The new lieutenant: Getting comfortable being uncomfortable
By Lt Col Thomas Haas, 31st Force Support Squadron commander
/ Published July 13, 2017
AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- I recently had a conversation with a young officer who was frustrated by the steep learning curve in a tough job to which she was freshly assigned. While she was fully committed, she was building experience along with some professional bruises, and knew she was bound for additional missteps along the way.
“Why does the Air Force do this?” she asked.
A few days later, this conversation was mirrored by a lieutenant, also in a new job, who vented, “I feel like I’m always playing catch up.”
To be frank, I absolutely empathized with both of these young officers. These new officers almost always report to their first duty station excited and eager to lead. They’re ready to impact the Air Force and make things happen. Unfortunately, while their academic credentials ensure they’ve got state-of-the-art analytical abilities, they still often feel under-equipped. Building operational experience is tough, and for many, this is the first full-time job they’ve had.
To top it off, it’s an unusual situation to be in -- having someone with 25 years of experience salute you and being told to lead them.
Optimistically, we talk about stretching our Airmen, and assure them that being outside the comfort zone is precisely how we grow skills. What doesn’t seem to reach most junior officers is they’ll have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
As a second lieutenant, I recall heading into technical school thinking I’d graduate with all the expertise I needed. While there’s a lot of good learning that happens in technical school, in 15 years of commissioned service, I’ve seen that it can only scratch the surface of real world learning. Sure, education and training will soften the edges, but experience comes with bumps and bruises.
Once you’ve got your feet under you, count on the ground to shift as you move, deploy or change jobs.
What you eventually find is you start to gain confidence in finding your way when the path isn’t always clear.
What drives this model? As part of a world-wide, mobile force, Airmen have to plug and play to support commanders. The Air Force consistently puts us in new situations and counts on us to deliver. To be effective from the first day on the ground, we rely on a honed ability to observe, orient, decide and act.
For these young lieutenants, let me emphasize that what you’re feeling is normal. It’s a lot to digest, but it’s also something you’ll constantly face throughout your career.
When you find yourself in a new situation, think about what information you need to make a decision, and seek experts to help you understand. Reach out to your peers and network. They know what you’re dealing with. Trust yourself, and you’ll get there. This is part of growing as an officer.
Sooner or later, you’ll realize you’ve gotten a handle on your job and are actually getting pretty good at it. While that’s a great feeling, keep in mind it won’t be too long until it’s time to shift gears and get uncomfortable again.