“When you’re in the breach, you need to perform—your country depends on it,” says Blaisdell, an ROTC cadet at Syracuse who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in American studies from the College of Arts and Sciences. Blaisdell retired in 2004 from his last assignment as director of strategic security with the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Air and Space Operations. He also commanded the 30th Space Wing and Western Range at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and the 21st Space Wing at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. He currently has his own consulting company and is a partner at Strativest.
Why did you choose a career in the Air Force?
My dad was a U.S. Air Force chaplain, so I had never been a civilian. While serving during the Korean War, he and his administrative NCO saved 1,000 orphans. [Colonel Russell L. Blaisdell organized what became known as Operation Kiddy Car in 1950, evacuating the children from Seoul as communists were overtaking the city.] My dad’s influence—his sacrifice and his ability to make decisions and save lives—carried down to me.
What were some of the most challenging leadership capacities you served in?
As commander of the 30th Space Wing, I had over 3,000 military personnel and another 3,000 civilians and contractors. Our job was to launch space vehicles and our Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles as well as conduct aircraft testing. Another challenging mission was the 21st Space Wing, which is about two-thirds of Air Force Space Command with 6,000 military personnel and civilians. The Space Wing conducts missile warning and space control, for the United States and most of the world. During my last four years in the Air Force, I had a few jobs in the Pentagon, including as director of Nuclear and Counterproliferation, which is where I was on 9/11.
What was your experience on 9/11?
I was with my secretary and senior administrator when we noticed on the news that an aircraft had just flown into one of the towers. Then we watched the second one occur. That’s when I told my senior administrative NCO to start calling our people because we’re going to be real busy at the Pentagon. I was in the hallway when we got hit. I couldn’t see it, but it rocked the whole building. At that point, I knew, obviously, we had a terrorist attack broader than just New York. I grabbed my hat and radio, made sure my people were out, and spun the dial on the vault to my office. As we exited the building, we started to search for the wounded. We were also putting senior people on helicopters and making sure our people were secure.
The next day we had to find a way to work. A number of civilians and military contractors were very apprehensive. I told them, “Your country needs you now…. You are still walking and talking—and you have a job to do. We’ve got to mourn our dead, but to all those plans you’ve been working on [stored] in the safes, I want you to take them out.” And we went back to work.
What have you learned are the most important qualities of being a leader?
You’ve got to challenge your people and help them develop their full potential. If there’s credit to be given, give it to your people. If there’s blame, you take it. You also need to know your people—their wives, kids, what makes them tick—if they are going to do good work for you. You have to have a vision and a sense of urgency. Your current job is the most important one you’ll ever have.