HomeNewsCommentariesDisplay

December Commander's Corner

Colonel Akshai Gandhi, 169th Fighter Wing commander

Portrait of U.S. Air Force Col. Akshai Gandhi, the 169th Fighter Wing commander at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, South Carolina Air National Guard, Jan. 5, 2019. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Caycee Watson)

MCENTIRE JOINT NATIONAL GUARD BASE, S.C. --

To say that this past year has presented some challenges is clearly an understatement! While 2020 was certainly not easy, I hope you can take a few moments to reflect on what has happened and what you have accomplished under difficult circumstances. While we invariably endured setbacks, I hope you can look back on the totality of what you accomplished with great pride.  

You never faltered and, quite frankly, excelled in all your missions from defending the homeland to the fights overseas while providing safety and security for, and in, our communities. We did not miss a sortie due to COVID-19 thanks to your creativity and dedication. You enabled the Swamp Foxes to excel where others “threw in the towel.” I am immensely proud of you all.

In this past year, the challenge of social injustice has taken center stage. While social injustice is not something new, it is, however, never acceptable. Discrimination has existed in countless forms throughout history and our Nation is no exception. We have seen several inflection points—the ratification of our Constitution (1787), the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), Women’s Suffrage (1920), desegregation of the military (1948), and the Civil Rights Act (1964), just to name a few. While substantial progress was made at each of these junctures, much was also missed. You may recall George Mason refused to sign the Constitution in part due to its failure to abolish slavery. 

I believe we are at another inflection point today. I am encouraged by how diverse and engaged our citizenry is by standing up to correct wrongs in society—Americans from all backgrounds and walks of life working together, advocating for the righting of wrongs. This is a good thing and I believe the key is working to understand each other.

At McEntire air patch, in line with our oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” we stand for the ideals that all are created equal and equal opportunities are made available to all based on the merits of one’s performance. I believe this statement reflects how we intend to do business.  However, what we fail to see, or perhaps more correctly, cannot see is our unconscious or unrecognized bias. 

People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for…” Judge Taylor in Harper Lee’s  "To Kill a Mockingbird"

We ALL have these biases, and they are a function of our background, upbringing, and experiences. Don’t feel bad or guilty—this is not something you can control per se, it doesn’t make you a bad person. Likewise, just because someone doesn’t understand you or where you are coming from does not make them a bad person. As a practice, we should be giving others the benefit of the doubt that we’re all working toward the same goal and trying to do the right thing.

Within our control is the recognition that these biases truly do exist, and we need to take active steps to combat them. Yes, combat them—a bias of any form, unrecognized or intentional, is an enemy which can tear us apart from within. I believe Sun Tzu would advise to exploit that kind of weakness in an enemy.

So how do we do this? I’ve thought about it for some time and am quite certain I don’t have all the answers. A recommended starting point and, one I’ve picked for myself, is to focus on understanding.

Understanding is quite different than agreement. We don’t all need to agree on every word or action. In fact, if we are all in agreement, we are likely missing some important consideration. Understanding involves learning why someone thinks the way they do; identifying their feelings and background which frame their point of view—separate and apart from our own. We must actively listen with empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. We don’t always have to agree with someone’s point of view. But our communication and trust are greatly enhanced when we take time to understand their “why.”

Getting to the point of fully understanding another requires trust and a mindfulness of how our own perception and bias can be negatively impacted by emotions. Do your feelings make sense?  “Do you really believe that?” If our perceptions are being guided strictly by the emotions related to a given situation, we may not be seeing the situation correctly and our opportunity for understanding is lost.

So how am I personally working on this? I try to actively listen. This means fighting the natural tendency to formulate my response while the other person is talking. Unfortunately, this is human nature. To fight it we have to acknowledge we’re doing it and are, therefore, not really listening. Instead I try to mirror what they are saying by repeating or rephrasing what I hear to make sure I understood it correctly. I ask questions to fill the gaps in my understanding. My goal is to fully comprehend their thoughts. This is not necessarily agreement, but it could lead to it or perhaps more common ground. To empathize, we need to understand the feelings driving the thoughts of others and be willing to acknowledge or validate them: “I understand why you feel this way.” 

Understanding is also the next step in individual responsibility. We need to make sure we understand, in their context, what we are asking of those of whom we seek to understand. We probably won’t always get this right, but we are definitely wrong if we don’t keep trying.

Think about how much more we could accomplish if we all had a keener understanding of the perspectives of others. The challenges of this year have provided an opportunity to better ourselves, our team, and our great Nation. My goal for 2021 is to better understand my teammates—to actively listen with empathy on a quest for understanding and I challenge each of you to do the same. 

Semper Primus!