Finding his style

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Zachary Bumpus
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs

He knelt down as his wife and children came toward him, splotches of sunlight shining down on them from the windows high up in the ceiling.

As his children took the bronze leaves off his shoulders and replaced them with silver, Lt. Col. Gibb Little, Commander 423rd Civil Engineer Squadron, RAF Alconbury, United Kingdom, flashed back to the road he travelled that brought him to where he is today.

Nearly 15 years prior, Little raised his hand and recited the oath for the first time as he commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. His journey to leadership didn’t start when he first raised his right hand to confirm he was ready to lead, or through his trials as a student at The Citadel where he learned the important lesson of the cost of leadership. His journey began as he looked up to his mentors as a child and learned from their examples.

“My parents really shaped me when I was growing up,” said Little. “My mom and dad divorced when I was three and my mom married my stepdad not to long after that, it was hard but it meant that as a kid I had three great role models.”

Little’s father and stepfather had both been in the military and he attributes some of his desire to join to their legacy of service. More than introducing him to the military, it was their actions after the military that stuck with him.

“My biological father was in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, and my stepdad was a crew chief on C-130’s in the Air Force,” said Little. “Both of them were successful after the military. My father became a private investigator in Los Angeles and my stepdad owned a flooring business. I lived with my mom. My dad lived in a different state but he was still there for me. Seeing how hard my stepdad worked every day was a great lesson.”  

But while his father and stepfather helped shape his interest in working with his hands, and sparked his interest in the military, it was his mother who set him on the path to leadership.

 “I think I look up to my mother the most,” said Little. ““She’s able to build teams to get the job done. Seeing her operate, she’s very demanding but she’s also very kind and respectful of the folks who work for her. I think that even though leaders can be, and should be, demanding of their folks it’s important to balance that against the caring side because if you don’t do that then you won’t really know how you can encourage somebody to do something. I appreciate her leadership style she’s very natural at finding the best way to get the job done.”

Growing up under the wing of such capable people, Little had an opportunity to see good leaders at work before finding his own footing as a leader.

But being able to lead on his own would take more than seeing an example of how it should be done, Little would have to learn his style on his own.

“It was ring night,” said Little. “At The Citadel it’s a big, big event. You get your ring your senior year, and what I saw coming up as a freshman, sophomore, junior, was that you went out and partied on ring night. That was the way people celebrated. So you’d go out and party, have some drinks, and them come back to the battalion and keep celebrating there. You’d have guys yelling and jumping up and down, maybe a few guys wrestling or doing stupid stuff. You were just that excited that you got your ring.”

For Little though, his night of celebration meant that he was ignoring his responsibilities as a leader.

“I was a company commander, so I was in charge of roughly a hundred people,” said Little. “The Citadel is a leadership laboratory. It’s important to learn to lead the right way, but as a senior in college I wasn’t far enough along in my leadership development to regulate on my peers, to tell them, ‘stop what you’re doing. You’re doing the wrong thing.’ I wanted to party too. It just never occurred to me that I could be held accountable for the behavior of some of the other folks in my company.”

As Little celebrated receiving his ring, another member of his company got too rowdy, and like an object in freefall events accelerated out of control.

“I don’t know exactly what I was doing at the time, but one of my classmates threw a guidon holder,” said Little. “Our guidon holders were pretty crude, just a concrete block with a hole in the middle so the guidon would stay up. He picked it up and threw it off the fourth floor balcony. It grazed another guy’s head and he ended up needing to get a few stiches. When the administration found out about it they removed the commanders. So I was removed from command my senior year and moved to a different battalion, separated from my peers.

Even though Little grew up watching the way his mother led he still made a mistake. But from his mistake he gained a clearer picture of what being a leader really was.

“I learned a very important lesson that day,” said Little with a smile. “With your position comes an acceptance of responsibility whether it’s your fault or not, whether you committed the wrong act or not, the people in your command are your responsibility and the way they act is up to you.”

As he moved forward in his Air Force career Little never forgot that the actions of his Airmen were his responsibility.

“I think that’s helped me throughout my career in the military, as a commander I have to take ownership of the actions, and inactions, of my Airmen. I could have told everybody to go to bed. I was the company commander I could have done it. I clearly didn’t want to. I had just gotten my ring the same as everybody else I wanted to celebrate. But I could have, and that would have prevented an incident that nearly killed somebody.”

The mentality that his Airmen’s actions are his responsibility became a core part of Little’s leadership style.

“Even at an assignment like my current one where we have a very small shop, it’s up to me to set the mood of the shop. I have to be responsible for how my people are acting because if one of them does something wrong, I need to be able to explain why it happened.”

Standing as his family returned to their seats Little turned and began to recite the reaffirmation of his oath, stating once again that he was ready to lead.