Commentary

The value of wake-up calls, the right weapons and ‘badass’ leadership

The Department of Defense is bringing into the fold a new weapon. It’s a capability that will increase the performance of the department and is projected to advance the abilities of its people and partners.

It is a weapons system that has worked in Africa, Afghanistan, and other points across the globe. When engaged, enemy effectiveness is reduced and noteworthy results occur.

On Friday, Pentagon leaders will officially bring this capability on-line. The weapons system is not technology or space-based. It is human. However, the track-record of success and sheer “badassery” of this individual very well deserves weapon status.

This weapon is U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Ramon Colon-Lopez, or simply “CZ” to most. The chief assumes duties as the senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff this week. He is the first-ever Air Force and Hispanic leader appointed to the top military enlisted post.

His qualifications and resume of excellence include taking down terrorists, saving people in battle, and uplifting the futures of others as an architect of various building partner capacity programs. As part of a “Warrior Airmen” exhibit, his leadership and heroics in Afghanistan are featured in the Air Force museum at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. He is exceedingly positive, always ensures readiness for the next challenge. He is a problem fixer, a connector and communicator who engages and delivers results. In Africa, he set a course for U.S. partnership and security, both meaningful investments that keep threats away from U.S. shores while preserving opportunities within reach.

Despite his lofty credentials as both highly decorated warrior and joint-service strategic leader, he is one of DoD’s most humble leaders, exceedingly approachable and available to everyone. While he embodies servant leadership, he tells it like it is. As he says in an essay about his leadership style, “some people need a wake-up call, and I know of no better alarm clock than the honest truth.” With him, you get no BS, just authentic, thought-provoking “CZ.”

Mediocrity is no friend of his. He looks to eliminate it where it exists. He expects people’s best. They get his in return.

He is disciplined and action-oriented, and seeks to exceed standards. Running out the ground-balls-of-life is foundational to his approach as a multi-dimensional problem solver. He takes time to understand people, and the problems they face before leaping to an easy button solution. He seeks to understand issues more broadly. As the senior enlisted leader at U.S. Africa Command, this made him ideally suited for addressing the complex problem sets on the African continent as he understood the risk of failing to engage.

During his tenure at AFRICOM, Chief Master Sgt. Colon-Lopez pioneered the Africa Enlisted Development Strategy, and his training approach helped uplift and make African militaries make partnerships stronger. In developing this strategy, he pursued excellence with a dogged determination, meeting with African military leaders. He sought to understand African partner needs first, rather than apply a standalone U.S. solution. Today, Malawi peacekeeping forces are nearly autonomous. He helped enhance their skills, boost professionalism, and sparked broader training. Also, the Malawi training and Sergeant Majors Academy trains 12 other African partners, passing lessons forward, and making others stronger.

He is a driver and teacher of self-sufficiency, but he recognizes that nobody effectively stands alone. After all, learning about and developing capabilities in others, creates opportunity down the road.

Chief “CZ” helped build a bridge to the ambitions and path toward more promising futures for our African partners. Futures the U.S. can be a part of. He forged deep professional and personal relationships with our African leaders, recognizing their countries’ value and importance. This was reflected during his U.S. Africa Command change of responsibility ceremony when the Ghanaian senior enlisted leader, Chief Warrant Officer Ramous Kwame Barker referred to him as a “brother from another mother.” Several African partners are greeting him in D.C. for his first day of official work.

Why is this important? These relationships will pay dividends for our nation. His engagements helped make the various regions in Africa a little bit safer, and more secure by providing critical skills and delivering the professionalism and values the U.S. military embodies. He brought visibility to the value of U.S. partnership and the mission’s importance. This takes on added importance as China and Russia aggressively seek to compete and make end-roads in Africa. Work needs to be done to position for success today to prevent alarm bells sounding for future generations. His strategy for Africa served as a cost effective ounce of prevention.

With a limited number of resources on the continent, U.S. Africa Command is always on the move, looking to win and maximize the influence training and security assistance brings on a land mass 3.5 times the size of the United States. The chief consistently engaged, and forged deep connections on the continent that can be brought forward and more fully developed. Chief “CZ” helped people see more in themselves and beyond current circumstances.

He’s the military leader who is always behind you, serving alongside you, and out in front.

He is a reminder and example of how leadership can bring together cultures and partnerships, while connecting individuals to mission and purpose. He is a leader who finds his way to solutions, with an abundance of substance, grit, and passion for people and mission success.

As the chief remarks in one of his essays on leadership, our mission is to “fight and win,” not “sit, get beat, and lose.”

With the U.S.’s need to continue to build global partnerships, address department of defense gaps, and respond to a dynamic international environment, he has a lot to take on in his new tour of duty. Call him what you want — weapon, leader or maybe game-changer. No doubt, he is up to the challenge of D.C. and ready to go to work. I guarantee he will be on the move, and expect the same of his teammates.

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