I joined the Air Force more than 17 years ago. Things have changed since then — my own personality being one of them.
Today, I consider myself outgoing, extroverted and comfortable speaking in front of a large audience, or easily able to strike up conversation with people I have never met before. However, that wasn’t always the case.
The main reason for this change is that I kept pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I was able to identify my communication skills as the area I needed to improve the most. As a leader, I am required to continue pushing myself to be better in areas that challenge me.
When I joined the Air Force, I was self-conscious and uncomfortable with public speaking or talking with people I had never met before. Naturally, I tried to stay out of the spotlight.
English is not my native language and I did not feel very confident communicating in my second language. I had to push myself to get out of my comfort zone and become better at public speaking in my newly adopted language.
I had learned some English in the early 1990s while attending the military academy in my native Bulgaria, but did not start speaking it regularly until a few years later. That happened after I attended the Defense Language Institute at Lackland AFB, Texas, as a foreign military education and training officer. The DLI course was great, but only taught English reading and comprehension.
A few years later, I left Europe and immigrated to the United States. I joined the U.S. Air Force in 2001 and commissioned through the Officer Training School.
As a prior infantryman, I thought that nothing in OTS could challenge me. I was wrong. It wasn’t running or rucking that almost kicked my backside during the three-month course, it was the written assignments and videotaped PowerPoint presentations that really made me sweat.
Upon graduating, my first assignment as a fighter engine support engineer required interacting with blue-suit maintainers, repair depot workers and defense contractors at various manufacturing and operational facilities. I realized that in order to be successful in my job, I had to get out of my comfort zone and start to communicate effectively with the entire team so I could achieve the objectives that my leadership had set for my section.
I realized that my drive to be an effective project engineer and manager made me overcome my shyness and come out of my shell.
Being a good communicator became more important when I jumped into leading Airmen. After a few years serving as an aviation engineer, I switched Air Force career fields and became a civil engineer. The nature of my new job was to serve with a large number of Airmen in a CE squadron. It was a big change from being a project engineer and a program manager in the office environment at my previous assignments.
Rather than staying behind my desk, I started looking for more speaking opportunities in order to improve my communication style. Leading training exercises and going through a combat skills pre-deployment training with a large team further helped me give instructions under pressure and demand more of myself.
Leading the best
I believe that I took the final step in the process of adapting my personality to be a more effective leader when I joined the Explosive Ordinance Disposal career field.
The bar for my performance as a leader was suddenly raised because of the demanding mission and the caliber of Airmen I had to lead. I needed to become a better and more aggressive communicator not only to inspire my Airmen, but also to promote the unit and its achievements outside of the squadron. These two tasks I had in front of me as an EOD leader were critical for getting the mission done and for providing my flight with the resources it needed.
There was one more reason for me to improve: I had to be successful leading in an EOD sub-culture that consisted of type-A personalities. I had to be ready to operate in a joint environment and be able to run with top performers from all military service branches. As a leader, I had to be armed with a quick wit and sometimes to sport comebacks faster than the electric current that sets off a blasting cap.
Lastly, I knew that my EOD Airmen deserved a leader who represents them well and makes them proud. That expectation gave me an additional boost to improve and communicate even better.
Fast forward a few assignments and a few years ahead, I completed a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test that revealed I have an outgoing personality. That was very surprising for me because I never before perceived myself that way.
Here I am now, an extrovert according to the MBTI test and a person I think none of my peers or bosses would describe a wallflower, who would prefer to keep himself out of any conversation.
What I learned from my evolution as a public speaker is that I must continue getting out of my comfort zone so I can continue improving all aspects of my leadership style.
Your journey may be different and you may feel challenged in different areas. That’s OK.
Whatever your hurdle may be, I encourage you to not stay in your shell. The key is to not shy away from difficulties. Tackle your obstacles and expand the boundaries of your comfort zone.
Fearlessly lead from the front. You may find that your fears, once overcome, shape and strengthen you.