then keeping all those parties involved as we went through that change process -- all those things were critical," she said.

Another Leadership 201 lesson, Wolfenbarger said, is the importance of having a simple, enduring, measurable strategic vision and plan.

"I established in (my) strategic plan five - just five - commander priorities, and I carefully crafted each one of those so my workforce could see themselves somewhere in that strategic plan and could have a goal they would aspire to," she said. "And now I am routinely using that strategic plan. I refer to it regularly because I'm tracking our progress."

Wolfenbarger's final advice to the nation's future leaders was to surround themselves with diversity of thought.

"I know that I don't have the market cornered on good ideas," she said. "If I surround myself only with people who think the same way I do, we don't look at other ideas, we look at ideas that those who think the same way come up with. It's only when you surround yourself with people who think differently than you, who have different experiences than you, that you can uncover and discover different ideas, good ideas, visionary ideas."

The general concluded by reflecting on the changes she has seen in the Air Force relative to gender diversity since the Class of 1980 threw their hats into the air at Falcon Stadium three decades ago. Since then, the percentage of women who make up the force has nearly doubled, from 10 percent to 19 percent.

"Is that representative of the demographics of our country? No. I think we have a ways to go, but we are making progress," she said.

Wolfenbarger said when she entered the Academy, an executive order issued in 1951 was still on the books that allowed the armed services to discharge any woman who became pregnant, adopted a child or became a stepmother.

"I've had women come up to me," she said, "who have told me that they were caught up in that executive order and forced out of the service. Today, our women and men are granted both maternity and paternity leave. That's progress."

Wolfenbarger talked about the opening of career fields that were closed when she started her career; the Air Force now has more than 99 percent of all career fields open to women. She also discussed the opportunities she has witnessed for career progression, culminating in women serving at all ranks to include the highest rank of General.

She closed her comments with this statement: "You don't have to look any further than what our military women are doing today, all around the globe, to see how far we've come. Women have proven they can succeed ... and that they can lead... on every battlefield."