COMMENTARY: Lessons from building partnerships

RAF MILDENHALL, England -- I've often joked that I went to Iraq to fly something more modern than a 50-year-old airplane, that aircraft being the mighty combat Cessna used for Iraqi pilot training.

The reality, however, was that I was blessed to work with a nation for a year to help re-ignite its air force following Operation Iraqi Freedom. For that portion of my career, my primary mission was to build a strong partnership with the Iraqi air force and help its personnel become self-sufficient.

As a combat air advisor entrenched within an Iraqi squadron, it was apparent this endeavor was extremely complicated with many fits and starts. Each independent component of the Iraqi forces, such as police, army and air force, tried to kick-start its portion of the Rubik's cube, but often was affected by the stutter-stepping of other cogs in the wheel. Yet, through amazing partnerships and incredible ingenuity, we overcame obstacles one by one to build Iraqi self-sufficiency and provide a path through which the U.S. military could exit.

My "in the trenches" viewpoint isn't sufficient to comment on our overall nation-building efforts. However, as I witnessed the Iraqi pilot training program grow, I was able to hone in on certain cultural strengths and weaknesses my teammates and I brought to this new nation-building arena. We were adept at instructing new technical skills, as well as being natural harbingers of hope.

To a tee, every combat air advisor provided hope to the young Iraqi officers we instructed. These young Iraqis would consistently wonder about their families' safety, and what possible goodness could be in store for them down the road. Yet you could see the hope in their eyes when they sat down opposite us for formal instruction as we continued to build their skillsets, knowing these skills were the keys to a safer and stronger future. This formal instruction was usually the precursor to true nation-nation bonding on an individual level.

Conversely, one of the areas I felt we were poorly equipped for was the ability to obtain buy-in the Iraqi leadership. The author C.S. Lewis provided some insight into effective partnering when he stated that "humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less." In our minds, it was natural for us to stand beside our Iraqi counterparts, knowing in our hearts that we had the best pilot training system, if they would simply adopt our ways.

This "knowing," however, shut down the possibility for us to give the Iraqis a voice in building their new pilot-training program. Without their buy-in, we could pump out as many pilots as we could muster, but the system could fall apart the day we walked out the door since the Iraqis didn't "own" the process.

Another lesson I learned from the time in Iraq was that there are strengths in the Iraqis' cultural mindset we may never understand. However, it only makes sense for an emerging autonomous air force to capitalize on strengths inherit in its own culture as it tackles the mission. In other words, the Iraqis are stronger when they embrace their strengths rather than adopt our strengths.

I am deeply honored to have stood by my American teammates and Iraqi partners, all of whom gave 100 percent to our cause. My teammates and their families' sacrifice is why we aren't in Iraq en masse today.

This particular assignment was a challenge - one that required me to change my mindset from war fighting to partnering with another nation. But I believe it's worth noting lessons learned from this experience as we'll likely need the skills to re-build again somewhere down the road.

These lessons also transfer into everyday mentoring for our younger Airmen. Some of us are driven to be absolutely correct at all times, lest the mission fail. However, leadership growth can be stunted if we fail to get buy-in from our partners and subordinates. We must constantly weigh the greater need to determine how we are going to succeed in our mission.