First impressions can set tone for career

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. John Fisch
  • 341st Missile Maintenance Squadron commander
I'll never forget when I first reported to my Officer Training School flight commander, Capt. Charles Brown. After "laying down the law," he asked if I had any questions. This was my first opportunity to make a good impression and I knew just what to ask. On my way to OTS, I spent the night with a friend who was a recent graduate of the Air Force Academy. He explained the importance of starting my career strong, which meant earning Distinguished Graduate honors. I wasn't sure what being a DG meant, but it sounded good and I knew my friend was setting me on the right path. So I asked Captain Brown, "What's a guy gotta' do to be a DG around here?" I wanted to excel and was sure he would be impressed with my ambition. 

What came next was a surprise. I hadn't made a good impression on my commander, but he proceeded to make quite an impression on me. 

Captain Brown told me how irrelevant my individual success was. Furthermore, he forcefully explained that I was part of a "flight" now and all my efforts should focus on the success of my flight. If I wasn't fully taxed at any time, I was to lift others around me who needed help. It took me a while to digest this; certainly my friend was right and this guy was wrong. But Captain Brown didn't stop there. He stuck with me to ensure I would live up to what being an Air Force officer is really about. Over the next 12 weeks, I took Captain Brown's words to heart, passing up high-visibility opportunities in favor of chances to help my flight. In the end, I failed to be a DG, but I graduated knowing I had worked hard for something bigger than myself, and that felt good. Almost a decade before the publishing of the Air Force core values, Captain Brown taught me the meaning of "service before self." 

The power of setting the tone with your first exposure can not be overstated. The beauty of this power is that we all have it - you don't need to be a flight commander to put someone on the right track. Maybe you're a new Airman with a few months on base. That brand new Airman looks to you for guidance. As he looks over your shoulder, you have the choice to follow the T.O. or cut a corner. Maybe you're a brand new NCO writing your first EPR. Did you properly mentor that new Airman? Did you challenge him and work to bring him up to your level? Maybe you're an OIC striving for that stratification bullet that will set you apart. Do you set yourself apart by gunning for face time or by making your shop the best it can be? 

Every day we make decisions about what's good for us, the unit and our fellow Airmen. On a good day, those are all the same thing. Sometimes, they don't seem to be. When in doubt, we're all charged with serving our mission and our fellow Airmen before ourselves. The higher we go, the more important this becomes as we have more eyes upon us and more people we can influence. But no matter who we are, we should go through every day embracing our opportunities to be somebody's Captain Brown.