Positive impressions leave lasting impact

  • Published
  • By Col. Glen Downing
  • 81st Training Wing vice commander
Twenty-one years later, I still remember my very first day of active duty on an Air Force base. It was June 14, 1990, and my wife and I had just driven halfway across the country from Iowa to Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento, Calif. Neither one of us had ever been to Sacramento before, let alone Mather. It was our first permanent change of station, so there was a little bit of unease as we pulled up to the gate late in the afternoon.

That uneasy feeling got a little worse when I noticed an authoritative looking technical sergeant talking to some of the Airmen at the gate. Even a naïve lieutenant could tell this man must be in charge of something. The gate was busy so when I stopped, it was the tech sergeant, assisting his Airmen, who came to my window. I rolled my window down, because that's what we did back then, and before I could even say anything, the sergeant smiled and politely asked,

"Can I help you, Sir?"

I nervously reached for my orders and my prized red second lieutenant ID card. That card was red for a reason...it screamed inactive reserve and meant I was as "green" as they come.

The sergeant looked things over and then asked, "Sir, are you here for navigator training?" I proudly said yes and immediately he explained how to get to the lodging office, reminded me my first day of class was Monday and explained where and how I needed to report. He then took a step back, snapped the sharpest salute I've ever seen and said, "Welcome to the Air Force, Sir, Ma'am."

Driving away from that gate, I commented to my wife about how great the Air Force was going to be. I also thought about how courteous and professional the NCO was and how he anticipated all of my needs and fulfilled them. What immediately formed in my mind was the most lasting impression of my career. That noncommissioned officer convinced me the Air Force has the most incredible people anywhere. Our daily business is really people taking care of people, and that sense of community is what I have enjoyed most about my career.

Over the years, I've thought a lot about those few minutes at that gate. I've drawn other impressions over time. It taught me about the pride and professionalism of the NCO corps. It also taught me about the quality of our security forces personnel. I began to realize the NCO doesn't even know the impression he made on me as a newly-minted lieutenant. I'll never have the opportunity to thank him -- all I can do is pay it forward. I'm also pretty sure he never thought a few minutes could leave an impression that continues to impact a career 21 years later.

How often do you think about the impressions you make? Often, we talk about first impressions and I agree that those are important. We're also making impressions every day, usually without even knowing we have an impact on others. I'm continually surprised and grateful when someone comes up to me and tells me how I made some sort of impression or impact on them. Usually, it's a small comment or just an observation from a distance. Truly, we are always on parade. Airmen are always watching and listening. Are you making positive impressions or negative ones?

There are a few things you can do to ensure you leave positive impressions on others.

First, be yourself. Phoniness makes you look, well, phony. Let your personality shine.

Second, never give up what I call the free stuff. Personal appearance, customs and courtesy go a long way in communicating who you are as an Airman and a person. The free stuff won't normally move you up in the world, but giving it up will certainly move you down.

Third, work on self-awareness. The more you realize you are making impressions, the more control you'll have over them. You'll learn to choose the best words, keep the best attitude and pause that extra second to provide a piece of advice or mentorship that otherwise you may have passed by.

Last, and most important, treat everyone with respect. That security forces NCO so many years ago could have easily laughed at my little red ID card and challenged the wet-behind-the-ears-LT to fend for himself. Instead, he chose to throw his arms open and embrace my wife and me as part of the Air Force family. In two minutes or less, one person affected our view of the Air Force forever. Remember, impressions really do count!