By Chief Master Sgt. Donald E. Felch, Commandant of the Paul H. Lankford Enlisted Professional Military Education Center
/ Published June 25, 2012
McGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. --
I'm scared. Please allow me to explain. In 1984, I entered the Air Force at the age of 17. My parents endorsed a notarized form allowing me to sign my own name and enter military service before I could legally enter into a binding contract. Arriving at Basic Military Training at Lackland AFB, Texas, my flight received more instructions in the first 12 hours than I had ever received in the previous 17 years (or so it seemed). There was a lot to remember; a lot to comply with. I found myself routinely afraid of doing something wrong. I was afraid I would forget to tuck the laces into my shoes for night display, remove a tag from one of my shirt pockets, or place my toothbrush in its proper location or at the proper angle. I was afraid I wouldn't wake up (there was never really a danger of that). In short, I was afraid to fail. This was a healthy fear and it did not prevent my successful graduation. Some of this fear of failure has remained with me throughout my career.
In technical training, we were told we couldn't fail a block test or we would be washed back in school--and perhaps even separated from the service. I believed it would happen. When we had homework, I completed it. When I needed help, I asked for it. One fellow classmate was fearless. He decided not to study. We invited him to join us many times, but he insisted we needed to relax and enjoy life. He spent time in the Colorado Rocky Mountains and in the many bars right outside the gate at Lowry AFB. When he failed his 2nd block test, he was transferred to a less challenging career field, and was eventually processed out of the Air Force. He wasn't afraid of failure.
At Holloman AFB, N.M., my first assignment, we were briefed on the unit's CHECKERED FLAG tasking at Camp New Amsterdam, Holland. Our mobility officer told us to always keep a bag packed. She gave us a list of what should be in the bag. I was afraid my mobility bag would get inspected and might be found lacking, so I made sure it was always ready for deployment. A few of my fellow Airmen claimed the bag would never get looked at. Some of them had been at the base for some time and had heard the same briefings over and over. They said I should "relax a little." After all, they reasoned, this isn't tech school anymore. They were fearless. Some stuffed their bags with extra towels, boots, etc. in order to make them look packed. One night, our wing commander had 2 C-141s on the ramp. We went through the mobility line and got paid (real money). We got shots from the medical technicians in our line (real shots). We were issued our maroon, military passports. We boarded the aircraft and flew around the base a few times before landing and reversing the process. It was then that I realized some of my peers were more scared than I was--because they had not been afraid at the appropriate time. Several times in 27 years, I've seen people decide to "relax," "chill," or "take it down a few notches," and, as a result, fail. Anyone who knows me will tell you I'm an intense person. I believe some of that intensity comes from a healthy fear of failure.
Today, I'm no longer afraid of consequences as often as I was early in my career; I am most concerned with letting down those who have placed a lot of trust and confidence in my ability, my preparedness, and my performance. I'm afraid to let down those I've been tasked to lead. I'm afraid to let down my bosses and commanders. Most of all, I am afraid to let down the American people, who count on me to do my job to the best of my ability every, single day so they can feel safe in their homes. This is not a debilitating fear. I don't believe it makes me weak or vulnerable. I am not afraid to execute or to make hard decisions. I believe healthy fear helps make me what I need to be, what I have been tasked to be: a leader. As Airmen, we should all have that piece of us that keeps us just a little on edge. We should think of the many responsibilities we have and sometimes...occasionally... feel overwhelmed. Much is expected of us and much is placed upon our shoulders. Allowing ourselves a healthy fear of failure can prevent us from falling short of the mark. It can prevent us from letting down the people we've sworn to protect from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Are you at least a little bit scared? I hope so!