Generation Why


Last Friday, I sat in the Columbus Club bar and picked the brain of the 48th Flying Training Squadron commander, Lt. Col. Charles “Spanky” Gilliam.


He had one arm in a sling from an overzealous representation of his beloved Alley Cats flag football team, the other arm nursed a drink as he reflected on nearly 18 years of service and leadership.


During our discussion, it became evident he has noticed a trend prevalent among the newest generation of Airmen. “I call it ‘Generation Why,’” he said, indicating in recent years, subordinates have needed to know the reasoning and thought processes, or “the why,” behind orders, far more than they did at the beginning of his career.


As a junior officer, he just went out and executed legal orders, and inquired about “the why” after the fact. But as a commander, he finds himself answering questions about decisions far more than he remembered when he was a captain or lieutenant. Gilliam added, “I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all … I’m just telling you my experience.”


Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel buttonholed. Was I part of a generation of needy officers who couldn’t follow orders? Is it okay to want to know the thoughts, struggles, and reasons going on in my commander’s head when he decides my fate and future? Or does being a good follower mean trusting your leadership to always have your best interests at heart?


I had an immediate flashback to basic training. I was in the front leaning rest position, sweat dripping off my nose, whistles blowing, arms shaking. A lone U.S. Army officer in a sea of Airmen knelt down beside me. “You want to know how to motivate people? You gotta give ‘em a mission and a purpose. They need both.”


With these thoughts in mind, I began to develop my own opinion of how the solution to the issue at hand required a balance. Subordinates can’t question every command they’re given, but if a leader expects his people to be motivated of their own accord without a purpose, perhaps a little explanation of “the why” is in order.


In search of a deeper understanding of the topic, I interviewed several Columbus Air Force Base leaders who have been in positions of power for some time. First, I found Lt. Col. Jason Hilburn, 50th Flying Training Squadron Commander. He has had similar experiences, reflecting in the youth of his officership, where he would have never considered commenting or recommending improvements to an order he received. He said for current operations, “In the planning stage, inputs are welcome. The line is when the moment of execution is reached.” After execution begins, he tends to expect fewer questions barring something potentially illegal or immoral which needs to be addressed.


Wayne McNeely, T-1 Maintenance Branch Manager, provided a unique civilian perspective. He stated although he had noticed a sort of culture change aligned with Gilliam’s experiences, he said, “If my guys understand the full scope of why I make a decision, you get a lot more buy-in … If you tell somebody to do something just because you said so, results may be different.”


Col. Anthony Sansano, 14th Mission Support Group Commander, had a unique outlook. In his experience, when rolling out a sweeping change, the commander may have perspective that his followers do not. Conversely, the followers may have innovative ideas that may be crucial to the commander’s success. He believes when appropriate, there should be a dialogue between both parties.


“The times I actively sought out that input, I arrived at a better solution,” said Maj. Shawn Redmond, 14th Security Forces Squadron Commander. “If they don’t ask questions, I ask them questions.” He agreed with the other commanders. There is a time and a place for such inquiries. He knows his people have the intelligence to understand when and where to ask questions.


So, are you part of “Generation Why,” or are you a commander with the same experience or concerns as the leaders I interviewed? Hopefully the information presented will help you as much as it has helped me in understanding how your boss or your Airmen might react when an order is given.