I find one strikingly strong resemblance between USAFA’s current superintendent, Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, and the person who served as the Supe when my son started his Naval Academy journey back in 2016, Vice Admiral Ted Carter. When I see them, either in person or online, it appears clear they know they have the absolute best job in their respective branch of the military and they are enjoying every minute of it.
If you follow Gen. Clark’s Instagram account, you are treated to photos not just of him smiling at formal events but smiling while hanging out with the cadets. This is part of leadership that I believe not enough people understand – it’s not a one-and-done or one-size-fits-all type thing. Leadership, effective leadership, is a three-dimensional practice that requires flexibility, adaptability, courage, and conviction. It’s not just a matter of projecting strength and saying, “let’s go.”
Clark understands how important it is to connect to the cadets and to boost their morale, showing the “we’re all in this together and we’re here to help mentality.” Witness him jumping off the 10-meter board to inspire cadets who may find it intimidating.
Helping cadets get through training, supporting them through that process is all part of his job as leader. The fact that he does it in such a fun way just endears him to the Cadet Wing and makes some cadets try maybe just a little bit harder.
Helping cadets through training and celebrating milestones, whether it’s Recognition or Commissioning or Jacks Valley or anything in between, falls under his duty as a leader. Sometimes those leadership responsibilities aren’t as fun and require a much different approach, such as the recent loss of firstie Cole Kilty. In a community as tight-knit as the Cadet Wing, such a loss is felt by everyone and it’s important for leaders to step forward.
But leadership also means transparency (whenever possible), even if it means shining a light on something that does not reflect well on your organization or institution. The Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at Military Academies was released recently and the results, frankly, weren’t good. It would have been easy to give a generic “we have to do a better job” press release. But Gen. Clark went a step further, putting his face and voice out there, not only admitting there’s a problem (he calls the results “unacceptable”) but acknowledging there’s no quick fix and a holistic response (“culture reset”) will be required.
This is an uncomfortable part of leadership. Acknowledging that your organization has a culture problem is no small thing, especially doing it publicly because now you have accountability. It’s one thing for an organization to handle something like this internally because public scrutiny can be held at bay and the message controlled. But Gen. Clark knows this report will come again and it will again be public, so he did what a strong leader should do – he owned the issue and took responsibility for improving it. He didn’t point fingers only took responsibility. He didn’t wait to develop a plan before addressing the results, showing everyone just what a priority this is for him.
This will likely not be presented to the cadets as a lesson in leadership, but it certainly is just that. A lesson for the Air Force’s future leaders is they can admit their organization or team is not meeting expectations, that they should accept the challenge, and work toward resolution and improvement. And they must know that all of that can be quite public. Like many of the lessons they will learn, especially when it comes to leadership, it is one that will not necessarily be taught in the classroom and the learning will not end once they commission.