Leading Through Change

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. David S. Vaughn
  • Commander, 407 ECES
There is much written about "leading change" and "change agents." For those who have read on the subject of change know that if someone "moves your cheese," you have two choices: adapt or become extinct1. The first is difficult; the second undesirable. What will you do when you are faced with a need to change? I believe most of us will adapt and overcome. What will your leadership do? How will they react and lead you through the change? The survival of your organization or the mission may depend on their reaction to the change challenge facing them.

On 23 December 2009, a tired but resilient team of civil engineers from Altus assumed the task of providing base operating support services for the approximate 650 Air Force and Navy personnel assigned to Ali Base/Tallil, Iraq. This mission set is what these outstanding Airmen train for and accomplish every day at home station and in any number and manner of deployed locations. This was 'their cheese' and they were prepared for the mission at hand.

What they did not know was that their mission was changing, virtually overnight. During the two-day turnover with their predecessors, it was confirmed they would be at fifty-percent of the strength of prior teams, with the same scope and level of service expectations. The cuts in manpower were driven by the expectation of an award of a contract to replace blue-suit engineers with contractors. The award was scheduled for 1 November, but did not occur until 7 January. Liken this experience to being at a base where your function has just been outsourced through an A-76 study but you remain responsible for sustainment of your functional areas through transition and stand-up of the contractor's operation; and the military stops PCSing-in but continues to PCS-out.

Ali Base, and more prominently perhaps Contingency Operating Base Adder which surrounds the airfield, will be one of the last United States Forces-Iraq (USF-I) operating locations returned to Government of Iraq control in December 2011, as the US slowly withdraws. This effectively places Ali Base on the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) list with a target date to "turn off the lights." And the mission statement for the Altus team was "Sustain now through "A-76" transition, posture for BRAC." This was not going to be a deployment like any they had been on before.

Undaunted, the engineers waded into their work with the same intensity they always do. They have shouldered power outages and burst utility lines which cut-off all water and sewer services to Bedrock, the Air Force living area. Electrical and utility crews worked twenty-seven of their first twenty-eight days, 14-16 hours each day, just to keep basic services operational. Equipment operators attacked the runway with vigor, executing 167 spall, partial and full depth repairs. But as news of the contract award arrived, an uncertainty and mood change swept through the unit. Rumors of dispersed forward deployment to Afghanistan immediately surfaced; as well as the rumors of early return.

Action was required quickly and some of the first words Colonel Zamot, 97th Mission Support Group Commander, shared with his assembled squadron commanders came to the forefront: "The right answer is good communication." The answer at Ali was easy. The operations flight was assembled and facts were openly discussed; questions addressed; and knowledge disseminated. This is not rocket science; it should be common sense. All any of us want is information and a level of understanding; then let us do our job.

Leadership's job in this case was the most basic: take care of the Airmen and lead them through the changes as they come. What does that mean? I certainly don't hold a corner of the market on leadership, but I believe taking care of our Airmen means to provide them with the resources they need to execute the mission. In the case of our changing mission, one of the most critical resources they need, and desire, is information. Information allows them to manage their anxieties, their expectations, and to focus on today's mission tasks. Knowledge is power and I believe in sharing both. If we all understand the bigger picture, the team is strengthened and our ability to adapt has broader range. Leading through change hinges on good, early communication to those affected. If they understand the challenges they face, our Airmen will continue to astound with their ability to execute the mission.

1.  Who Moved My Cheese?, Dr. Spencer Johnson, Putnam Adult, 1998.