The power of making a connection

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Brian O’Connor
  • 92nd Force Support Squadron
The year was 1984, Ronald Regan had just won the presidential election, the LA Raiders beat the Washington Redskins in the Super Bowl that year, and Friday the 13th (Part 3) grossed a record $9.4 million at the box office.

The same year, crime was stabilizing for most Americans. However, one young man was not aware of how crime was improving in America. He was working very hard on his chosen path of generalized mayhem and vandalism, which were said to be his specialties.

Always priding himself as a bit of an overachiever some of his misadventures even resulted in a nationwide redesign of the multi-stall self-service car wash, which he liked to think he was doing his part in helping with employment rates. This young man also showed early promise in community involvement; his probation officer helped him “connect” with his city by diligently managing his 1,200 hours of court-ordered community service. This kid was on the fast track to nowhere and could not see he was his own worst enemy. The one thing he had going for him was his sealed juvenile records, otherwise he would not have been able to find his way out of the trouble he created.

While serving his community service, he began to think to himself, maybe there was a better way to live other than causing mayhem and vandalizing everywhere he went. It was then, while completing his community service, he saw a sign for Air Force Recruiting. With no motivation or future plans, he decided to give the Air Force a try.

As you might imagine, his early years in the Air Force were marked with dark days. Fortunately, he had the help of great leaders who recognized the young man’s strong work ethic. This was key to setting him straight as he progressed in his Air Force career. When taking a closer look at what really helped this Airman to excel in his career, he believes it all began in a small but significant moment in his life.

You see, this young man had less than great beginnings. Just like a lot of people, this young man was not necessarily all that charismatic. He had a strong work ethic, but so do a lot of people. The young man possessed one thing many of us want in our life, something that has proven to be the catalyst for positive change and allows a person to be great: a friend. Not a buddy letting him do whatever he wanted, not just a supervisor telling him what to do, but someone who truly cared and understood the importance of connecting first and communicating second. This friend was a person of influence, a leader. John Maxwell said, “everyone communicates, but few connect. To connect we need to answer three vital questions. Do you care about me? Can I trust you? Can you help me?”

Looking back on his story, the young man would probably say his defining moment came when a supervisor made a true connection with him during a routine feedback session. Unlike others in the past, this supervisor took the time to connect. This supervisor believed in him and what the young man could become if he was willing to give to others first, serve others first and think of others first. With that in mind, any goal could be achieved. The young Airman was inspired to be part of something bigger than himself, just like his mentor had modeled for him year after year.

Even with this new inspiration, there were hard days ahead: health, marriage, fitness, education, finances, the whole gamut. Yet, the overarching desire to reach his goal would eventually shine bright enough to lead him to a new day. Each new day he began to model his behaviors after those who had achieved goals similar to those he had set for himself, learning introspection and self-awareness along the way.

He examined cause and effect relationships of how ideas and action interplay and sought answers to questions on how to be a better leader for his Airmen. He learned like most leaders, most answers came from his own failures. He stayed positive when things did not go his way, and would think of Aristotle who said, “we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

These “failures” ended up being the perfect storm of self-development he needed to achieve his goal, becoming a chief master sergeant.

This Airman was me, that friend was my boss Master Sgt. Joe Abell. All of this was facilitated because one Airman made a powerful yet simple connection with another Airman, which led to the creation of a distant but achievable goal. Abell changed more than my career, he changed my life with his belief in me and my goal and also gave the gift of resiliency without knowing it.

We are all challenged each day with more work than we could ever complete in a 24-hour period. Our Airmen are often said to be the most important resource we have in completing the mission. Though it seems counterintuitive, I have come to learn that leadership, which is nothing more than influence, is more about answering those three vital questions from our Airmen. Did I show that I cared? Did I demonstrate they can trust me? Did I show I can help them?

Like Abell all those years ago, it is in the giving to our Airmen and serving our country we are able to make the positive changes in our own lives and the people we serve.