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Challenges: Just deal with them or overcome them

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- We in the Air Force are fast approaching very challenging times as both individuals and organizations. There has been much written and spoken recently about the upcoming force shaping efforts to trim nearly 25,000 Airmen from our ranks.

Not to diminish the situation facing individuals in the least, I want to write about the trials facing many squadrons, groups, and wings across today's Air Force. Initially, those organizations are faced with helping their members prepare for the possibility of being selected for separation and with assisting those selected to successfully re-enter civilian life.

Those are not the only challenges facing those units, however. What will our organizations do without the people chosen to separate? Some units will have 10 to20 percent of their force voluntarily or involuntarily separated in approximately a year. Although we have an idea of the number of people to be separated, the fate of the positions within the organizations is yet to be decided.

How does a unit keep up its mission while so many people are preparing to separate? How does that same unit keep going after those people have left? How do leaders take care of those Airmen who remain to accomplish the mission? Those are the challenges I want to address.

When faced with challenges, I see that people usually have one of a couple of reactions. Sometimes people tend to hunker down, put on the blinders and push through. I have to admit, this has been one of my most common ways of dealing with adversity. I can't begin to list the times where this approach has helped me push through the challenge, pain, or fear in my path. I have to ask myself, however, if this personal approach is the best way to lead an organization. Don't I owe my Airmen more than simply telling them to "hang in there - it can't last forever"? I cannot simply tell them to "work harder"...indefinitely.

In other times, some people are overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of their obstacles and simply give up - the task seems too daunting. As enticing as this approach may appear to some, Air Force leaders don't have the option to give it even a passing thought. We owe our Airmen and our nation much more.

Helen Keller, American author, political activist and lecturer, once said, "The world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming." She showed us through her example that we have the ability to choose whether we remain in our suffering or overcome it.

I think we have to look for a third approach by looking for an opportunity in the challenge. We may even have to make our opportunity in the test. I know we have all heard too many motivational speakers who make it sound too simple - "all the way with positive mental attitude." I won't pretend that any of this is easy, straightforward or clear. What I will say is that we owe it to our Airmen and our missions to find another way. This opportunity I speak of is the chance to refocus on effectiveness, mission accomplishment and shed whatever does not contribute.

We must encourage our people to re-think what we do and how we do it. We must ask those who best know our processes and tasks to find different approaches to get them done. We have to begin by focusing on the effects we want to achieve. We may find that some of the steps we usually take to get to the desired end state don't actually make much difference or contribute to the main effort.

When we find those steps, through the knowledge and experience of our Airmen, we may begin to re-fashion what we do and begin to find better ways of accomplishing our mission.

With all this talk of mission, desired effects and end state, we cannot forget to take a hard look at the mission itself. We have to make sure what we are spending our time on is actually the mission. We may have to re-evaluate what the mission or missions are. There may be some entire tasks that we can no longer do.

If that is the case, we as leaders need to address these and get relief. We cannot disregard Air Force instructions, but we can work to get them changed if requirements outweigh resources available. We also must not sacrifice safety to get the job done when we don't have what we need. It may be enticing to sacrifice safety in all the good intentions to get the mission done, but we cannot give in to the temptation.

We are entering trying times. An old English proverb, likely based on Plato, instructs us that "necessity is the mother of invention." When you look at the history of our country and our great Air Force, we find that many of the most powerful changes, innovations, or inventions came when we needed them most. Although this may not be the most difficult time in the history of the Air Force, it has the makings of the most challenging time I have seen in my career - there is definitely a necessity. We have a choice as to how we tackle these obstacles. Leaders owe it to their Airmen to turn the obstacle into an opportunity to keep focused on effectively accomplishing the mission while dedicating resources efficiently on critical tasks.