For Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth Wright, the next chief master sergeant of the Air Force, it isn't enough just to talk to the airmen under his command about what they're going through. He eagerly jumps in to get his hands dirty alongside them.
In interviews with Air Force Times, airmen who served with or under Chief Wright consistently described an outgoing, even-keeled leader who cares for his airmen and sees it as his responsibility to help them develop hidden talents.
And Wright — an airman with a dental background who is now the command chief of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and U.S. Air Forces Africa — was also known as a leader who would throw on scrubs and help out with dental cleanings, or man the front desk, to make sure the job got done, said Master Sgt. Nicole McKinstry, who worked for Wright in 2006 and 2007, when she was a dental technician and he was an E-7 dental flight chief at the former Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina.
"He would always tell us, 'Leadership is, you have to be willing to do what you ask others to do,' " said McKinstry, who is now the dental flight chief at the 82nd Aeromedical and Dental Squadron at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. She said she follows Wright's leadership example to this day. "It was never beneath him. We'd remember seeing that, 'My leader, he's willing to get in the trenches with me.' "
"He leads from the front," said Master Sgt. Cheyanne Brown, a clinical dentistry flight chief at the 48th Dental Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, England, who served under Wright in 2010 and 2011 at Kadena Air Base, Japan. "His focus was [on] taking care of his airmen. He didn't want to leave anyone behind, that's for sure."
Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth Wright, then the 3rd Air Force command chief, talks to an 86th Dental Squadron airman at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, in March 2015. Wright has a unique ability to be able to talk to people and understand their concerns, say those who know him well.
Photo Credit: A1C Larissa Greatwood/Air Force
That willingness to get hands-on didn't stop at his own area of expertise, said Col. Eric Faison, who served with Wright at McConnell Air Force Base from 2012 to early 2014.
As the command chief master sergeant for the 22nd Air Refueling Wing at McConnell, Wright was responsible for enlisted airmen of all stripes, Faison said, and he made it his mission to learn about them and the challenges they face.
He wouldn’t just watch what maintainers, for example, were doing, Faison said. He’d put on coveralls and actually turn wrenches, change tires and help replace components for the planes, while the maintainers talked him through how to get the job done.
"Whatever he preaches, he's already probably done it," Faison said. "In the winter months at McConnell, when the wind is blowing, it can get fairly cold out there on the flightline, but he did it with them."
One thing that particularly impressed Faison was how younger airmen from all career fields gravitated to Wright. Typically, Faison said, maintenance airmen look to maintenance chiefs for advice, and security forces airmen go to security forces chiefs. But everybody felt comfortable coming to Wright, he said, even if their jobs were different from Wright's dental background.
What made Wright different, Faison said, was that he had a unique ability to be able to talk to younger people on their level and understand their concerns and where they came from. Wright not only understood social media such as Facebook and Twitter, Faison said, he was also quite active on those sites to keep in touch with his airmen.
It wasn't just junior airmen and NCOs who listened to Wright's advice, Faison said. He saw Wright mentor young lieutenants and captains during their time together, and Col. Faison himself often sought out Wright's guidance.
Wright, who the Air Force would not make available for an interview, was officially named the 18th CMSAF on Nov. 16, and will succeed the current chief, James Cody, after he retires in February. Wright has served as a command chief four times: at the 22nd ARW; the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Afghanistan in Kabul; the 3rd Air Force and 17th Expeditionary Air Force at Ramstein Air Base, Germany; and USAFE.
He joined the Air Force in 1989 as a dental assistant specialist, and has served in several other dental jobs in places such as South Korea, Kadena Air Base in Japan, and Germany, as well as serving as a professional military education instructor. He deployed to support operations Desert Storm in Iraq and Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and is a recipient of the Bronze Star, the Meritorious Service Medal with four oak leaf clusters, and other awards and decorations.
Master Sgt. Jennifer Laplante, who worked for Wright when he was the superintendent of the 3rd Dental Squadron at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, from February 2009 to July 2010, said he would spend every morning walking around the clinic and carved out time to talk to the people there.
"Supervisors never did that before, that I had seen," Laplante said. "He connected with everyone."
Laplante and McKinstry both said Wright believes strongly that it was his responsibility, as he advanced up the ladder, to help younger airmen come up behind him.
When asked for an example of how Wright helped others, Laplante recalled one airmen under Wright's command who struggled with PT, so Wright would get up in the morning to PT with him and help him get in shape.
Wright was good at pushing people to uncover new skills they didn't know they had, McKinstry said. She knows that from personal experience.
Before transitioning into the dental career field, McKinstry had been a security forces airman. But in her new job, she wasn't used to working with multiple patients and being a leader, and had a hard time adjusting.
"You were a leader at the gate" as a cop, Wright told her. "So, we're just going to refine your skills, and we're going to work with people."
"He taught me how to be professional when you talk to people, and treat people the way you want to be treated," McKinstry said. "He said, 'One day, you're going to be the superintendent of a clinic,' and I'm like, 'Not me.' But, eventually, I did become superintendent of a clinic, and I'm so thankful for the training that he gave me back then."
Brown, the clinical dentistry flight chief at Lakenheath, said that when she arrived at Kadena in 2010, she was a shy and timid "worker bee," but Wright mentored her and helped her develop confidence and grow into a leader. He encouraged her to apply for NCO leadership positions to get her out of her comfort zone, and to pursue a degree from the Community College of the Air Force.
"He saw in me what I couldn't see in myself," Brown said. "He showed me the potential leader I could be. He didn't let me become complacent."
Wright also took time to learn about his airmen's backgrounds, they said, which helped him find ways to motivate them. For example, McKinstry is a breast cancer survivor, and Wright used that to help her get through rough patches.
"When I'd have a bad day, he'd say, 'Look what you've already been through, that is nothing compared to your future,' " McKinstry said.
But Wright felt strongly that "attitude reflects leadership," and leaders should not complain and point fingers at their subordinates, said Technical Sgt. Carlton Holt, who served under Wright briefly at Osan Air Base, South Korea, in 2009 before serving under him again at Kadena in 2010. Instead, Holt said, Wright believed leaders must take responsibility when something isn't working.
"One time, he had the junior NCOs in, and people were complaining about how they can't get airmen to do X, Y and Z," Holt said. "His message to all leadership in all the tiers was basically, 'The airmen aren't the problem. We are the problem.' And that stuck with me, because as a leader, you've got to know your people and you've got to figure out what makes them tick, what makes your airmen perform to excellence."
Education is very important to Wright, say airmen who know him. When he introduced Wright as the new top enlisted airman, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein emphasized that in 2014, he was one of the first enlisted airmen to finish Air War College by correspondence.
Wright received a bachelor of science degree in business management from the University of Maryland in 2002, a master's degree in business administration from the University of Phoenix in 2009, and a master certificate in project management from Villanova University in 2010, among other courses and certifications he completed.
When asked if education could possibly be one of the areas Wright focuses on as CMSAF, Faison said he thinks so.
"He truly believes education is the way to better yourself," Faison said.
Wright is an avid golfer and enjoyed playing pickup basketball games at McConnell, Faison said. He also volunteers with his Omega Psi Phi fraternity.
When Holt was at Kadena, Wright coached the air base's basketball team. Holt was his assistant coach.
Wright would demand close to perfection from his players, making them run layup drills until they got it right, Holt said. But his players respected him, Holt said, and Wright used that opportunity to mentor younger airmen, regularly pulling them aside to talk about life and how to handle tough situations.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.