A chief’s foundation: Faith, family, mentorship

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. --  Thirty feet up in the air, clinging to a utility pole, was a brand-new Airman crying out for help. He was panicking and insistent that he was going to fall.

An instructor stared up at him from the ground and sighed. This was the sergeant’s first day as a technical training school instructor, and before that moment, it had been years since he had climbed a utility pole.

Even to a man with a resolute stature and years of experience, the sergeant had to gather his own nerves before making the climb. He calmed the Airman down and brought him to solid ground safely. From that moment on, the instructor practiced climbing the utility pole before each time he took any class out to the service yard.

That instructor, now Chief Master Sgt. Leon Calloway, is the 22nd Air Refueling Wing’s command chief.

Family:

At the time Calloway entered the service he had a wife and three young children. They were living in a dangerous neighborhood, and he was working dead-end jobs to support his family.

“I did four years of college and ran into a tremendous amount of debt,” explained the chief. “I ran out of money to finish college and moved back home. I sat down with my wife and we talked about it. This was our chance to start over and to point our family in a better direction.”

After meeting with his recruiter and learning about rank, Calloway set a goal for himself. He was going to make the rank of chief one day. It took him 18 years to do it. He insists that setting time tables to accomplish goals is important for creating personal accountability; more important than the goal itself.

Mentorship:

“When I get up in the morning, I look in the mirror and I ask myself, ‘What can I do better today than I did yesterday?’” Calloway said. “Things that we are good at are the things that we gravitate toward doing, so we need to work on the areas that we lack even more and find a way to build and grow.”

Calloway says mentorship is about teaching Airmen to be a better person overall. He learned this concept from his previous supervisors and he tries to pass it along to fellow Airmen.

“We have an obligation to be honest and give everyone the same fair shake,” said the Uniontown, Pennsylvania native. “Hard conversations are still mentoring. One person might take your advice and run with it and another person may not. You have to tell them, ‘You don’t get a trophy. Not everybody gets a reward. Not everyone gets a pat on the back.’”

Calloway’s honesty is not just a circumstantial quality.

“I asked all my chiefs I was interviewing, ‘What’s the one thing that the Air Force has let you down on?’” said Col Joshua Olson, 22nd ARW commander. “Most chiefs said, ‘Nothing, the Air Force has been great.’ The one chief who came off the top role was Calloway. He said, ‘The Air Force has let me down with every birthday I’ve missed, every anniversary I’ve missed and every Christmas I’ve missed and I’ve missed a lot of them.’ I thought that was pretty real. After that, I knew that was my chief. That was our chief.”

Faith:

Sincerity is a value that has evolved from Calloway’s faith. He is an ordained minister and has his master’s degree in Christian leadership. This is a family tradition that runs deep as both his father and brother are pastors.

“I want folks to know I represent prayer, faith and hard work, and that equals results,” said Calloway. “I believe my journey from airman basic to chief master sergeant has been a journey of faith. I’ve seen doors open, and I’ve seen people come into my life and direct and create pathways that I couldn’t have done on my own.”

Calloway uses a verse from the Bible as his definition of leadership and a way to hold himself accountable as a chief:

"And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant," Matthew 20:27.

This is a message Calloway clings to because he believes a leader’s number one priority should be their ability to serve others. He emphasized mentorship is not only the purposeful actions you take but the unintentional effects of people watching your actions and emulating them.

“I expect him to lead, and I expect him to coach,” said Olson. “We know what right looks like —we feel it every single day. [Calloway] will trust his gut, and he will make this base better.”

One of the ways Calloway plans on making an impact starts with the basics of the enlisted rank structure.

“Without the Airmen at the bottom of the pyramid, the pinnacle cannot stand on its own,” explained Calloway. “I’m going to give them everything that has helped me be successful. We owe it to the generations before us, we owe it to the folks we serve with now, and we owe it to the generation coming up after us. We owe it to reach back to those Airmen and to show them what it takes to get to where we are now.”

Service members hold a lot of titles as individuals; Airman, spouse, sibling, friend. One way to bring all of these pieces together is by creating pillars of a foundation. Calloway’s foundation is faith, family and mentorship.