My First Time - Derek Oaks

My First Time

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I remember the first time. Not all of the details, the names, the activities or dates, but I remember the emotions, the feelings, the thrill and sense of purpose. I remember the looks and the sense of satisfaction and achievement. I remember well my first real sense of leadership. I loved it.

I was an Air Force Academy Cadet, having completed the first two years of schooling and military training that were a precursor to real leadership experience and real opportunities. While I had had a number of chances to lead small events, or take responsibility for a project to two, none of those events gave me a real sense of what leadership was all about. Having grown up in the shadow of who I think was one of the great leaders of the latter Twentieth Century (my dad), I nonetheless was still searching for my ‘how’ and ‘why’ for leading others. After two years, I felt a glimmer of what would become my passion.

During your fourth-class year as a cadet, you learn obedience, discipline, and order. You learn discomfort, your limits mentally and physically, and you get a sense of purpose as part of an organization full of outstanding people with a focus towards graduation, service, and patriotism. I watched many leaders–some great, some struggling, and some despicable, power-hungry and downright mean. I was too busy surviving to take many notes, but I did recognize greatness when I saw it. I felt greatness.

As I moved up to my third-class year, we ‘received’ a new class of doolies, fourth-classmen, or smacks, as they were called in mixed company. These newly-minted cadets were only a year behind me in training, maturity and age, and yet my classmates and I were charged as their front-line trainers of everything military. More like the blind leading the blind, I consider my leadership skills at the time and realize that I desperately wanted them to grasp what had become a purpose for me–that of being an officer candidate–and my focus was often more on the rules and my sense of integrity at the time. I did not really understand what leadership meant. I tried to set an example of bearing, standards, and knowledge, but as I look back I think I was as much the student as any of the ‘younger’ cadets I was supervising.

The switch happened, probably not overnight, but recognizably for me, during basic training for the class of ’91. It was early July 1987, and I was an Element Sergeant, responsible for the daily training of about twelve cadets, and part of a cadre of upperclassmen that were responsible for nearly forty brand new basic cadets, what would amount to a cadet wing squadron of freshman recruits. They knew nothing of the military, mostly had just finished high school as the top of their respective classes and full of themselves, and very much resembled where I had been two short years before.

As they stepped off the buses, they endured one significant emotional event after another as we stripped away their individual attitudes and made them a part of a military organization. We taught them to march, how and when to salute, how to stand at attention, and things completely foreign to almost all of them. We taught them basic Air Force knowledge, team-building skills, fitness, and the true meaning of stress and exhaustion.

All of our techniques were not group hugs and cheers. The 0530 physical training on a field that smelled like raw sewage, forced marches, rapid-fire questions and never enough time to finish anything well were all designed to test their mettle, and help them to see their greatness through challenges. I’m pretty sure I lost my voice for a day or two. I did more pushups than any of them. I slept much less than them. I was fully engaged and busy with ‘the mission’ of turning them into officer candidates. I somehow thought that was leadership, and there were elements of leadership there.

I started to realize that I was wrong–or had at least missed the point–about two weeks into their three weeks of hell with my and my other cadre members. As I watched these kids who were barely younger than I, I started to see them catch the vision. I started to see them grasp tasks, learn skills, and understand their future place in the Cadet Wing. But the real thrill was when I saw them mentally and emotionally commit to being officer candidates. I saw it in their eyes, in their effort, and in their attitudes. It had nothing to do with me, and my ability to get them to do what I thought they should be doing. It had everything to do with them, and their individual desire to be there and to succeed. I realized that I was not there to get them to follow me. I was there to teach them skills, to provide boundaries and knowledge and techniques and challenges, it was true. But the real success of leadership happened as I saw them embrace themselves, where they were, and what they were about. We were successful as cadre as we saw them unleash the beast within themselves and decide personally that they wanted to be there despite the discomfort and challenge of it all. I watched them finish challenges, take care of each other, dig deeper than even they thought they could, and become ready to start their long path towards Air Force officers. The look in their eyes and their commitment to ‘the mission’ were my leadership victories, and I realized that it had more to do with them than it did with me. I was honored to be around them and to watch them succeed. Not because of my efforts, but because of theirs. To this day, I still clearly see their shaved heads, ill-fitting uniforms, and sweaty brows as they ‘got it’. I see their eyes.

It was my first time. It was my ‘aha’ leadership moment. I had heard the terms before, been taught basic leadership principles, and been around great leaders my whole life. But it was not until I saw the personal commitment of those in my charge that I understood what leadership was all about. It was about them, not me. And I loved it.

That was over thirty years ago. Since then, I’ve had more leadership opportunities than I can count. I was successful at some, and a failure at others. Regardless of the mission, the main measure of success has come to be how well ‘they’ embraced it and ran with it. The look in their eyes has said it all.

There are literally thousands of books on leadership, describing techniques, methods, and key points. Each with a different purpose, some with a different audience, leadership takes many forms and is applied to many settings. Sports teams, youth groups, scouts, church groups, children, business teams, fellow military and law enforcement servicemen. They are all require different variations and techniques, but they are all the same. The leadership challenges become leadership victories when you sense that they want it more than you do, and when you recognize that you are not needed. It becomes a victory when it is their victory.


One Comment

  • Cliff Gyves

    Thank you. For this reflection and for your commitment 32 years ago. I was one of those Basics back in 1987. You folks from ’89 and ’88 gave us in the Class of ’91 a great start.

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