Commentary by Col. Daniel Higgins
2nd Bomb Wing Staff Judge Advocate
5/13/2013 - BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. (AFNS) -- Recently,
I saw a commercial depicting what appeared to be a typical business
meeting. An older man, clearly the boss, said something along the lines
of "So, we all agree -- it's a good idea?" To which an employee responds
"I think it's a stupid idea."
In the next scene, the employee who gave his opinion is out on the
street with a box of personal belongings, the implication being that he
was fired for speaking his mind.
I don't recall what the commercial was trying to get me to buy, but
whatever it was, I don't need it. In fact, in the Air Force, we need the
opposite. It takes courage to serve in the Air Force. Yes, obviously it
takes great physical courage.
All Airmen, regardless of rank or career field, can find themselves
suddenly and without warning in harm's way, whether deployed to a combat
zone or "safely" back at home station. Physical courage is expected;
it's part of the deal we made when we volunteered to serve. And I think
everyone understands that.
But there's another type of courage that Airmen need: moral courage.
Airmen need the courage to do the right thing when it might not be the
easy thing. They need the courage to speak up and identify an issue or a
problem when everyone else thinks things are going great.
Leaders, regardless of rank, need the courage to face their daily
challenges and make the decisions necessary to accomplish the mission.
Every decision involves risk; and while effective leaders can and should
mitigate that risk to the extent possible, they can't eliminate it
Leaders understand that if you make enough decisions, sooner or later
you'll make one that turns out to be wrong. Effective leaders get that
and they find the courage to make the decision anyway. They take in the
information available to them, weigh their options, mitigate the risk
where possible, but they act with confidence and persistence.
But truly effective leaders also want to hear when they are on the wrong
path. In fact, I would argue that they need to hear it when they are on
the wrong path. Being a good Airman requires, by definition, that you
also be a good wingman -- and being a good wingman means speaking up
when necessary. As my Army friends would say, the time to hear I'm about
to walk into a chopper blade is before I walk into the chopper
blade. After-the-fact is not helpful at all.
As a leader, I value the members of my organization who are willing to
speak up with a different viewpoint. They have the courage to offer
their views, understanding that they may not be popular. They may even
be wrong, but they offer them up anyhow because they know it makes for a
We all bring different experiences and backgrounds to the problems we
face and those different experiences influence the way we view and solve
problems. Those differences are what make the Air Force such an
There is no monopoly on good ideas; they can come from anywhere and
anyone in your unit. If you are the leader, cultivate a climate of
openness that encourages your subordinates to speak freely and offer
alternatives and suggestions for how to better accomplish the mission.
If you're a follower, speak up!
You've got to be willing to say, "I think it's a stupid idea," when it
is. Be respectful of course, but it doesn't do anyone any good for you
to say, "Yeah, I thought we were on the wrong path, but I didn't want to
say anything." That's not courage. That's not helpful to the
organization. That's not being a good wingman -- or a good Airman.