“Communicate. Listen. Empower.”

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Beth Holliker
  • 180th Fighter Wing

24 years of service, seven F-16 duty assignments, six states, two countries, three combat tours and 44 combat sorties totaling more than 3,300 flying hours have all played a significant role in leading Col. Michael DiDio to his most current position, Commander of the Ohio National Guard’s 180th Fighter Wing.

Though these are just a few of the accomplishments that have helped to prepare him to lead Ohio’s one and only F-16 fighter unit, it all started with a dream of flying.

“I’ve always been interested in flying, even from a young age,” said DiDio. “My pilot friends will probably make fun of me for this, but the movie, Top Gun, opened my eyes to fighter jets. From there, I was set on joining the Air Force and flying fighters.”

After commissioning into the U.S. Air Force in 1995, graduating Cum Laude, with a degree in Electrical Engineering through the Kansas State University’s ROTC program, DiDio headed right into undergraduate pilot training at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma, followed by F-16 fighter jet training at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.

His first operational duty assignment was at Kunsan Air Base, Korea in 1998, where he served as an Electronic Combat Pilot and Assistant Chief of Weapons and Tactics. While the assignment at Kunsan was only to be one year, DiDio extended the assignment by four months, taking an early opportunity for upgrade training to become flight lead qualified.

DiDio then headed off to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina for his next duty assignment, as an instructor pilot. While stationed at Shaw, he was selected to attend the U.S. Air Force’s premier weapons school.

“If you don’t know what weapons school is,” said DiDio. “It’s a six month course, where the top instructor pilots go to get even better. Very intense, awesome flying out at the Nellis ranges.”

The U.S. Air Force Weapons School, located at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada, is an intense graduate-level course focused on providing advanced weapons and tactics employment with extensive academics and rigorous training flights to the best instructor pilots in the Air Force.

Following the completion of weapons school in 2003, DiDio was assigned to Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, where he served as an instructor pilot for two years before being invited back to Nellis as a Weapons School Instructor.

That was his last active duty assignment.

“We were at the point where it was time to make a family decision as to whether we stayed active duty,” DiDio said. “Active duty would have consisted of a lot more moves and a more rigorous schedule for my family, so we looked into the Air National Guard.”

“I applied for a job with the Iowa Air National Guard, in 2008, and was selected, so we transferred to the 132nd Fighter Wing in Des Moines,” DiDio continued. “Then, following sequestration and budget cuts in 2013, the unit lost their F-16s and we made the choice to move to the 180th Fighter Wing, here in Toledo, almost seven years ago now.”

Throughout his 24 years, DiDio has had an impressive career, with overseas operations to teaching the best-of-the-best Air Force pilots, and even spearheading the development of new Air Force-wide tactics, techniques and procedures for force integrated air-to-air weapons employment.

The past 24 years have enabled DiDio to build an arsenal of comprehensive technical skills, making him one of the most proficient F-16 pilots in the fighter community.

But, according to DiDio, these aren’t necessarily the skills needed to be commander of an operational aviation wing.

Communicate. Listen. Empower.

These are the traits and skills DiDio has respected the most from the senior leaders and role models who shaped his career and that he hopes to embody as a leader and commander of the 180FW.

During a recent interview, Col. DiDio sat with the Public Affairs office and shared his thoughts on leadership, his values, and his goals, visions and expectations as commander of the 180FW.

Here is what he had to say.

Q. What are you most excited about as you assume command?

“I have had a lot of different emotions leading up to taking command over the wing. First, it’s certainly intimidating. Coming from being commander of the Operations Group, I was responsible for about 70 people and the flying operation. Now, as wing commander, I’m responsible for more than 1,100 people and a lot of different functional areas that I’m not an expert in, so there was definitely a lot of nervousness, too.”

“Now that I have been commander for about three months, what I’m most excited about is just meeting the Airmen. I’m excited to meet them, and see, firsthand, how excited and motivated they are about executing the mission. I think that their excitement and motivation will rejuvenate and motivate me, too.”

“I’m also excited, going back to the values I mentioned earlier, communicating, listening, and empowering. I’m excited about growing that kind of culture here and I hope we can achieve that during my time as commander. My job is to simply set boundaries, some goalposts, then just watch the excellence in this wing, because I do feel like we have a great group of talented Airmen and that all they really need is just an environment to grow.”

Q. As incoming commander, what are your goals, visions and expectations?

“First, as a new commander, my overall goal, initially is to keep my eyes open and listen to what the Airmen have to say and to learn about the functional organizations that I didn’t grow up in. I really want to learn about the wing and from there, we can look at whether we need to change the wing’s vector or goals, visions, mission statements, etc.”

“Second, I really want to empower our commanders and supervisors at the lowest levels. I think that making decisions at the lowest levels, where the information is, is much more effective. Making decisions too high up tends to lead to micromanagement and that simply isn’t productive in executing the mission. Empowering at the lowest level is the overall goal.”

“Third, I want to make sure we communicate properly. Not only messaging from me to our Airmen, but also when decisions are being made at a lower level, making sure that the communication is productive within those levels and that it can be channeled up the chain effectively as well. Getting the expectations and desires from the enlisted force is critically important to commander business and making sure that all commanders are getting the pulse of the people is necessary before making any kind of leadership decisions.”

“One way I plan to grow this culture is to go out and meet Airmen. I want to let them know who I am, but more to the point, I want to hear their stories, not only each as a person, but what they do for the wing and how we can improve the wing, because they are the ones who know how to do it. Not me.”

Q. Who are your most admired mentors?

“You learn from both the leaders you aspire to be, as well as those you don’t aspire to be like. Instead of looking at individual people, I like to think of the attributes those leaders have passed on to me, or that I absorbed.”

“My common theme now, is communication and empowering at the lowest levels. The mentors I respected the most did that, sometimes in the midst of environments where it wasn’t very popular to do so. What I’ve learned is that leaders are taught or programmed, especially when in command, that they need to be a decisive leader and need to make
quick decisions. This leads to uninformed decisions. Take your time, communicate with your team and analyze the situation. Only after all facts and contingencies are thought through, make a decision.”

“When I envision myself around a council or a group of Airmen, I want to be the last voice that talks. I don’t need to be that expedient, decisive leader. Yes, I hold that trump card as wing commander, but you really want the innovation and the brainstorming to happen at the levels below you.”

“There is so much ingenuity in the folks around me, and collectively, they are a heck of a lot smarter than me. I have to let them brainstorm and be sure we’re getting all of the inputs, thoughts, ideas, and pro and con analytics presented first, then I can act second. The longer you’ve been in leadership and the higher up the chain you go, the further you are away from the functional operations, where things are happening, which means, you don’t know any more what the people underneath you know. You have to let go of that and you have to let them do the course of action analysis to figure out what’s best.”

“Being a leader is not a popularity contest though, because you’re not going to be able to make everyone under your command happy all of the time with the decisions you’re going to make, and that’s ok. The goal is that even if they don’t agree with your decision, they will understand it. And I think that is important.”

Q. Throughout your career, what assignment have you learned the most from?

“There are two aspects of my career that I need to consider. One is the technical or tactical side of flying the F-16. The other side is leadership. As you morph into command as a fighter pilot, traditionally, you’re in that tactical role for a long period of time, until about the time you get into a squadron command position. There is ample leadership within the flying aspect, like flight leadership, but not necessarily on the personnel leadership side as much.”

“From the tactical side, the assignment I learned the most from was being an instructor at the weapons school. That was by far the pinnacle of my tactical career and being able to teach the best-of-the-best of the Air Force instructor pilots as they go through the school as a student.”

“Transition that now to the other side of my career, the leadership side, that, by far, I have learned the most here at the 180FW. I did have some leadership positions before here, outside of the 180FW, at the squadron-level, but every command or leadership position I have within this wing has taught me a ton about leadership. As you progress and take on more responsibility, it never ceases to amaze me how your aperture of the perspective of what’s going on around you changes that. It’s kind of a fascinating psychological event.”

Q. What do you want your Stingers to know about you?

“I want them to know me and not just from email or videos, I want them to know me. I want them to see my face and hear my voice. The command chief and I will be walking around getting to know them and getting inputs from the Airmen around the base, finding out what they do. That’s pivotal in all aspects of my job, whether its decision making or messaging with the community or representing our desires at the national level.”

“I now have the opportunity, as wing commander, not just to lead our Airmen, but the opportunity to work alongside of our Airmen, and so far it’s been incredible. I’m looking forward to this opportunity for as long as I’m in the hot seat.”

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