Are You a Renter or an Owner?

  • Published
  • By Brig. Gen. John N.T. Shanahan
  • 55th Wing commander
I think it was Larry Summers who once famously said, "In the history of the world, no one has ever washed a rented car." That seemingly simple statement is actually quite astute, for it gets right to the heart of a point I have tried to make in the almost seven years I have been fortunate to serve as a commander. Namely, that it is only when we feel that we own something that we take real pride in it. When we rent, typically we don't have anywhere near the same level of ownership and, most importantly, the sense of pride that comes with possession. As Mr. Summers said, when you believe you are a renter instead of an owner you never gain the incentive necessary to really take care of whatever it is you are borrowing from someone else.

We all need to "own" our base and our facilities, not to rent them. Over the course of our lives all of us take great pride in maintaining our own houses, our cars, our yards, our physical fitness and recreational equipment, and so on. So why is it that we don't have that same sense of pride and ownership the moment we enter a base? Because we think we are only temporary occupants -- transients who expect to turn over the keys to the base to somebody else as soon as our tour is over. After all, isn't it somebody else's problem to take care of the base?

In a word: no. We must act like each of us owns a piece of our workplace, not like we're simply renting it for the short term. Whether we are talking about our roads, our sidewalks, our offices, our gym, or even our restrooms, the same concept should apply: treat them as if you own them. I am always surprised and disappointed when I drive around the base and find obvious things that need to be fixed -- such as a big piece of trash in the middle of the road or someone violating a core Air Force directive-- yet it is obvious that by the time I find the problem, many other people had already managed to turn a blind eye to the same thing. It's ironic how something that you wouldn't let pass for 10 minutes in your own house becomes completely acceptable when you believe in your heart that you are only a renter and not an owner. As one seemingly trivial example, how many times have you been in a restroom on base and ignored the dozens of paper towels lying on the floor beside the trash can? Somebody else's problem, right?

Wrong. Change your mindset to one of ownership instead of renting, and you will be amazed how the base transforms. As our new Air Combat Command Commander Gen. William M. Fraser III, said shortly after taking over, "never walk by a problem ... fix it." As others watch you take action, they too will begin to find an extra 30 seconds in their day to fix some other problem they see, and so on. Trust me -- the ownership attitude is contagious.

I am not asking you to wash the next car you rent. But I am asking you to change your way of thinking. Pay it forward ... own our base, don't rent it!

P.S. After using Larry Summers' quote for years, I finally encountered someone with a remarkable conscience who told me that he actually once washed a dirty rental car. Still, you get the idea.