Why Do You Serve?

  • Published
  • By Col. Allan Day
  • 22nd Maintenance Group commander
Have you ever stopped to think about why you serve in the Air Force?

I was challenged to review my reasons for serving by Simon Sinek, the author of a book called, "Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action."

Mr. Sinek spoke at a conference I attended recently. He inspired and challenged the audience to understand their "why." It is a life changing concept.

So many times people start with wondering "what" and "how." For example, don't you find people often ask you what you do but not why you do it?

Mr. Sinek explains the "why" concept using a number of examples. One of the most poignant stories he uses to make his point is the tale of the competition to build the first airplane. Sinek explains, Samuel Pierpont Langley, of all the competitors, was clearly the odds-on favorite for victory. Mr. Langley possessed nearly every indicator of success. He was an academic scholar and well acquainted with the right friends and advisors. He was secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and a professor of mathematics at the U.S. Naval Academy. He was friends with Andrew Carnegie and Alexander Graham Bell, and he was very well funded -- having received a handsome sum of $50,000 from the War Department. People thought he had what it took it took.

In addition, Mr. Langley put together the "best and brightest minds of the day." His awesome team included a mechanical engineer from Cornell University and the person who developed the first automobile in New York. He even had "New York Times" press members following his every move because it seemed his victory in the battle to create the first aircraft was sure.

In contrast, fellow competitors, Orville and Wilbur Wright, from Dayton, Ohio, had very little money beyond what they made from their small bicycle shop. They didn't have a college education, and some members of their team didn't even finish high school. They didn't have high-powered advisors and friends, and they surely didn't have any press following them. Very few people even knew the Wright brothers existed, yet they are the ones credited with inventing the first successful airplane - because they felt strongly about why they had to succeed.

Mr. Sinek uses this story to share the critical difference between victory and defeat. Victory comes not from power, prestige and funding but from having a clearly-defined and inspirational "why."

The reason "why" the Wright brothers succeeded is because they were pursuing a dream. They wanted to "change the world" with a flying machine that could benefit all of mankind. The Wright brothers' passion for solving "balance and flight" inspired their team to achievements well beyond their individual capabilities.

Despite repeated failures, setbacks and long hours, their team remained dedicated to the cause and, ultimately, achieved their goal on Dec. 17, 1903. There was no fanfare, no major media coverage, and very few people even knew the powered flight barrier had been breached. The team knew they had accomplished something great, but they kept pressing to make it better.

Mr. Langley, on the other hand, quit altogether once he found out he wasn't going to be first. He did not have a clearly defined "why," and his motivation to succeed was not inspirational. Based on Mr. Sinek's analysis, Mr. Langley simply had lofty goals. Mr. Langley wanted to be first; he wanted to be rich, and he, ultimately, wanted to be famous like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell.

Now, I ask again; why do you serve?

We have a great reason why we serve. We have all agreed to give our lives in defense of the Constitution of the United States. This Constitution stands for the freedoms Americans enjoy. This "why" is something about which we can, and should, be passionate. This worthy pursuit requires much more than individual effort. It requires selfless service from American patriots to make it happen.

As I think about what we do here in the 22nd Air Refueling Wing, I am brought back to the fundamental "why" I joined the Air Force 20 years ago. I joined to be a part of something bigger than myself. Sure, I got an education. Yes, I have been able to travel. There is no doubt I have had the opportunity to lead Airmen and work through some amazing challenges with them. Yes, I get paid to do all of this, but that is not my "why."

I have the honor and privilege of serving in the world's premier Air Force. I work alongside the best men and women America has to offer, and we generate the largest fleet of air refuelers in the world to preserve freedom for America. In short, my "why" is to serve the cause of freedom. Here, at the 22 ARW, we fuel that fight for freedom 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

In less than two weeks,  we will have the opportunity to show a group of over 180 inspectors from across the command how the best air refueling team in the world does its mission. We will show them what we do every day. However, if those inspectors don't leave inspired with a clear sense of our "why," we will have left something on the table.