Leadership under pressure

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Erin McDonald
  • 39th Communications Squadron commander
As this September marks the 14th Anniversary of 9/11, one of the most tragic events in U.S. history, I find myself reflecting back on those12 hours in the Pentagon at the National Military Command Center.  It was a monumental day in my mind for many reasons.  At the time our team, Team 2, was being led by Army Brig.Gen. W. Montague Winfield.  The leadership and poise he provided during those dark hours in history will forever be ingrained in my mind. 

Every day while on shift our entire team would run different scenarios and exercises meant to prepare us for possible conflicts that could occur in the American homeland.  We ran them so often that, in the event of an attack on our country, it would be second nature for us to follow all steps necessary to fulfill our mission of being the command and control center for the entire United States of America. 

I know almost every American can remember where they were and what they were doing on 9/11, but for the life of me, I cannot remember what exactly I was doing when the first plane hit.  All I can remember is beginning our shift at 5 a.m., the events which took place in our work center during the next few hours, and the actions of Winfield. 

Immediately following the first plane crashing into the towers, Team 2 members began running all the checklists we had run hundreds of times before. Winfield maintained an extremely calm demeanor under pressure and was the single voice heard by every leader in every teleconference across the country.  While many panicked, Winfield continuously offered a steady, educated voice of reason to our team and to decision-makers nationwide. 

It was that horrific day which taught me that, as a leader, you must remain in control and continuously rely upon your training to carry you through stressful situations.  You will be required to present calm, steady and pointed direction to the Soldiers, Guardsmen, Sailors, Marines and Airmen who will fall under you.  It is important that, as leaders in our U. S. Air Force, we remember the words from the Airman's Creed and the lessons we learn from every leader in the U. S. military in order to apply them to our daily lives.  It may not be tomorrow, next month or even a year from now, but you will be called upon to lead in a time of need and you have the charge as an Airman to be ready at a moment's notice. 

Winfield taught me that you must practice every day to not only be a leader, but to have the responsibility to carry out the warrior ethos that our military and civilian leadership has come to expect.  I charge you as leaders in your own right, that you continuously build upon your leadership skills and you learn from others in every situation. Your leadership style and behavior should be a compilation of what you learn in professional military education, from previous supervisors, and from those leaders in our military who will impart their wisdom and experiences upon you.  Every experience and leader we encounter directs us on the path to providing the warfighting-focused culture, convictions, character, ethics, mindset, spirit and soul we expect from, and will foster in, every Airman we have led or will lead tomorrow.