My awareness of leadership began when I was nineteen years old. I was a lost teenager, hanging out with a rough crowd, getting into trouble and barely graduating high school. It was the late Sixties and early Seventies in Boulder, Colorado, during a time of “make love not war,” hippie beads and fingers raised in a V as a symbol of peace. The newsreels of the war in Vietnam showed helicopters airlifting the last of the Americans out of the war zone, leaving hordes of desperate Vietnamese to the hands of their oppressors. Everyone I knew was either protesting some injustice or lost in a haze of drugs and trying as hard as they could to disentangle themselves from the mess. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I made some bad choices. The judge said, “Son, you don’t look like a bad kid. So I am going to make a recommendation. Leave Colorado for a time.” He leaned down from his bench and looked me in the eye. “I recommend the military, and don’t return for a few years. If you do as I say, I might just look the other way.” In that statement, my life turned around.
It was now nine weeks later. I had been in the U. S. Air Force now almost a full six weeks: twelve hours a day, seven days a week of marching, PT, weapon drills, classroom hours and more structure than I had ever had in my life. We were two full flights of young men living in a second-floor barracks, getting ready to head to the parade grounds for graduation, and by tradition we were required to be at our best in our Air Force dress-blue uniforms. It was probably 112° outside, and none of the guys was excited about getting into uniform and marching in the stifling Texas heat. All of a sudden our dorm guard yelled, “Attention!” followed quickly by “Female in the dorm!” Two squads of young men barely out of high school snapped to attention in various states of undress.
Staff Sergeant Cunningham yelled out, “Put ’em on quick, boys! You just might be graduating soon if you don’t fall asleep and miss the party. I am in no way going to allow that. I am very invested in seeing all of you lazy, good- for-nothing bunch of malingering misfits graduate. I am tired of being your second mother, watching over you to see that you don’t get your hair messed up every time you step out of line.”
We all laughed. Staff Sergeant Cunningham had a way of putting us at ease when the time was right. She was twenty-seven years old, five foot four, maybe one hundred pounds dripping wet, and had been on active duty for seven years. I am not sure exactly what demonic force overtook me, but I made a loud wisecrack about her being the mother of my dreams. Both flights of men cracked up, making catcalls and generally causing a ruckus. Everyone, that is, but our dear drill sergeant. She said and did nothing. That nothing had impact; it felt as if all the air was being sucked out of the room. Everything went into slow motion. All eyes were on me, including hers. She pointed at me, dropped her voice and said, “Airman Balsley . . . follow me.” This provoked another round of catcalls and whistles from the guys, which was in turn quickly stifled with one threatening glance delivered over her shoulder. We marched into her office. Just before the door closed, I mustered as much courage as I could and shot a cool look back to the guys that said, “I’ve got this covered.”
The drill sergeant’s office was a windowless concrete room with no air conditioning. All we had in our dorm was a fan to blow the air around in a humorous attempt to keep us cool, and none of that moving air was reaching this tiny cinder block cubicle. It was airless and oppressive. She was in her full dress blues; they were pressed and starched, buttons polished and nothing out of place. I was soaked from the heat, and she didn’t have a drop of sweat on her. It was as if the 112° heat didn’t even faze her. I made another halfhearted attempt at being cheeky, my cockiness trying to shine through. She just stared at me silently, her steely blue eyes not wavering. My nineteen-year-old smart- ass attitude was starting to wear off. It was clear that I was in way over my head. Sure, she was twenty-seven and cute, but she had also been in a mostly male military for seven years and had made her way up the ranks. She had lots of experience with men acting disrespectful to her. She stepped up close to me and asked me where I was from.
“Boulder, Colorado, ma’am,” I replied. Her mood started to change. She looked at me and forced her words out.
“You don’t mean to tell me that you came all the way from Boulder, Colorado, just to piss me off and disrespect me, did you?”
”No, ma’am,” I said.
She stood inches away from me, her face getting redder by the second. Her pupils turned small, beady and predatory, piercing the very core of my being. The last of my cockiness left with its tail between its legs. Her voice got louder and louder.
“Then what the hell do you call that disrespectful crap?” Flecks of her spittle hit my shirt, her words freezing me in my boots. I leaned back, trying to escape from her wrath.
“Ma’am, I don’t know, ma’am.”
“Are you leaning away from me, Airman Balsley? Is my breath that bad? Is that what you are trying to do?”
“No, ma’am!” I was desperately digging for my best military bearing and not doing very well at it. My voice was not steady at all.
“STOP! LEANING! AWAY! FROM! ME! I WAS EXPECTING BETTER FROM YOU!” she yelled. “That’s why I was considering you for squad leader. Note the important word here, Airman Balsley, and that’s the word was. I was going to consider you for squad leader. Now I am not even sure if you are ready to graduate with your flight. How do you feel about that?”
Images of six more weeks of hell and not graduating with my team filled my head. I started stuttering.
“I don’t, ma’am! I mean, I do, ma’am!”
“Don’t what, Airman Balsley?” she yelled, her Smoky the Bear hat an inch from my face. Military bearing be damned, I felt as if I were going to cry.
“I . . . I . . . mean I do feel, ma’am!” I managed to stammer out. She took a step back and sat down.
“Front and center now, Airman Balsley!” she barked. I jumped quickly to the front of her grey metal desk, at attention, thumbs pressing into the side crease of my pants, chin tucked and my gut sucked in, trying hard at the same time not to breathe and to disappear.
“Do you have any idea why we shave your head, take all of your belongings from you, and put you in these silly- looking green uniforms?” She wasn’t quite yelling, but she wasn’t far from it.
“No, ma’am!” I replied.
“We do it so that all of you are exactly the same: rich kids and poor kids, educated kids and those just out of high school. We do it so that you’re all exactly the same. Do you know why it’s important for you all to be the same?” Her voice was hard as rocks, but at least she wasn’t yelling anymore.
“No, ma’am,” I replied.
“We do it, Airman Balsley, so that you have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a rare chance to make yourself into anything you want. Nobody knows your history here. Nobody knows that you’re a smart-alecky, wisecracking, pimply- faced, snot-nosed little kid who barely graduated high school. You can leave basic training and be a leader by the time you hit your first duty station.” She stared at me with her piercing steely eyes for a long time. “How well do you think you were leading out there, Airman Balsley?” she asked quietly.
“Ma’am, I am not sure I understand the question.”
She repeated her question. “How well do you think you were leading out there?”
I replied, “I wasn’t.”
“No,” she countered, “you were leading quite powerfully.”
“You were, Airman Balsley. Every man out there was looking to you for leadership. When you started in with your disrespect, they all followed.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am.”
She snapped, “I don’t give a rat’s ass if you’re sorry or not. When today is over, you will leave, and I will start a six-week babysitting gig with the next group of recruits. I won’t think of you again, so I really don’t care if you’re sorry or not. I only care that you learn you are always leading. You’re either leading people on a good journey, or you are leading people on a bad journey. That was a bad journey. You led the men into disrespecting me. When you’re wearing a uniform, when you are serving in the military, it is impossible not to lead. Based on the leadership qualities I saw today, I’m disappointed in you. Get out of my sight, Airman Balsley. Dismissed.”
The dressing-down was over. With a quick about-face, I turned and left the office. We have not been in touch since then, yet her words have never left me. In fact, it was one of those pivotal turning points of my life, and it impacted everything that followed.