Air Force General: Academy Served as ‘Leadership Laboratory’
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 29, 2007 When 17-year-old John Corley joined the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Class of 1973, his father had already given him some valuable life lessons to tuck under his belt.
Gen. John D.W. Corley, Air Force vice chief of staff , speaks during the acceptance ceremony for Pacific Air Force's first F-22 Raptor Feb. 12 at Marietta, Ga. U.S. Air Force photo by John Rossino
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The Vietnam War was still raging -- along with anti-war sentiment -- when Corley, now a four-star general serving as Air Force vice chief of staff, entered the academy. But he said he never once considered not following in the footsteps laid by Don Corley, his Army Air Corps pilot father.
“It’s not just that my dad was an airman,” Corley said. “It’s that my dad was an airman and had an exquisite set of leadership qualities that were based on character.”
Anyone who spent time at the Corley home was bound to hear Don Corley’s life philosophy, encapsulated in a series of slogans: “Good, better, best, never let them rest;” or “A job ain’t worth doing if it ain’t worth doing right.”
“I lived a lifetime of quips from my father,” the junior Corley said. “I could sit here and recite 10,000 of those phrases from my father over and over again.”
Corley said he started to understand the principles behind his father’s ditties when he arrived at the Air Force Academy.
“What they speak to is character (and) character development,” he said. “They speak to how you treat other people. They talk about inclusiveness and not exclusiveness. They talk about always doing the right thing at the right time.”
In short, his father’s sayings extolled the same tenets Corley said he learned at the Air Force Academy and on which he’s built a successful 34-year Air Force career.
Corley called the academy “a leadership laboratory” where the cadre exposed him and his fellow cadets to “a set of experiences that you just don’t find in other places.”
“They also provided challenges,” he said. “It was a test … in terms of your development (and) … your ability to grow and become a leader of character.”
Serving in various leadership positions at the academy -- from guidon bearer to first sergeant to squadron commander -- Corley said he got the opportunity to hone his leadership style.
He said he realized that leadership basically boils down to two basic principles: “One, you have to have a vision of where you want the organization to go, because if you don’t know where you want to go, any path will do,” he said.
“And the next thing is, you need to build consensus and convince … the people of an organization to go where it is you want them to go -- and arrive thinking that it was their idea,” he said.
Corey said he also learned the importance of being able to make a decision and stick to it, a critical skill he said he’s drawn on throughout his career.
As he developed his leadership, Corley said, he came to understand the difference between simply being in command and being a true leader. “People can be issued authority. They can be given a piece of paper that gives them authority. They can command, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are good leaders,” he said.
“True leaders recognize that leadership is based on character,” he said. “It’s not about self. It’s about selflessness. It’s about service to the nation.”
Corley said the Air Force Academy reinforced this lesson, which his father first instilled, and laid a foundation that’s served him throughout his career. “I can’t count the number of times that the lessons in character that I learned at the academy have applied throughout my life,” he said.
“To be a leader, you have to have this thirst, this unquenchable sense of ‘How do I make it better, personally and professionally?’” he said. “It all comes down to character, those enduring values of service and integrity and excellence.”
Without character, Corley said, leadership falls apart.
“People can have an exquisite data string, a perfect methodology and arrive at a decision, but if it is not founded on the proper values and it isn’t underpinned with character, it may not be a decision that any of us would ever want to live with,” he said.
“And if we miss that one, it doesn’t matter how many informed decisions we make.”