"Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the
good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt."
Listen to this article on Podcast: Here
Every Airman serving in the Air Force has an annual performance report designed to capture past performance and provide insight into what that individual has accomplished and is capable of in the future. There are many intricacies of this system that I won't get into for my non-AF readers. However, two key places within these reports are essential for career progression: two push lines.
Push lines are the final sentences written by your rater and an additional rater that summarizes a year of performance. Only 115 or so characters strategically build carefully written words that can propel or stall your career progression within the Air Force. These lines are pieced together with other push lines from your past performance. This creates a story for your promotion potential and "paints a picture" for promotion boards. My reports so far have been on a generally positive trajectory. I've earned a promotion at each level available to me, been nominated and won some awards (not that many, to be honest), and received consistent stratifications and recommendations for additional levels of responsibility from my leadership. However, during this year's report drafting, I had a different perspective presented to me.
I asked a senior officer from my functional community, who recently participated in the development team that reviews records for key leadership opportunities, for some honest feedback. She reviewed my records and shared her perspective on how competitive I would be for Colonel, which, for me, is next year. Of note, I've never met nor worked for her directly, so this would be purely objective based feedback on my records. Upon reviewing my records, she stated she agreed with my perspective and that she believes I would be competitive for an on-time Colonel promotion. Achieving the rank of Colonel has been a goal of mine since I first commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. Throughout my career, I've met people not familiar with the military and its vernaculars. When they find out I'm an officer, they ask me my current rank. I respond simply with the rank, of which they usually ask, "that's high, right?" I always get awkward when that second question is asked. This is because I've never thought, from my purview, any officer rank was "high" until one reaches Colonel. So I typically respond, "I guess that depends. I don't really think so," and try to advance the conversation as fast as possible.
The senior officer asked the following follow-up question: What were the push lines out for my first tour as squadron command? I've looked at those push lines often, mainly because I have to usually explain what happened.
Here are the push lines for the first year:
· Rater - My #1/5 Majs; led CS to MSG Sq/qtr x2; white-hot leader with killer 1st year as CC--Joint Staff/OSD a must after IDE
· Additional Rater - My #2/87 Majs; superstar leader with stellar 1st year, can't wait to be amazed during his 2nd--Joint staff/OSD post-IDE
Here are the push lines for the second year:
· Rater - Passed Sq/CC test with flying colors; boundless energy/drive--perfect choice for Joint Staff/OSD as IDE follow-on
· Additional Rater - My #8/80 Majs; charismatic ldr completing cmd w/ a bang; FY13 Wg Info Dom FGOY--Joint Staff/OSD post-IDE
If you notice, there is a noted drop in performance during the second year of my command. The vibe just isn't that strong, and I usually have to explain what happened. While there are still positive words contained within, it is definitely not the same type of energy as captured during my first year.
Let's take a look at the first year of my second command tour:
· Rater - Best seen CS/CC in 24 years; courage/leadership define him; confronts issues others avoid; SDE then tough Gp/CC
· Additional Rater - #6/52 ABW Lt Cols; FY18 11 AF Info Dom Lg CS Unit Awd; tech savvy, mission focused leader--SDE then Gp/CC
And here is my second year:
· Rater - Aced Sq/CC with ease; innovative, driven team builder who led squadron to peak results--send to SDE then Gp/CC
· Additional Rater - Top 20% of ABW Lt Cols; visionary cyber leader, easily the best I've seen in 22 yrs--Gp/CC following in-res SDE
Again, there is a noted drop during the second year of my command tour. I never noticed that a similar theme can be seen in two critical points in my career. I started out with high expectations, and I twice didn't meet them in my second year from all accounts. Looking at those four sentences together really hit me hard, and I started to doubt myself.
I began to question whether or not I believe that I am fully capable of serving at the next rank level as a Colonel. I did earn the recommendation from leadership that I could serve as a Group Commander. In doing so, this inherently requires me to have the potential for Colonel. It seems like my drop in performance hasn't affected my potential to serve in a higher grade and have more senior responsibilities. This performance report will be near the top of the stack of my package when I meet my promotion board. For the first time in my career, I started to doubt that maybe I'm not ready for Colonel. I replied to the senior officer with many thanks for her time and feedback. I told her I've never analyzed my performance from both of my squadron command tours in isolation, which led to me having this self-doubt. This self-doubt lingered for a bit until I realized: Don't let these four sentences from the past define who you are as a leader today.
I have refused to let those four sentences be the sole measure of success during my four years of squadron command. My success is measured through so much more than some words on a paper. It's measured by the trials I have endured leading Airmen to serve our nation. It's measured in the stripes, bars, and oak leaves that continue to rise throughout the Air Force's ranks because they have risen to the challenges presented to them. They kept their eyes forward and never stopped trying to do their best. Success is measured by the one-on-one talks I've had with teammates of all ranks to help them become better leaders. Helping them overcome their own doubts or pushing them outside of their comfort zone to success. Success is measured by the "thank-yous" I've received from people under my command. My Airmen have appreciated my potentially non-traditional way of leading people by staying true to myself, even sometimes at my own expense. I didn't serve as a squadron commander to advance my own career. Instead, I have and will continue to serve, advance the careers, and lives of others. I have sought to groom the next generation of leaders that our Air Force needs and wants.
"The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts
of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith."
--Franklin D. Roosevelt
I've kept that same energy as I've ascended the ranks and assumed higher positions of responsibility. I'll continue to keep that same energy and not let the flame burn out. The push lines will be written how they are written, but they have never been a focus of mine. There is a time and place to have those written in a matter that summarizes me within the ecosystem of the Air Force. Still, I'm not going to worry about them. I trust in my leadership that they will make the best choice for the Air Force, and I will return to doing my job being an authentic leader who genuinely leads others. I will be a leader who leads boldly and doesn't worry about two sentences on a performance report. Instead, I will place my energy into advancing the men and women around me to others rise to their untapped potential. A leader who does not see himself at the top of an organization chart, but instead, someone who believes in the inverse of that model and thinks about how to best help the team over career advancement.
Self-doubt is natural, and being ashamed of it won't help the situation. I see it as a sensor telling me something. Sensors are telling me that I am human and prone to the same feelings everyone else encounters. Additionally, the sensors tell me that I'm not special and that hard work will overcome any fears or doubts I may face. However, I have also realized this sensor is temporary by nature. I chose to transform it into a vector check that I will have to continue to learn and continue to lead. Self-pity serves nothing but itself, so I leave that feeling of doubt behind me and keep on pushing forward and believe in myself. I will continue to work hard and continue to evolve into being the leader I would want to follow.
I recently finished my draft performance report for 2020, and I have no idea how the push lines will be written. I leave that to my leadership to figure out. We'll see if I maintain a positive trajectory and earn an opportunity to serve as a Colonel in the Air Force. In the meantime, you'll see me doing what I do best: leading with positivity and punching doubt in the throat, no matter what rank I hold.
You can find more from Lt Col Avilla at constantelevation.co and his podcast Constant Elevation
Lieutenant Colonel Gabriel "gaberock" Avilla currently serves as Division Chief, Fusion Operations, Joint Forces Headquarters DoD Information Network, Ft Meade, Maryland. He is a career Cyberspace Operations Officer and a twice graduated squadron commander. He is a graduate of USMC Command and Staff College. He was commissioned from ROTC in 2001 with Bachelors's in Computer Information Systems and holds two master's degrees in Business Administration and Military Strategic Studies.