She’s Got Grit: Skyrocket your career with advice from Air Force test pilot and Major General Dawn Dunlop
The commander of NATO’s Airborne Early Warning and Control Force in Europe, overseeing current operations on Europe’s eastern and southern borders as well as a mission in Turkey and managing AWACS training, is Air Force Major General Dawn Dunlop. Despite her incredible resume, when I reach her by phone in Germany she is confident, yet almost soft spoken, engaging and thoughtful.
Dawn Dunlop grew up the eldest child of naturalized American citizens. Her father emigrated to Canada from the Netherlands after WWII and met her mother, a Canadian, before marrying and moving to Long Island. As a child Dunlop played soccer, volleyball and basketball. When she was seven years old, her mother asked her what it was she wanted to do. “I don’t remember the question,” she says, “but apparently I said I wanted to ride horses, jump out of an airplane and fly a helicopter. I got horse riding lessons out of it in any case.”
It was prowess in athletics that prompted Dunlop to consider the Air Force Academy, which recruited her for basketball.
“It was completely accidental,” she says. “I wanted a balance between sports and engineering, and at the time the Academy was a top ten school in engineering.” Dunop played both basketball and varsity volleyball for all four years at the academy where she won All- Conference and All-American academic honors.
She hadn’t even really thought much about flying as a career until discovering that there were few jobs available to cadets that were pilot qualified but elected not to go to pilot training.
Being willing to take a different path (temporarily)
After graduating in 1988 from the Air Force Academy, Dunlop headed to grad school for a year in aeronautical engineering at Columbia University as a Guggenheim Fellow, and then on to flight training. Despite being a distinguished graduate in her pilot training class, there were only certain types of aircraft available to her to fly.
“I grew up with parents who didn’t put any limits on me,” she says. “And then I graduated in the top of my class, and I couldn’t choose the aircraft I wanted because I’m a woman. Although I knew of the combat restriction, it was still a disappointment to live through it. Here we were, a nation founded in equality and opportunity, and yet in the early 1990’s qualified, capable women still weren’t allowed to fly combat aircraft — the pinnacle of military flying — in their service to country.”
She chose the T-38 and become an instructor pilot instead, and waited for the rules to change.
“There is no better instructional opportunity than teaching young and eager pilots,” she says, “and doing so in the USAF’s fighter-like advanced trainer was great. But still, it wasn’t the fighter mission I wanted.”
Then in 1993, Congress lifted the combat exclusion clause, and Dunlop took off in more ways than one, transferring to the F-15E Strike Eagle. That could have been the pinnacle of anyone’s career, but Dunlop was just getting warmed up. She was assigned to RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, England and was the first USAF woman fighter pilot in Europe. (the UK had a female F-3 Tornado pilot around the same time).
“I didn’t care about the ‘firsts’ — I just wanted to be evaluated on my skills, and contribute to the Air Force mission,” she says. During her time at Lakenheath, Dunlop flew combat missions over Iraq in support of Operation Provide Comfort.
Dunlop loved Lakenheath, but was told she couldn’t extend her assignment as initially planned, and that she was headed to F-15E flight training unit to instruct.
Instead, she applied to the Air Force Test Pilot School.
“I remember landing a helicopter when I was in the middle of the test pilot program,” she says. “I landed and I realized: I did it! I did all the things I’d told my mom I wanted to do when I was seven!” She laughs. She qualified in and test flew the F-15 A/B/C/D/E and I (the Israeli model), NASA’s F-15 ACTIVE, the F-16, all models of T-38, and in her last two assignments flew the Air Force’s most advanced fighter, the F-22.
The Hardest Lessons
When I ask Major General Dunlop about the hardest lessons over her distinguished career, she admits, ‘There are a lot of hard lessons. One is that as a commander, you have to be prepared for the worst. All the resources we have available and the supportive Air Force culture and environment is sometimes not enough to save someone.
When you’re in command, you will be in situations where you might lose someone in combat, or in a training accident, or to suicide. As a commander your focus is on mission and people. You have this assumption that everyone you’re serving with has similar perspectives on why you’re there, share the same purpose and goals, and similar motivations. We have tools to lead and mentor and grow people, and even to take care of them in difficult times, but the reality is that some people come to us broken and despite many people’s best efforts make a very sad decision to take their lives. I never lost people to operations or training accidents, but have lost two civilians to suicide. It is a real tragedy.
“We also have saved a few Airmen who were contemplating suicide. And from both these ends of the spectrum I’ve learned to stop and reflect and pay attention,” she says. “Ask if anything is wrong, and ask what you can do. It may feel awkward, but you will regret it if you don’t. You also have to be prepared in the event a suicide does occur. There is no time to figure it out in the middle of a situation. How you handle the situation is incredibly important for the family, and the unit. Bottom line is that in command as in life it is important to pay attention. Make sure the important things have your attention.”
When it’s leadership that counts the most
Her next lesson has to do with systems.
“It’s a real challenge when there is a disconnect between authority, accountability and responsibility,” she says. “As a Lieutenant Colonel I was the ops officer for F-22 flight test (the single seat, twin-engine, all-weather stealth tactical fighter that Lockheed Martin says “defines air dominance.”) I had responsibility for a program the Air Force had chosen to fully outsource under Total System Performance Responsibility to a contractor. We had aircraft arrive that weren’t ready to fly for six months, and had several near-fatal incidents in the rush to get the aircraft to IOC.”
Be the best at the job you have right now.
When I ask for more details, she explains: “The Air Force had outsourced most of the F-22 program — both execution and oversight — to the prime contractor, but of course it was the Air Force that retained the overall program accountability. We worked six and a half days a week for two years to fix the program and deliver a capability that could become the F-22 we have today. I was accountable for a program that put people at risk and I had no control over it. I almost left the Air Force after that. I was glad that we finally undid TSPR in the middle of F-35, and found a better balance for decisions under contractor authority and where the DOD needed to retain key decision authorities to ensure the capability the nation needed was delivered in an appropriate manner and that cost, schedule, performance and risk were balanced in a way we could defend to the American public.”
Despite the incredible frustrations and challenges, that assignment set her up well for the next.
“I knew the person making the decision for the next Test Wing Commander, and I knew I wasn’t being considered,” she says. “I went to meet with him and said that I would love a chance to lead this Wing in its important mission for the AF, and I’d like the opportunity to tell him why.”
She told him why and was chosen for the command.
Now in a more senior position, she took command of the Wing executing over 300 test programs, to include the $400B F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most advanced supersonic multi-role fighter in the Air Force.
Having learned from the F-22 experience “I let the contractor know that I would not accept any aircraft without a good hand-off and that I would send a maintenance team down three weeks before the planned delivery so we could get the aircraft loaded in the maintenance system and discuss any deferred discrepancies,” she says. At first they were unsure of the added requirement, but truly it worked out well for us both. “The first five aircraft we received off the line flew their first test mission within 48 hours, and in the first year we achieved a 150% test execution rate. That had never happened before. By working with the contractor to better align our authority with our responsibility to deliver on-time test results we were able to achieve significantly better results.”
Career advice for every leader
When asked how she considered her career, progression Dunlop says that initially she didn’t think about it at all. Then she got good advice that she has since passed on to many others.
“Don’t assume people know what you want. You have to ask for it. Sure — it has to be reasonable and you need to have the right skill-set, and the right motivation, but there is great power in asking for what you want. If you get it, great, and if you don’t you often leave with great feedback for what you might want to improve to reach your goals.”
Advice to new leaders
Major General Dunlop is cautious in offering advice to new officers starting out.
“It’s been so long since I was in that position that I don’t have any specifics to offer,” she says, “but I would tell new officers simply to be the best at the job you have right now. Some people focus too early on where they want to go next so that they don’t perform well enough in the job they have,” she says.
“Another opposite error is to become so focused on the current job that you don’t pay attention to where you’re going. This was me up until the discussion that led to Wing/CC. Of course the balance is important.”
From more recent experience, she has given command a lot of thought.
What’s different for experienced leaders
“I probably have twenty things I’d tell people taking command,” she says, “but here are two at the top of the list:
First, know what you’re responsible for, and balance your time to do those things that only you can do. This often requires getting out of your comfort zone. Soon after I moved from being an operations officer to squadron commander, my operations officer deployed for four months. I found myself doing his job, because that’s the job I had just come from and where I was most comfortable,” she says.
“Ultimately, I took a look at where I was spending my time and realized that while I was doing good work I was not doing the work the squadron needed. I needed to focus less on the ops and flying piece and more on the command responsibilities, learning about the pieces of the mission that were new to me and how I could best support all our Airmen.”
“Next, really be deliberate with your time in balancing the urgent and the important. Make sure you make time to mentor people, do your out and about, follow up on metrics. Otherwise other priorities will take over.”
What leaders need to know about diversity to make their organizations better
Major General Dunlop has been the first woman in every command assignment she held, and after years of that experience as well as commanding men and women, she has thoughts on what a commander needs to know about leading the breadth of men and women in our Air Force today.
“It’s so important to understand the diversity of how people think, how they develop and how they communicate with you as a commander,” she says. “It’s easy to mentor people who look like you, not necessarily physically but in their background, perspectives, and motivations. It’s harder, but absolutely critical to the success of our Air Force, to mentor people with different backgrounds, communication style, expertise or career goals.”
In terms of differences between the sexes, she’s careful to admit generalizations, but says men will often put themselves forward for a position with about half of the skill set they need. “Some men have come to me and said, “I’d like to be your next F-22/F-35/fill-in-the-blank commander,” well before they have proven themselves capable,” she says.
“Women tend to approach communicating their goals differently. They want to know that they will be successful first, and often don’t want to be perceived as being pushy, so won’t put their names in until they feel confident they have 100% of the skills necessary and that their commander supports them. I’m familiar with “the Confidence Gap” studies, but don’t like the term because I don’t actually believe it’s a gap in confidence or capability, but have found it very true that men and women generally have different approaches to communicating, especially regarding their career goals.
It is important as a commander to understand those differences. You need to know that just because John is more vocal about his accomplishments and puts himself forward with more confidence doesn’t mean he is the best choice. Jane might not have said anything, but knows how to really motivate people and teams and deliver on results. She might be better for the job, but you have to look deeper than what they say in a quick conversation in a public forum.”
Don’t assume people know what you want. You have to ask for it.
Where has Dunlop found mentorship?
“I have one mentor,” she says. “His name is Marsh Carter. He’s a two time purple heart Marine who got out after Vietnam, and had 80 rejections from job applications. He ended up becoming the Chairman and CEO of State Street Bank, then president of the NYSE. To this day he continues to mentor soldiers in transition and teach leadership at MIT Sloan and Harvard.”
Carter will say the most important thing for a successful woman working in a man’s world is to have a successful male mentor who has daughters,” she laughs.
Turns out he has a daughter, and Dunlop speaks gratefully about his guidance.
Why broadening your experience is critical
In the midst of her flying assignments, Major General Dunlop had several staff assignments to include serving as a White House Fellow and Chief of Senate Liaison for the Air Force.
“I learned so much from the people I went through the Fellows program with,” she says. “We all came from diverse backgrounds across a range of professions, but we looked at service through a similar lens. It was a powerful experience for me. Up until this point my leadership examples were all military, and now I was being introduced to these other people who were equally talented and equally committed to serving the nation in different ways.”
When I ask her about the program, she explains it was started by John Gardner, author of On Leadership, in 1964. “Gardner noticed that the U.S. tends to grow people who are very deep in a specific field,” she explains. “He wanted to grow multi-dimensional leaders.”
In terms of her own reading and education, she works to follow his lessons. “I read — and recommend for any Airmen — a variety of reading on leadership, history and topics related to their field of work,” she ways. “There are many books which have impacted me. Over time it’s the aggregate of our reading, learning and experience that forms us and our leadership style.”
A nuanced perspective on grit — including a plan B
What about grit? It’s clear she has it. Dunlop thinks of grit in a more nuanced way than most.
“I think of grit as how you approach your career, both setbacks and successes,” she says. “It’s a confidence in who you are and a commitment to pursuing success, the attitude that you will be able to accomplish your goals. It’s knowing when you have to be tough, but it’s also the balance and confidence to know when you have to be patient, or side-step onto another path, or when to ask for help.
Over time it’s the aggregate of our reading, learning and experience that forms us and our leadership style.
When I started out if I’d only wanted to be a fighter pilot, I would have been — and I was — disappointed,” she says. “I had to wait and find a different path for a while. In my first flying assignment, I got my commercial license and also went to night school to finish all the pre-med requirements. I like back-up plans that also broaden my perspective. Sometimes people need to be told to hold the line, and there are other times you might ask if you’ve thought about a different approach to get to your end state.
I would tell people not to let an organization, or a very narrow definition of success, define who you are.”
Major General Dunlop is now the commander of NATO’s Airborne Early Warning and Control (AWACS) force stationed in Germany. “NATO is the alliance of the willing,” she says. “We have 2200 people from 17 nations.”
“We have the only aircraft that belong to NATO,” she says. “So we’re often tapped for strategic taskings for the Alliance. We have three operations going on now, one along the eastern border of NATO, one on the southern border supporting the Counter-ISIL Coalition in Syria, and one providing support to Turkey.”
She also runs the training programs associated with AWACS.
What’s next for Major General Dunlop?
“I want to continue to serving our great Airmen as they build, maintain and employ the best Air Force in the world,” she says.
The Air Force — and our country — is lucky to have her.
CALL TO ACTION: If you enjoyed this piece, please hit the applause button and share! Many thanks. And become a Grit Institute supporter at Patreon!
Stay in touch at shannonpolson.com and thegritinstitute.com