Retiring group commander: serve those you lead

  • Published
  • By Chuck Paone
  • 66th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
For Col. Michael Graham, outgoing Commander of the 751st Electronic Systems Group, the decision to retire was hard to make, but he takes solace in knowing that he's leaving at the genuine high point of his career.

"For an acquisition officer to serve as a large system program director, that's the pinnacle," the 26-year Air Force veteran and Academy alumnus said. "And then to get the chance to command, as well, it just doesn't get any better."

Colonel Graham said that when he retires July 1, he'll leave with an abiding pride in, and love for, the Air Force.

"I made the commitment to serve when I was very young," he said. "Now, all these years later, I can look back and say I did everything I committed to doing. I served very well and faithfully."

Service is something Colonel Graham has taken very seriously throughout his career, and its something he's sees as extending in every direction, rather than just upward. A strong proponent of the management concept known 'servant leadership,' the colonel says he always endeavored to serve those who worked for him, even as he led them and directed their activity.

Along the way, a leader following this path can gain much himself, the colonel noted.
"As a servant leader, you never stop learning from your folks," he said, and in fact it was one of his 'folks' that perhaps did more than anyone else to teach him about leadership.

"I was a young captain and I had just accepted a broadening assignment in aircraft maintenance at Kadena Air Base, Japan," the colonel said. "Soon after I arrived, a crusty old flight line chief grabbed me and said, 'Come on, Captain, I'm going to teach you what the Air Force is all about,' and hid did it in pretty much just those terms."

Chief Master Sgt. Roger Dinger was his name, and he taught then-Captain Graham a lot of things that helped him evolve as a leader.

"It really solidified my appreciation for, and my relationship with, the NCO corps," the colonel said, noting that the lesson improved his ability to follow as well as to lead. "It took an awful lot of courage for him to do it, but I'm sure glad he did."

The colonel now counsels younger Airmen to "never stop being a student of leadership." And while he refrains from saying that 'people are your number one asset,' simply because it's said so often, he does remind young officers that, as leaders, their success is entirely dependent on the people serving under them.

"The key is that everything has to be accomplished as a team," he said. "Leadership is not about you."

In a career in which he got to do "just about everything," including acquisition, flight testing, maintenance and Pentagon staff work, the colonel rates his current job the best.

"The people here are fantastic. They all have a sense of why we're doing what we're doing. They understand how what we do helps the war fighter and how we're aiding in the Global War on Terror."

He speaks with pride about a bevy of recent upgrades to the E-8C Joint STARS system his group is charged with sustaining and modernizing.

"We've put capability on the jet that really enhances U.S. command and control and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, and which has positively changed the way the Army fights the ground war," he said. "We're much better integrated with those ground troops now, and that's critical."

And "we're getting new engines," he said with a smile that acknowledges the long struggle waged by his group to secure funding to re-engine the aging 707 platforms on which the system is housed.

"This team has really been able to educate Air Force and joint service leadership about this system's value."

He thanks the Electronic Systems Center leaders who have absorbed and supported the vision his team laid out. That vision, he said, is fully integrated into the center's overall mission, which he describes as both complex and difficult.

"This center is trying to implement a vision for real, net-centric ISR," he said. "It's hard, hard stuff."

Now it's hard for him to leave that mission behind, and equally hard to leave behind the only way of life he and his wife have ever experienced in their adult lives.

"The Air Force family is just amazing," he said. "The quality of the people is incredible. People in the Air Force do really tough stuff with constant professionalism."

He said that, over time, Airmen really do internalize the service's core values, and that the sense of selflessness, of reaching for something greater than one can achieve on his own, really makes all the difference.

"That's incredibly important and sort of humbling," he said.

The colonel and his wife plan to take the next couple of months off. During that time, they'll consider options for what comes next and they'll do what they always have, listen to the advice of others.

"Neither of us thinks we're smart enough to figure it all out on our own," the colonel said.