All about attitude: Turning negative into positive

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- I was a second lieutenant and assistant officer in charge of a fighter maintenance unit.

I struggled daily to turn negative into positive. Admittedly, I had no prior service experience under my belt, and I had only a limited amount of maintenance experience at the time.

A regular part of my job required me to brief the maintenance group commander on the status of our aircraft at daily maintenance meetings. Sounds easy enough, but in reality I had a steep learning curve to overcome. On top of my inexperience, I worked for a really tough colonel who loved to get into the details of aircraft maintenance.

I was familiar with the process of asking five 'whys' to get to the root cause of an issue. It sounded logical enough to me. However, what I soon learned was that the colonel was a fan of the five 'whys' plus he liked to add a couple more inquisitive questions for good measure. Being on the receiving end of his rapid fire questions, I can honestly say I was no fan of the five 'whys.'

One day, I briefed that we had a bad part on the jet that caused the aircraft to ground abort and miss its takeoff time. After the fourth or so level of interrogation on why the part malfunctioned, I found my hip pocket was empty of informed responses. In a not so smart move I finally replied, "Sir, the jet is broken and this is when it will be fixed." I don't think he appreciated my response, but at this point I was beyond frustrated. I felt I simply had too little time in the day to drill down as far as my boss wanted me to, and I was doing the best job I could learning the airframe and learning how to speak aircraft maintenance.

After each daily meeting, I drove back to the unit feeling like I just got chewed up and spit out. On top of that, I was usually saddled with a laundry list of items to provide to the colonel. However, by the time I reached my unit I would make myself take a deep breath, reset my attitude from negative to positive. Then I would walk in and set about rallying our production office and aircraft maintainers to carry out the tasks set before us. Surprisingly, words of a group meeting gone badly usually preceded my arrival at the unit. "I heard you got beat up today LT," were familiar words out of the superintendent's mouth.

Those 10 minutes of driving back to work allowed me to learn a valuable lesson. I later realized driving was my cool down period. Those solitary minutes gave me a chance to reflect on what the boss was asking, why he was asking it and how I could do better at providing the information he needed. I would recount the meeting and take away any lessons learned for my maintenance officer toolbox. I also spent time thinking about the right approach to take when bringing potentially unpopular news back to the unit. By the time I arrived at work, I would somehow manage a positive attitude when I stepped foot in my building. I owned my frustration and my shortcomings. Only I could improve how I performed. I owed it to my team to do better, especially when communicating to leadership the great work our maintainers performed each and every day.

It wasn't until years later as a senior captain that I learned something that still guides my approach today. The superintendent I had shared an office with years before sent me an email out of the blue one day. She said, "You took more beatings than any LT I've seen, but you never let that affect how you treated our folks in the unit." That had apparently made an impression on her and she strove from then on to not let her bad day turn into a bad day for her subordinates. I was both surprised and humbled that anyone had given any thought to the matter.

Today, I strive to practice the same approach. A bad day for me shouldn't turn into a bad day for those in my squadron. Our mission in the 1st Special Operations Wing is too important to let one person's bad day negatively affect the rest of the team. Stay positive, reflect on why things are going badly and ask yourself how you can do better. If you don't have a mechanism in place that gives you a chance to cool down, I highly recommend looking for one. Take a walk, go to the gym, or perform an activity that gives you enough time to calm down, relax and refocus on the positive side of your situation.

Lastly, whether a first-time supervisor or a seasoned commander, be the positive influence for those who work with you or under your charge. Our mission and our people will be better for it, and so will you.