The best 50 cents I ever spent

COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --

All Airmen are the products of costly Air Force training programs which intend to influence behaviors and shape our character.

Additionally, many of us spend considerable amounts of personal time and resources examining leadership lessons and character development.

While I do not question or regret such investments, I found it rather amusing my recent 50-cent purchase of a half pint of chocolate milk yielded one of the best character lessons I ever received.

You see, on the side of this chocolate milk carton, CharacterPlus — a group committed to student success through character development -- posted an advertisement including the lesson, “Character begins with me.” This was followed by the attributes associated with high character professionals such as respect, kindness, self-control, responsibility, honesty and courage. Find a person who tirelessly exhibits these six attributes, and you will be standing in the presence of a high character individual, worthy of emulation.

I can name two reasons why commanders value character. First, as stated by Gen. David Goldfein, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, “It all starts with character.”  Goldfein continued, “We are on a lifelong journey to develop our character. Sometimes we get focused on reputation. As we move through the ranks, we confuse character and reputation. Character is who we are every day and what we do when no one is watching. Reputation is what people think of us after watching us for a period of time. We need to focus on the first and the second will take care of itself.” Character defines who we really are. 

The second reason why commanders value character is when it is coupled with ability or competency. We are on the path to building a “Whole Airman.” For example, physical strength and ability alone do not enable Airmen to accomplish the actions listed in the Airman’s Creed. However, when physical strength and ability are teamed with character, respect, kindness, self-control, responsibility, honesty, and courage we can confidently expect that Airmen will never falter and will not fail. 

As much as I’m interested in getting the job done to see positive and timely results, I remind our Airmen I’m more interested in how we are getting the job done. Specifically, Airmen are first expected to maintain their character, integrity, and professionalism at all times. Simultaneously, Airmen are charged to display unmatched competence and foster productive relationships resulting in mission accomplishment. The six requisite character attributes listed on the chocolate milk carton move us closer to these goals by reminding us to continually to respect others, practice kindness, exhibit self-control and restraint, take responsibility for our actions, be honest, and display courage.

In order to remain the best Air Force the world has ever seen, supervisors need to value both character and ability. Think of character as one wheel on a high-performance motorcycle and ability as the second wheel. If you only have one wheel, you are not going to go very fast or far. You need both wheels. Likewise, our high-performance Air Force needs Airmen who are both high character and high ability. To that point, John Wooden, legendary basketball coach and teacher, says “Ability may get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there.” You need both wheels, the absence of good character renders one’s physical abilities and accomplishments meaningless. 

Goldfein once said, “You are going to succeed in your career by how much time you spend developing your personal character.” Therefore, we must never tire of doing what is right in all situations and daily display respect, kindness, self-control, responsibility, honesty, and courage. In addition to the temporary boost in protein and Vitamin D, that 50-cent chocolate milk also provided me with a permanent boost in character development.