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How does one become agile?

Airman holding sign

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Joseph Cook holds a sign for Agility on the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center campus in East Tennessee, August 23, 2019, as part of a commentary series on Agility, Innovation, and Resiliency. Sergeant Cook is a professional military education instructor for the Chief Master Sergeant Paul H. Lankford Enlisted PME Center. (U.S. Air National Guard photo/Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith)

Editor’s note: This is the first article in an ongoing series in which the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center staff and faculty share their personal perspectives and spark discussion about the organization's lines of effort.

How does one become agile? How does a person develop the ability to effectively react to any situation? Is it something that can be developed or is it just something that has to be learned through experience? I believe that it can be learned either way or both ways. If that is true, then it is vital that we understand how to develop it, because learning this lesson through experience seems like a much more painful way to learn it.

“Trust, but verify.” This is a leadership concept that could even be considered a philosophy to some extent. It is a phrase that I heard as advice many times in my 18 years in the maintenance community. I have to admit, I didn’t always believe it was a good thing. I thought it was an oxymoron. If you trust me why do you need to verify?  Doesn’t that illustrate a lack of trust? It wasn’t until much later that I think I truly understood the meaning of that phrase.  It may not be your definition of it, but it has taught me how to become agile as an Airman and has shaped my philosophy as a leader.

I believe that trusting someone and verifying not only the outcome, but the thought processes and decisions that brought about that outcome are worth analyzing, even if the outcome was a positive one. In my experience, some people view this process as a referendum on their knowledge and even their intelligence. When it is done with the intention of improvement it is not about what you know, it is about how you can grow! Analyzing the steps taken within a process allows two or more individuals to discuss thought processes, barriers, available resources, and envisioned outcomes that led to decisions or products.  It unearths the options that were available at the time, but were not thought of or considered.

Those options seem to be the foundation of agility. According to John C. Maxwell, options are the key to finding the best solutions and creating backup plans that provide alternatives. To me, that sounds like an alternate definition for agility, or at a minimum answers the question of how to be agile. Being prepared for the known possibilities, but also having the tools to adapt to unforeseen situations. We gain those tools through experience and the analysis of that experience. Combining our knowledge and experience with our supervisors, mentors, or coworkers enhances our ability to gain a new understanding of what options were available. It increases the likelihood that those options are thought of and considered in the future. It expands our perspective. It allows us to become agile.

This is how mentorship happens. It is how this generation can teach and how the next generation of Airmen can learn from our mistakes and our lessons learned. It is how knowledge has been gained and passed down from our mentors to us. From their mentors, to them, to us.

In my experience, it is our perception of that process that hinders our ability to learn and grow.  Sometimes it feels like our effort is being torn down, that hindsight (a tool that we didn’t have) is being used like an answer key to a test, pointing out our failures. However, a simple shift in perspective allows us to value that same critique. To look at the same process as one in which we identify areas that we can improve in. Improvements that enhance our communication and teamwork, make us better subject matter experts and leaders, and have a profound impact on our organizations for generations to come.

(U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Joseph Cook is a professional military education instructor for the Chief Master Sergeant Paul H. Lankford Enlisted PME Center.)