What “Chief” means to an Air Force leader after 30 years of service

  • Published
  • By Miriam A. Thurber
  • 37th Training Wing Public Affairs

Chief Master Sgt. Thaddeus Gravely, senior enlisted leader for the 37th Training Group, almost always smiles. He smiled scraping excrement out of the military working dog kennels, he smiled describing his enlistment in the Air Force 30 years ago and he smiled talking about his mentors, but Gravely stopped smiling when asked what being a chief — the highest enlisted rank in the Air Force — means to him.

“When I see a chief master sergeant,” Gravely said, “I see a servant. I see somebody willing to carry an organization on their shoulders.”

To Gravely, being a chief doesn’t stop when you take off your uniform at the end of the day, or even when you retire. Being a chief is a lifelong commitment to guide and to lead in good times and bad times. It’s a continuous promise to listen, talk and mentor everyone, both at work and off the clock.

“Chiefs represent a strong legacy and history of leadership,” Gravely said. “It’s more than a rank, and it’s much bigger than you. Being a chief means you represent your organization, your family, the entire Air Force and all chiefs — you are a reflection of and a voice for the entire enlisted force.”

Gravely leaned back in his chair and broke into his usual smile, “It’s all about taking care of people and having fun. That’s why it’s important to promote the right people.”

Gravely enlisted in the Air Force, but initially planned on joining the Army. In fact, he participated in Army Junior ROTC while attending high school in Martinsville, Virginia. However, he’s more than thankful that he chose the Air Force, and that his final assignment is here in the 37th TRG.

“To say I’m beyond happy is an understatement,” Gravely said. “I feel like I’ve reached self-actualization and I would not change a thing — I wouldn’t change the job I’m ending at, my family, timelines of my career, learning or any growth.”

When he looks back on his career, Gravely thinks of the people, and that’s the main reason he’s been so satisfied with his job.

“I don’t think about the work,” he said. “I think about relationships and the laughs I’ve shared with people.” In particular, Gravely considers himself fortunate to have worked with such great leaders.

In his opinion, a good leader is approachable, willing to listen, has your best interests at heart, is trustworthy, genuinely cares, makes you feel like your voice is heard and is a good communicator.

“People are not a product,” Gravely said. “Be patient and be the absolute best that you can be for yourself and especially for the people you’re leading.”   

Gravely spent the past 30 years learning what it means to be a good, genuine leader by watching others and by serving as a leader himself. Here are the top lessons he’s learned:

*The first step to becoming a good leader is knowing yourself. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Be honest about who you are with yourself and with others.

*Work on your weaknesses. Once you know yourself well enough to identify blind spots, intentionally work to fill in your gaps, and pick people for your teams who are strong where you’re weak. For example, Gravely admits he’s not good with statistics or analytics, so when he builds teams, he selects people who are great with statistics so they can complement each other as a cohesive unit.

*Be empathetic and know how to talk to people. In some roles, you’re a coach, in others you’re a mentor, and sometimes you’re a friend. As you gain maturity and experience, Gravely says you’ll learn how and when to use each role.

*Let your people know you have their best interests at heart. Be approachable and a good team member. Be fair and impartial, and be a good listener. Make sure you always have your team’s back.

*Know what you represent. When you’re a leader, you represent the Air Force, not just your career field. Gravely was an HVAC technician by trade, but in 2006 he received an assignment that made him a leader for non-HVAC technicians. He says realizing who you represent and how you can advocate for people in other careers is an important milestone for every leader.

*Your attitude and mood affects the entire organization. Attitudes are contagious, so Gravely says to always have fun, be calm and bring positive energy. “If you’re mad, your team will be, too,” Gravely said. “But if you bring joy, you’ll set a positive tone for everyone.”

Gravely is bringing that positive attitude into his retirement from active duty. “The Air Force is all I know, but I’m excited to have some time to reflect and spend time with my family,” Gravely said. “And I’m excited to have the freedom to try different things and figure out what I want to do next.”

Gravely smiled and added “I’m excited to continue representing chiefs, even after I retire the uniform.”

Once a chief, always a chief.