The man called “enlisted Jesus” by his loyal following of airmen admitted Thursday that he once was a bit of a devil.
Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright, the service’s top enlisted airman, said as a young man fresh out of boot camp, he did his fair share of drinking, fighting and flouting authority and has a service record thick with disciplinary paperwork to prove it.
“When I was a young airman, I tell you I was a menace to society,” Wright told a packed auditorium at the Air Force Academy’s National Character and Leadership Symposium that began Thursday.
At an event dominated by generals, including Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, Wright earned a standing ovation. That’s no surprise for a sergeant who has become something of a cult hero in the Air Force’s enlisted ranks.
He’s known for meditating, swearing off meat and holding online “ask me anything” sessions for his airmen. He also spearheaded a review of dress standards for airmen that allowed women more freedom in hairstyles and allowed men to sport earrings with civilian clothes.
But Wright, who rose through the ranks as a dental technician, is a stickler for tough standards, backing a new Air Force policy that would give the boot to airmen whose physical ailments prevent deployment overseas.
“You don’t get a free pass,” he told cadets.
Wright’s tenure in the top sergeant’s post comes amid an enlisted renaissance in the Air Force, a service long known for a sharp divide between officers and troops who wear stripes.
The Air Force is allowing enlisted troops to fly drones and enter other officer-only careers, including allowing a few to teach classes at the academy.
But Wright wasn’t at the academy to talk about enlisted policies. Instead, he sought to give the Air Force’s future leaders a strong lesson in leadership.
“Sometimes I have to hit and fight and punch and choke to get people to meet standards,” he said.
The main lesson Wright uses to lead airmen was contained in the 20-year-old Hollywood hit “Remember the Titans.”
The movie is about integration and high school football. But there’s one line, “attitude reflects leadership,” that changed Wright’s life.
“This scene has been burned into my memory,” he said.
On the road an average of 300 days a year in his role, Wright says he’s seen how the attitude of leaders impacts whole units in the Air Force.
“It goes one of two ways,” he said.
Those who have motivated bosses tend to be motivated, he said. Those who have bosses who hate their jobs, their surroundings or their mission, have airmen who reflect those feelings.
“You are responsible for setting the tone,” he said.
Wright started his Air Force career firmly on the wrong foot. In a short time, he accumulated a stack of reprimands and counseling statements.
But leaders, he said, turned him around.
“I had great mentors who helped me get to where I am today,” he said.
Wright is among a wide-ranging panel of speakers at the two-day symposium. They range from former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to Rodney Bullard, an academy graduate and vice president of Community Affairs and executive director of the Chick-fil-A Foundation.
Bullard’s appearance has been criticized by groups including the Military Religious Freedom Foundation over Chick-fil-A’s opposition to gay rights.
The goal of the event, which draws students from colleges across America, is to show cadets the importance of character in military and civilian life.
Wright said airmen easily spot leaders who lack character, even if they present themselves as enthusiastic go-getters.
“Let’s not confuse character with personality,” Wright told cadets. “Character is what is on the inside.”