SUMTER, S.C. — Col. Larry Sullivan thinks people, and airmen, bond in struggle. What better way to test that than to assume command of your first fighter wing during a pandemic?
Sullivan recently took command of the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw Air Force Base and has used his first month or so in Sumter to get to know the squadrons, teams and airmen who comprise the Air Force’s largest F-16 combat wing.
His first focus has been to ensure the health of the airmen. Readiness has always been the primary focus at Shaw. If COVID-19 were to spread throughout the airmen, that mission would be threatened.
“Any minute, the phone can ring and we’ve got to get a lot of jets and a lot of people out the door in an extremely short timeframe,” Sullivan said in the commander’s office last week, a room whose window offers a view of F-16s taking off, whose walls stood in that transitionary phase between occupants save for a few items and a framed photo of his wife and three daughters. “So, we need healthy, ready, trained-up people, so having a few cases on base that take up full units would stop that.”
Readiness in the face of a highly contagious virus has meant, like elsewhere across the world, the closure of schools and activities, “a lot of the stuff that makes it fun to be in the military, the team aspect of it.”
His path toward the cockpit of a fighter jet was not innate. Sullivan grew up in the Midwest and went to high school in the Boston area. His wife may be a third-generation Air Force service member, but Sullivan only had a few nonimmediate relatives with military careers.
As he will reiterate later, everyone comes to their service from a different background and for a different reason. The service academies appealed to him, so he applied to West Point and the Air Force Academy.
“I was doing an interview with a West Point graduate, and he said, ‘Don’t worry about the location of the school. What do you want to do after?’” he said. “I hadn’t thought about it.”
Between sea, ground and sky, he decided.
The true mission: Helping others reach their potential
He has spent most of his military career overseas, especially in Korea and Japan, and his perspective has led him to notice the difference in community relations and that having a trusted command team makes him excited to be in Sumter, a place that other units and missions want to move to.
Hardship helps a team get to know each other, he said. He knows that beyond readiness, a mission’s success relies on that team dynamic and the support each member feels.
Part of Shaw’s success, both in mission and perception, is its relationship with the Sumter community.
Sullivan’s wife had been living in Washington, D.C., working in the Air Force Reserves with the Pentagon while caring for their 7-year-old, 9-year-old and 11-year-old daughters as Sullivan was deployed on a year-long remote unaccompanied tour as vice commander of the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan Air Base in Korea. They visited for Christmas. Within hours of finding out the family would be relocating together, Sullivan received an immediate email welcome from Steve Creech, a stranger who happened to be a former mayor of Sumter.
Positive community relations don’t exist everywhere. In Japan, he exerted effort in preventing the government from building a windmill next to the base. In Sumter, local government leaders bought an old family farm to transform it into a welcome center.
In getting to know the base, Sullivan wants to find out what each unit needs and to offer support and resources toward solving problems.
“The base has been so well-run for so many years. It turns out everyone knows what to do. You don’t have to come up with every solution yourself,” he said. “There’s an entire structure here and specialists for every crisis we could have.”
Part of realizing he doesn’t have to come up with every solution involves realizing he won’t have the best answer to every problem. Surround yourself with the people who do.
“If I can provide broad guidance for what the priorities might be in the wing, if I can make people feel like it’s OK to toss up potentially bad ideas, to think openly and discuss stuff collaboratively without fear of immediately getting shot down or a negative judgment right off the bat, then I think the good ideas will actually come to the surface. And we can pick the winners out of those and then run with them and take care of the people who are actually going to do the work,” he said.
The third-in-command at Shaw, Command Chief Master Sgt. Steve Cenov, was stationed at Kunsan with Sullivan. They, along with Vice Commander Col. Ryan Inman, cover each other’s blind spots, Sullivan said.
Amplifying other peoples’ voices and supporting collaboration is how he describes his leadership style from the top down. He spent a lot of his career as an F-16 and weapons instructor, acknowledging lifelong learning as a critical skill.
“The young people here show up and wake up, and they want to do the best they can every single day,” he said. “Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I really want to mess up today.’ Nobody says that.”
People don’t need their mistakes pointed out, he said. Focus instead on the why. What fell apart? What broke down?
“If you’re constantly on the prowl for other human beings to have an opportunity to reach their full potential and you’re capable enough as either a leader in an organization or an instructor in a specific technical task, and you can find that, and you can help them grow and step up and see the joy they have in their own face and the pride and joy they have in their own accomplishment, and sometimes the gratitude they have as a result of that,” Sullivan said, “that’s the best part of the job.”
Sullivan thinks of each airman as being dealt a poker hand upon entering the base gate.
He hopes they’re all aces. Sometimes, there’s a mix. A three of a kind and some duds. Other times, he knows there’s not even a high card.
He knows every person has had a different life experience leading up to the time they get their wings. Every person working on base has had various levels of training and experience. It’s his job to understand that and to offer support and resources to help each airman be able to put all the chips on the table with the best hand possible. So that even when changing command during a pandemic, your hand can still win.