Airman 'pace-setters' succeed with grit, optimism

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Alan Boling
  • 65th Air Base Wing command chief
In a Ted Talk video I viewed recently, Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology, talked about achievement and why some people do well and some do not. In her research, Duckworth studied many different groups including, school children, West Point cadets, rookie teachers in tough neighborhoods and salespeople in very challenging positions. Her goal: determine which individuals succeeded and why.

She found that personal grit, or determination, was the greatest single predictor of personal success. In fact, determination was an even stronger predictor of success than intelligence, family income, personal safety, social skills, good looks and even physical health.

Like many studies, this confirms what many Airmen come to know:  more than talent, it takes determination to succeed.  I've seen many Airmen who weren't always the smartest or most popular, but worked hard to become technical experts and top leaders. Those Airmen often attained the coveted title of "Go-to Airman;" the type of Airman that is trusted time and again to make things happen in tough situations. Grit and determination produce "Go-to Airmen," and those are the Airmen we need on our team.

Conversely, I've seen too many intellectuals and socially-intelligent people that were mediocre Airmen at best. Because they lacked heart or drive, they squandered their innate gifts by complaining, criticizing or directing their energy to useless drama or the party scene. These Airmen failed to achieve their potential because they did not have the drive to reach for goals beyond their current grasp.

But there's more to the complete package when it comes to adopting the right Airman attitude.

Coupled with determination, optimism is the fuel that drives Airman and those around them. Optimism sustains forward momentum and energy, bringing out excellence in people; not just compliance.

On the other hand, a pessimist focuses on why things can't be done instead of how it can be done. Like a bad apple in a barrel, the pessimist tries to spoil the rest of the bunch.

Several years ago while stationed in Alaska I received a valuable piece of advice on this trait. While talking with an experienced outdoorsman about navigating tough hunting terrain in Alaska, his best advice was, "pick your hunting partner wisely." It only took one trip with a bad hunting partner to know exactly what he was talking about.  You see, my hunting partner was a pessimist and in the tough situations we encountered, my partner's attitude made the situation excruciatingly difficult.

In 24 years in the Air Force, I've come to know a few types of people who possess varying degrees of optimism and determination.

The "driver" is determined to get the mission done at all costs. Drivers make things happen, but too often at the expense of the Airmen around them.

"Caretakers" are the over-the-top optimist who insists that everything is "just fine." Oftentimes, caretakers make you feel great about things, but their organization makes little positive movement in any one direction. Some would say, caretakers just "mind the store."

But the best I've seen is the "pace-setter," or that Airman that possesses the best qualities of the drivers and caretakers. This Airman establishes direction, encouraging and inspiring the people around him. Pace-setters influence their organization to do more and achieve team goals.

The balance exhibited by pace-setters inspires others through optimistic confidence and motivates their teammates with raw determination, enabling teams to achieve long-term goals and overcome short-term hardships.

I believe that most of us are naturally a driver or a caretaker, depending on our personality. No matter where you're at in your Air Force career - whether driving hard to reach goals or taking care of those around you - I challenge you to balance these traits and become a determined and optimistic team member that sets the pace and inspires others to achieve excellence.