Bridging the 'generation schism' via Bowie

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO - LACKLAND, Texas -- -- This week we said goodbye to a music and pop icon. Like many of you, I've been listening to a lot of David Bowie the last couple days. Since I believe you can find leadership lessons wherever you look, I'd like to share with you one of my favorite Bowie lyrics and how I think it applies to taking care of our Airmen and the mission they love.

From the song "Changes," here's one of the best lines in all of rock and roll:
"These children that you spit on, as they try to change their worlds, are immune to your consultation; they're quite aware of what they're going through."

When the song was released in 1971, Rolling Stone said it could be "construed as a young man's attempt to reckon how he'll react when it's his time to be on the maligned side of the generation schism." I have always felt the song, and this one line in particular, had something very meaningful to say about "generation schisms."

If you judge a younger generation for trying to change their world, they're not going to listen to you. That statement was true in 1971 and it's true today.

We currently have quite a generation schism in our Air Force as many of our SNCOs and flight-level leaders are proud members of "Generation X," while nearly all of the Airmen they've been tasked to lead are equally proud members of "Generation Y," also known as "millennials."

These generations are very different and it's challenging at times for them to understand each other. To be sure, we've all seen evidence of this. Y wants to "collaborate," but X sees it as "hand holding." Y wants to see how they "fit in." X wants to know why it's so hard to "just do it and be done with it." You all know examples and you may have very strong opinions about which side is right, but rather than an X vs. Y discussion, I'd like to reflect on Bowie's words.

The fastest way to make your Airmen "immune to your consultation" is to criticize their efforts to change the world around them. Every idea won't be a good one, but listening to those ideas with an open mind and providing constructive, meaningful feedback, with a true intent to "get to yes," will strengthen your team and better our Air Force.

Keep in mind that for the first time since the 1960s, we have more Americans in their 20s than any other decade. Those numbers make them strong and give them courage to walk away (after all, they've got 42 million friends who have their backs). If our great Airmen see our Air Force as a place their passion and good ideas go to die, They.Will.Leave.

I promise you, "they're quite aware of what they're going through," and they are not only capable, but also motivated to change their world.

Listen, coach and help them through those changes. Your Airmen and our mission will be better for it...and somewhere Ziggy Stardust will be smiling!