ARLINGTON, Va. (AFNS) --
Like most successful leaders and decision-makers, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright understand the value – and importance – of diverse opinions and seeking out conversations where people “live.”
That’s why Goldfein and Wright were side by side in a Pentagon conference room Oct. 24, hunched over computers like millennials at a coffee shop to take part in a free-flowing, hour-long and very public “Ask Me Anything’’ session on Reddit.
It was the first time that Goldfein, the service’s highest-ranking military officer, and Wright, the Air Force’s highest-ranking noncommissioned officer, went together on Reddit to answer questions and to hear from Airmen, their families and anyone else who decided to take part.
By the time the hour ended, nearly 500 comments and dozens of questions had been posted with Goldfein and Wright typing answers in real time to many. As is typical for Reddit, the questions and conversation sprawled across many topics, but unlike some other channels on the popular social media tool, most were polite. There were also far more questions presented than could be answered during the session.
There were questions and answers on career fields, promotions and suggestions for improving the bulky system. There were many questions related to the Enlisted Performance Review system and its weaknesses. There was a collection of questions touching on mental health, suicide and sexual assault. Some were accompanied by poignant personal accounts.
There were questions seeking insight into possible uniform changes, why the GI Bill can’t be used to pay for previous school debt, and from an Airman at Incirlik Air Base asking for insight about what the future might hold. There were multiple questions about the Air Force’s computer network and how to improve the chronically predictable “communications and systems outages.”
That question triggered one of the more animated responses from Goldfein. “AMEN!!!! The spinning hourglass of death is a retention issue,” Goldfein wrote, adding, “We know this is a major frustration across the force. We're on it.”
One of the most poignant exchanges came from an Airman whose spouse had been sexually assaulted. “What is the (Air Force) doing to protect victims and their families from re-victimization and punitive actions by commanders?” the participant asked at the end of a longer post which spelled out some of the details of the case.
“We take this issue very seriously and want to ensure that no one, active duty, family member or anyone else feels like they are re-victimized when something like this happens,” Wright said in a response.
“I also know that we don't always get this right and we need to hear from you when you feel like we aren't doing our part. We actually depend on you to help us get it right. We will continue to hold our (Air Force) leaders to a high standard and we want you to help us by using your voice loudly and proudly on this issue,” he wrote.
The session presented a largely unfiltered sample from posters who can choose to stay anonymous about concerns and attitudes across the Air Force’s sprawling global operation. And given Reddit’s design, all posters are essentially of equal rank.
Goldfein endorsed that standard in one exchange in particular.
“Is downvoting a general officer a punishable offense?” one posted asked, referring to Reddit’s “crowdsourcing” practice that allows participants to elevate and highlight smart, clever, or useful exchanges while punishing lesser ones by burying them.
“Nope. If I write something stupid ... downvote away,” Goldfein replied.
Goldfein and Wright said after it ended, the session was valuable.
“I often say that good leaders ‘squint with their ears,’” Goldfein said. “I mean it. I always want to hear views and opinions from Airmen, civilians, spouses and others. Even when the topics are difficult and uncomfortable, I value the conversation and I always learn something. That’s why this session was useful and important.”
Wright, who has taken part in a previous Reddit session by himself, had a similar view. “There’s no better way to tell how well we are doing – or not doing – as leaders than by hearing directly and frankly from people,” he said. “You have to go where they are.”