I grew up in the South. A little bit in Tennessee and Florida, but mostly in Georgia. Though I spent that childhood in the neighborhoods of suburban Atlanta and not in the country farm fields, I still received the imprint of geographical culture: Southern politeness, Waffle House, sweet tea, country music, NASCAR and The Dukes of Hazard were all accepted – and expected – norms. As was pride in the Confederacy.
In the South, the was Civil War was viewed as a struggle for states’ rights that happened to end poorly but was still worthy of honoring. Confederate symbols were a part of everyday life, featured on T-shirts, bumper stickers, flags, and signs. General Robert E. Lee was a household hero we could pick out of a line-up of dead generals.
Thinking back, I remember visiting Stone Mountain every summer to watch the laser light show, which concluded in a dramatic scene idolizing Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis. At the time I had not internalized why those men had fought, yet I carried forward the pride that they did.
So, it should be no surprise that at some point in high school I ended up with a 4×6 inch Confederate flag sticker. I would not say that I sought out this vestige of the Confederacy; it was simply a natural thing to have.
And as I found myself at the Air Force Academy, trying to retain some individuality among the thousands of cadets, I decided to latch on to my Southern heritage and display this Confederate flag on my newly-issued desktop computer. There it stayed until the next year, when I met Dale.
Dale was a retired Air Force Colonel who spent much of his time mentoring cadets and former cadets as they progressed through the Air Force (several into the General Officer ranks). Dale is the most thoughtful, articulate, well-read leader I’ve ever known. Interestingly, he has also earned the nickname “The Dragon.”
In 1997, he stopped by my cadet room for the first time and noticed my Confederate flag.
“What’s that?” he asked.
I replied matter-of-factly, “Oh, I’m from Georgia.”
Dale just stared at me, waiting for an appropriate response to his question. A nervous feeling swelled in my gut; and before I could muster some sort of diversionary comment, he added, “You know, some people find that flag offensive. You might want to consider removing it.”
I nodded in acknowledgement, but more out of respect for an authority figure than in appreciation of his comment. Our conversation carried on for a few minutes more, and I went back to my afternoon cadet activities.
Meeting “The Dragon”
Weeks later, the sticker was still on my computer when Dale stopped by once again. The moment he walked in, I realized I had completely ignored his suggestion. As he glanced down to see the Confederate flag, I watched his demeanor transform from cordial to confrontational; and he locked eyes with me.
“I see you chose not to act on my advice to remove that sticker. So, let me be clear. That is the flag of the Confederacy, which fought to protect its right to own slaves. You might display it because you are from Georgia, but that is not what it means to others. You are going to be a leader. People will pay attention to what you espouse. That flag will undermine your influence and, worse, generate feelings of oppressiveness and hostility. Do you really want that?”
I was mortified.
He continued calmly, “Quite frankly, I’m not sure I want to mentor a cadet who can’t understand or won’t correct a serious issue like this. So, let me know this week if you want to continue our engagements.”
The Dragon turned around and walked out, leaving me feeling quite embarrassed. The instant he left my eyeline, I darted to my computer and scraped off the sticker.
Dale’s intervention was decisive in shaping my perspective as a leader. At the time I was not mature enough to separate the horrific practice of Southern slavery from my inherited pride in growing up Southern. Not only did he shed light on my ignorance, but he cared enough to hold me to the higher standard when I was slow to change. (And to his credit, he did so when there was no national conversation surrounding racial injustice.)
This is the heart of true mentorship: to guide the formation of someone’s core beliefs, exposing them to perspectives that inspire change and make them a better leader, perhaps even a better person. Some say leaders should avoid trying to personally influence followers in this way, but this is exactly what leaders are supposed to do.
Leaders have an inherent responsibility to shape character and must look for opportunities to do so – to deliberately seek these “teaching moments.” This is especially true in the military, where Americans expect us to lead with character that is commensurate to the responsibility they have given us.
Dale’s admonishment was a blinding flash of the obvious; and after seeing his perspective, I have paid close attention to what I display and espouse in my role as a leader. I have also evolved my beliefs on Confederate military success; I am not so quick to praise the noble tactical achievements of leaders like Robert E. Lee, given that they fought for such an ignoble cause.
Dale mentors me to this day and I am grateful that he continues to invest in me and countless other growing leaders.