True Leadership from Gen. Charles Brown

Though Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. felt at one with the F-16 he flew most in service, his dream is to fly one of the Red Tail P-51 Mustangs flown by the Tuskegee Airmen. U.S. Air Force

As a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the United States Air Force’s most senior uniformed officer, Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. is responsible for the organization, training and equipping of 689,000 active-duty National Guard, Reserve and civilian forces serving in the US and overseas. A military adviser to the secretary of defense, Security Council and president, Gen. Brown is the kind of a leader that knows true leadership is much more than just giving orders.

Throughout his career, Brown has ascended up through the ranks of the Air Force after being called upon to command a fighter squadron, the US Air Force Weapons School, two fighter wings, and the US Air Forces Central Command while amassing 2,900 flying hours—130 of them in combat. Through it all, Brown drew upon his pragmatic view of military service and human interaction to develop a personal skill set built around knowing his strengths and weaknesses.

“I subscribe to the belief that you must lead yourself before you can lead others,” Brown says. “I’m also a big fan of knowing the difference between your superpower and your kryptonite, which will contribute to your leadership style with the Airmen that you have the privilege to lead. Everyone has a superpower, something that defines who they are, and today’s Air Force leaders need to be able to identify these special attributes within their ranks to build teams with varied skills to engage successfully while countering their kryptonite.”

One of Brown’s superpowers is the ability to remain empathetic as a leader, to humanize who he leads. “I am an avid reader of materials presented to me, so I can understand varied viewpoints, and I like to engage in conversations that allow me to see something from a different perspective. The end result is that while we have to get the mission done, if we don’t take care of our Airmen and their families, the mission will falter. That is probably the most important part about leadership in the Air Force—Airmen want to know that their leaders care,” he says.

Gen. Brown believes strongly in leading with empathy. U.S. Air Force

Brown didn’t just luck his way to the top; he worked hard to develop the kind of personal attributes one needs to be a leader. “I believe we are all moldable clay, and leaders are grown, although it takes more than having the right character traits and personality to be grown into a leader,” Brown says. “Personally, I am a strong believer in the power of maintaining relationships—not waiting to cold call in a crisis but to engage with others with no purpose other than to ask how they are doing. Staying connected is a great way to demonstrate care across all of your personal and professional relationships. Becoming a leader takes more than developing the right character traits; it takes nurturing, mentorship and role models because achieving success takes help, but failure you can do alone.”

While serving as the Air Force’s top officer today, at the core of Brown’s service is his flying career. He’s flown 17 different Air Force fixed-wing and rotary aircraft, but he’s biased toward the F-16A/B/C/D because those are what he flew the most in both training and combat. “There are so many times that I felt as if I was one with the F-16, and as a result, I was very confident in my abilities to fly and engage in most any situation,” he says.

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There is, however, one particular airplane that Brown would love to command. “The Tuskegee Airmen hold a special place in my heart. I recently had the opportunity with two Tuskegee Airmen to talk to Air Force Academy and ROTC cadets, and one of the questions asked was: If I could fly any plane that I haven’t flown, what would it be? Hands down, that would be the P-51 Mustang with a Red Tail,” Brown said.

Conversations that simply connect are important to establishing trust. U.S. Air Force

Brown identifies similarities between his career and that of the Tuskegee Airmen. “I’ve been in situations where I also had to rise above,” Brown says. “There have been moments in my career that were challenging as one of very few African Americans flying fighters, or as one of few African American senior officers. I always wanted to be judged by the level of my performance and the content of my character as an officer and fighter pilot in comparison to my peers, and not viewed solely as an African American officer and fighter pilot. In the vast majority of the Air Force career fields, our adversaries operate and respond the same regardless of the race, gender or ethnic origin of our Airmen.”

With a constant eye on improving diversity in the Air Force, Brown sees opportunity in the underserved and inner-city communities of our country. It is not uncommon, he says, for Air Force recruiters to see bright young men and women of color, who could be developed into valuable aviators, enter recruitment offices, but whose families didn’t have the funds to pay for private pilot training to get them started. “That needs to change,” Brown says. “Thirty years ago when I started flying, only 2 percent of our pilot population was African American. Three decades later, it is still that same percentage—just two. I believe we could be doing a better job of providing young people from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to be bitten by the aviation bug earlier in their lives—because people aspire to be what they’ve been exposed to.”

“I’m also a big fan of knowing the difference between your superpower and your kryptonite.” U.S. Air Force

The career profile of Gen. Brown is filled with examples of what you can accomplish when you subscribe to the philosophy that you must lead yourself first. Throughout his ascension to the top of the USAF, Brown set goals and met them, considering challenges as something to be used as a personal motivation tool. By leading himself, he’s achieved the kind of military success as a pilot and officer that has earned him deep respect.

In his current role as the Air Force’s top officer and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Brown says his job is to “make sure that we stay competitive enough that we don’t go to war, but if that moment comes…we are far enough ahead that our adversaries cannot keep up.” By spreading his brand of leadership down through the ranks, it’s clear that we are in good hands when it comes to the Air Force.

This story appeared in the June/July 2021 issue of Flying Magazine

Dan Pimentel is an instrument-rated private pilot and former airplane owner who has been flying since 1996. As an aviation journalist and photographer, he has covered all aspects of the general and business aviation communities for a long list of major aviation magazines, newspapers and websites. He has never met a flying machine that he didn’t like, and has written about his love of aviation for years on his Airplanista blog. For 10 years until 2019, he hosted the popular ‘Oshbash’ social media meetup events at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.

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