What it takes to be a successful chief of staff

People ask about the "secret to my success" all the time. It's rooted in service and community, not self-promotion

Published March 10, 2018 4:00PM (EST)

Gen. Norton Schwartz (Getty/Brendan Smialowski)
Gen. Norton Schwartz (Getty/Brendan Smialowski)

Excerpted with permission from "Journey: Memoirs of an Air Force Chief of Staff" by General Norty Schwartz, Suzie Schwartz, & Ron Levinson. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound.

You can’t imagine how many people have asked what I consider to be the “secret to my success,” as if there’s some undisclosed formula that if followed would guarantee a seat at the chairman’s table in the Tank. Did I plot my way to the top? Step on others along the way? Do politics play a role? Well, the answers are “there’s some element of that,” “absolutely not,” and “it’s clearly a backdrop.” Let me explain.

I would be disingenuous to say that I didn’t have ambition. I did. But I would not characterize it as the unbridled ambition that some people have. I had goals, but they were incremental, never some grand scheme that I be­lieved would speed me to the top. My first ambition was to be a pilot, then an instructor pilot, then a flight examiner. This continued through the squadron and wing commander levels and on up the ranks, yet I was always flexible enough to deviate from my plan as alternative opportunities arose along the way. I was fully aware of which jobs were key, and I did what I could to be the most qualified candidate for those jobs. I wanted to be as competitive as I could be, and by that I don’t mean on a one-on-one basis, but rather to have credentials that would place me in favor with hiring authorities. I am an avid student of the bureaucracy and that’s a major part of the flag officer assignment process. But none of that is what drove us. What really lit the fire was a sense of obligation and a love of this culture and community that both Suzie and I came to know. One of the most rewarding things about becoming Chief was having the opportunity to make a substantial, long-term impact on those is­sues about which we were passionate.

Ambition properly calibrated is a positive attribute; unbridled ambition rarely leads to success.

As for the politics, it’s a backdrop, clearly. Hiring authorities have discretion so there are human factors involved in those kinds of decisions: whether you’re respected, whether there is some relationship there. The truth is:

Politics do matter. Proximity matters more.

A person who is known and trusted has a much better chance of being hired than someone who’s a stranger. My hunch is, the fact that I was a little bit of an outsider actually worked to my advantage. By an outsider I mean that I had been in the joint world for ten years. I wasn’t part of one of the major mainstream “tribes” of the Air Force. I think that caught Secretary Gates’s attention, so maybe that turned out to be an asset rather than a liability.

I also think it’s important that neither Suzie (my wife) nor I walked up anybody’s back along the way. There were people who did not agree with certain calls I made, but I don’t know of anyone that I would characterize as an enemy or an adver­sary. This was never a political ploy, it’s just who I am and how I was raised. I believe there were others who were more inclined to do that sort of thing than I think I was. Certain things seem fairly obvious to me. This falls into that cat­egory, and it’s one of the standard admonitions I included in every one of my initial command briefs; for both its obvious and more subtle implications:

Keep your zipper zipped. It’s the right thing to do, and I assure you it will make everyone’s life a lot easier.

I tried to avoid self-promotion, and Suzie would probably argue that I went overboard with this. But I think that’s a big difference between me and others like Wes Clark, who clearly were self-promoters. That could be another reason why we didn’t have many enemies.

Leave it to others to toot your horn.

From the moment we recite the Air Force Oath of Office, we begin the lifelong process of shaping our reputation. There will always be temptations—it’s how we handle them that makes or breaks us. For me, it’s been pretty easy to do the right thing and make the right choices. A lot of that has to do with the values that were instilled in me long before I ever thought about donning Air Force blue. For others, it may not come quite as easily. Benjamin Franklin reminds us that “it takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” Warren Buffett has a slightly different observation: “It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” He’s right. So, think about it.

Reputations are hard to earn and easy to lose.

In the words of Don Rumsfeld, “Don’t do or say things you would not like to see on the front page of The Washington Post.”


I had the honor of directly working for two presidents, three secretaries of de­fense, and four chairmen, and they all had very different styles, which is not a trivial thing.

Personality and style counts.


I found President Bush to be more approachable and easier to talk to than Presi­dent Obama, so I felt a little more comfortable in President Bush’s presence. Bush was warmer, less formal, and more gregarious, where President Obama was more reserved and cerebral. Both were keenly interested in our views but it was more official with President Obama. They both really got to know their chiefs, and they got to know Suzie, as well.


Rumsfeld, Gates, and Panetta. One was a businessman, one was a defense pro­fessional, and one was a politician. Each of them was successful despite their different managerial styles. Rummy was very demanding, but never cruel. He didn’t suffer fools and required both exquisite knowledge and performance by people who worked for him. He could definitely poke, but only if you gave him an opening. If you showed any weakness or a lack of knowledge, Katie bar the door. You courted disaster if you were not fully prepared when you walked into the room with Don Rumsfeld, and in my view that’s fair. At this level, that’s exactly how it should be.

Bob Gates was equally demanding but less accessible. He played things a little closer to the vest, rarely making a decision at the table or in a more public session. He would take the presentation, make sure that he understood the op­tions, and then typically make a decision separately. No question that he was decisive, but he was much more discreet, which isn’t a big surprise considering his background as an intelligence professional. He was not as open—at least not with me.

Panetta was someone I worried about because he really didn’t have a strong defense background, but he turned out to be a magnificent team builder. Where­as Secretary Gates was the captain of the ship, Leon Panetta was the chief of the boat. He emphasized teamwork and collaboration to a degree that neither Rumsfeld nor Gates had ever done, and with a much greater level of participa­tion and involvement on the part of the senior military and civilian leadership than was ever the case under Secretaries Rumsfeld or Gates—much more open and gregarious, but extremely effective.

There is no cookie cutter for a successful president, secretary of defense, or any leader—that’s the basic theme. There are multiple styles that will work . . . if we make the necessary midcourse corrections to accommodate those styles. It’s highly doubtful that Bob Gates would suddenly start sharing everything with me just because I told him that I functioned better that way, and can you imag­ine how President Obama would react if I’d ask him to “lighten up”? My point is that they are not the ones who are going to be doing the changing. It’s largely how we deal with the divergent styles that will determine whether we can work together as an effective team.

From my perspective, I enjoyed working for each of them. Each of them was brilliant, had great instincts, was good at staying ahead of the wave—and every one of them worked their ass off. I felt challenged by them, and I have the utmost of respect and affection for all three, without reservation.


Dick Myers and Pete Pace were a great team as chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They were interchangeable, they were mutually sup­portive, and both of them were excellent bosses. Obviously, Dick and Pete had the special challenge of the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the work-up for OIF—Operation Iraqi Freedom and continuation of Enduring Freedom. I think that Dick Myers hasn’t gotten enough credit for managing that very demanding and stressful time. It was 24/7 work, and he handled it masterfully. Dick and Mary Jo were the quintessential senior couple.

Mike Mullen and Hoss Cartwright were not a great team. They operated in somewhat different spheres, so there wasn’t the same sense of cohesion and interchangeability between the two of them. They would have somewhat differ­ent angles on things. It was a little bit more difficult both as a service chief and as a member of the Joint Chiefs to deal with them because they were not nearly as well aligned as were Pace and Myers.

Mike Mullen and I, and Suzie and Deborah, got along great. I think that the Mullens believe that we did what we said we would do when they hired us, which was to bring the Air Force back and reestablish its reputation both inside the DoD and outside. I think that Admiral Mullen was a little bit more difficult to deal with than Dick Myers had been on general officer matters. I felt that Myers had a broader, more joint perspective of the flag officer management than Mike Mullen. Mike was a little bit tilted toward the Navy. Myers didn’t tilt very much at all. That was one difference that we had to deal with. But both took us into their confidence. Both were instantaneously accessible. Both had challeng­ing moments: for Myers, the buildup to the war; for Mullen, the surge and the friction within the White House over the surge. Those were very demanding times for both of them respectively.

Marty Dempsey came on in the fall of 2011, and we were together for about six months. Marty was dealing with the backside of the conflicts. I think Marty was most likely given guidance from the secretary or even the president that they wanted the chairman to be a little bit less visible and take a somewhat lower profile than Mullen had, and he did that. Marty was a little bit more of an inside person than Mullen was. Mullen also tended to act more independently, which was his privilege. Again, a difference in style. But he was less a representative of the Joint Chiefs than he was his own man. I think Marty reset that and was more representative of the Joint Chiefs and a little bit less his own man.


I spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill. Sometimes it was on a specific issue related to a particular state delegation; often it was on broader matters that applied to the Air Force or the entire military. Testimonies before both House and Sen­ate Armed Services Committees were frequent. Interacting with members was enlightening. What really made it fun was the wide range of personalities.

My experience with Michigan Senator Carl Levin was representative. Of course, Levin had been the ranking member of my problematic confirmation hear­ing, and that was only one of many times we locked horns in the committee room. As the debate over our efforts to downsize—including some Michigan-based assets—became more controversial, he asked Mike Donley and me to drop by his office so we could try to iron out our differences behind closed doors. I was prepared for the meeting to play out much like our prior encounters, which had for the most part been in front of the cameras in the course of our Armed Services Committee testimonies. He was frequently on offense, probing, seeking clarity. While this was a no-bullshit, serious conversation, he was respectful and left the grandstanding for the Senate floor. I was impressed by the depth of his under­standing and in this case his genuine desire to comprehend the data.

The Florida delegation kept me busy as we worked the issues related to the F-22s at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City. There were questions about the sustainability of the base, particularly with fewer F-15s and production curtailed on the F-22. So we had to do some missionary work to persuade them that we had a viable plan they could support. Congressman Allen Boyd Jr. worked it hard on behalf of the base. He understood the military—he had been an Army infantry officer in Vietnam. Secretary Donley and I accepted his invitation to tour the 325th Fighter Wing with him in June 2009, where we were briefed by representatives from the Bay County community, who had impressive presen­tations about the important role Tyndall plays in our national defense. Clearly they were concerned after we had just announced the accelerated retirement of all forty-eight F-15s assigned to the base. He was a passionate advocate on be­half of his constituency.

Understandably, the Delaware delegation needed a lot of engagement as a result of the Dover Port Mortuary issues. This was an explosive matter that dealt with one of their installations and we did not want them to be blindsided when the shit hit the fan, and they never were. We kept Senators Tom Carper and Chris Coons in the loop throughout the Port Mortuary ordeal, but that took a good deal of our time.

Earlier I mentioned my challenges with showboating by some of the mem­bers, and the disrespect shown by Forbes, McCaskill, Nelson, and others. On the flip side, one of my greatest honors was meeting with Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, rest his soul. Senator Inouye was a remarkable man, a recipient of both the Medal of Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

I needed his help in getting a general officer confirmed, because Senator Mark Begich of Alaska—a freshman senator who had succeeded Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican member of the Senate of all time—was mak­ing it difficult for this confirmation to proceed. With his status as an elder and senior statesman, and chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, I looked to Senator Inouye to sort of nudge the junior senator in the right direction. I had never done this before, but this was a difficult enough issue that I felt it necessary to see if Senator Inouye would at least discuss the matter with Begich. He was supportive, gracious, and a true gentleman in every sense of the word. Here’s a man who was the president pro tempore of the United States Senate—making him the highest ranking Asian American politician in U.S. history—who actually took the time to pick up the phone and call me with an update following his conversation with Begich. This was not something I had ever expected, and it’s just another indication of how extraordinary a man he was.

In the end, the issue worked itself out, but even after his dialogue with Senator Inouye, it would take weeks before Begich would agree to go along with this very worthy confirmation.


General Larry Welch (12th Chief of Staff of the Air Force) once told me that if a Chief doesn’t spend 25 percent of his time on general officer management, he (or she) is not doing his job. I had a lot of experience with building the bench from my time as director of the Joint Staff, where at the end of each day I would work with Chairman Dick Myers on flag officer management. It’s a long-term process, and not an easy one. Once you’ve identified the prime contenders, you have to groom them and challenge them and stretch them so that when they get to more senior positions, they have the depth and credibility to succeed.

Even early on it was pretty obvious that the flag officer ranks tended to be white and male. Mike Donley and I worked hard to make it more diverse, and eventually minority officers started having a shift in opportunities. There were more rising to senior positions of trust, not because they were minorities or female but because they were spectacularly good officers. We worked hard to create four-star capable officers, and we had some success at that.

Shortly before I retired, General Janet C. Wolfenbarger became the first woman to achieve the rank of four-star general in the Air Force. We had been grooming her for this for many years, and it was well deserved. Starting as an administrative clerk, Airman Larry Spencer put in more than forty-four years of distinguished service before he retired as four-star General Larry Spencer. He’s currently president of the Air Force Association and publisher of Air Force Magazine. In 2012, Secretary Donley and I made it clear to the president and the U.S. Senate that Larry was the ideal choice to become the next vice chief.

The Air Force now has two diverse four-stars and others at the three-star and two-star rank. Youngsters need role models to look up to, and these are all exemplary role models. It was a significant effort to get it right, but I’m proud of the substantial strides we made.


We celebrated excellence in any number of ways, to say thank you and to encour­age continued high performance. You highlight success and you reward excel­lence—not monetarily, but through taking care of the kids, whether recognizing them through a decoration, or Officer of the Month, or NCO of the Year, or making sure that they get a job that keeps them on the development glide path. Witnessing success and witnessing excellence was one of the high points of all my positions.

One time when I was chief, Suzie and I went to an event at McChord. There were eight people in the special tactics community that were getting awards that day. We awarded three Silver Stars and five Bronze Stars. It was a remarkable moment.

On another occasion, I vividly remember being there as Secretary Donley awarded the Air Force Cross, the second highest award, to Staff Sgt. Zach­ary Rhyner, a young combat controller based at Pope AFB, North Carolina. There have probably been less than a dozen Air Force Crosses earned in the last twenty-five years. I also presented him with a Purple Heart that day. What a glorious privilege to have a chance to do so. This went to a young airman who went back to Afghanistan and was wounded on the second trip. He was quite a trooper. Despite injuries he sustained as the result of persistent insurgent fire, Sergeant Rhyner coordinated more than fifty aerial attacks to continuously repel the enemy during the beleaguering battle that occurred during his first deploy­ment. According to the decoration citation, he provided suppressive fire with his M-4 rifle against the enemy while fellow teammates were extracted from the line of fire.

We try our best to hold everything together at all times, but I became par­ticularly emotional with this one. “The team survived this hellish scene . . . not by chance, not by luck, and not by the failings of a weak or timid foe,” I said before hundreds of Zach’s friends, family, and coworkers in attendance that day, a fifty-foot American flag quite appropriately mounted as our backdrop on the wall behind me. “A grateful nation could not be more proud for what you do and no doubt what you will do,” I said, looking him in the eye.

As fortunate as I was to have one Air Force Cross on my watch, three years later I was privileged to have another. Captain Barry Crawford was awarded his for his heroic actions calling in airstrikes during a 2010 battle in Afghani­stan, which allowed his special operations team to get out of the kill zone and ultimately saved the lives of his American comrades and allowed for the safe return of all U.S. forces, the evacuation of two Afghan commandos killed in action, and the rescue of three other wounded Afghan commandos. As I said that day in our Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes, “Captain Crawford repeatedly and conspicuously disregarded his own safety to assist his United States and Afghan teammates. It is not hard to be utterly impressed by his bravery and inspired by his selflessness.”


Suzie and I certainly could not have gotten this far without the magnanimous mentors who have shown us the way. We tried our best to do the same—to try, as best we could—to be an excellent couple ourselves—to work hard, to be good role models, to recognize excellence, and to celebrate it openly and joyfully. It seemed to work well for us over the years.

We see it in the number of babies that Suzie talks about in the squadron; we did our best to encourage them along the way, and have stayed connected to them over the years. Bob and Chris Otto are good examples of this. Bob has recently retired as a three-star deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

Then there’s Cheryl and Darryl Roberson, now an Air Force three-star and commander of Air Education and Training Command. Darryl was a squadron commander at Elmendorf in the 90th Squadron. Bob Otto was my ops group commander. And of course they were all there during 9/11.

Then there is Loren Reno. We were lieutenants at Clark together in the very, very beginning. He retired as a three-star deputy chief of staff for logistics, installations, and mission support. My hunch is that he would probably tell you that that we were mentors to him and Karen.

So there were both senior people and younger folks that we continued to encourage. It was great fun for us, and we hope, both valuable and fun for them.

By General Norty Schwartz

General Norton (Norty) Schwartz served as the 19th Chief of Staff of the US Air Force. As Chief, he served as the senior uniformed Air Force officer responsible for the organization, training, and equipping of 680,000 active-duty, Guard, Reserve and civilian forces. As a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the general functioned as military adviser to the Secretary of Defense, National Security Council, and the President.

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