If It’s To Be, It Has To Be Me

Strolling down Vine Street, the main drag of Arthur, Ill., population 2,282, one might absorb a history lesson about getting things done. In this once indiscriminate spot in 1872, just west of the Kaskaskia River, a railroad was laid down for the first time, stretching east to west across the Big Slough, as it was then known.

Where the tracks crossed over a road to nowhere above this empty, mosquito-infested swamp land, the railroad put in a switch, and one brave soul built a house and a store. Five years later, 300 people were living there. As they dredged water to make the village habitable, they uncovered the black prairie soil that sustained the first farming families to settle the area.

Arthur, Ill., is also the hometown of Col. Matthew Fritz, a U.S. Air Force pilot and most recently the Chief of Staff at NATO Air Training Command in Afghanistan. Arthur, Ill., is where he internalized the work ethic that has earned him military command opportunities over the years.  As a boy, Fritz watched his grandfather, a World War II veteran, make his living as a business owner dedicated to this small, hardy community. His father, too, is a successful businessman carrying on the tradition of community service and engagement.

Fritz’s grandfather on his mother’s side, Delbert Taylor, owned a restaurant and a clothing store before he became mayor of the village board. “My earliest memories are of him out there, sweeping the sidewalk in front of his store, shaking hands, reading the people,” he recalls.

He was “politicking,” Fritz says, and modeling the behavior of the ideal citizen — committed, engaged, proactive. “He used to say, “If it’s to be, it has to be me.’ That’s something I grew up with. Especially in a small town, you’re expected to participate in church, community, and school; otherwise it just isn’t going to work.”

If you’re on the high school basketball team, you might have to leave the bench during the national anthem to jump up on the stage and join the band. So it was for Fritz growing up in Arthur, Ill.

The idea of everyone doing his or her bit has been fundamental to Fritz’s management of large-scale, complex military operations. And when he is not helping to build an air force in Afghanistan, he shares his leadership knowledge with 90,000 Twitter followers, as well as through blogs, workshops on change strategy, and a new book, Leveraging Your LinkedIn Profile for Success.  

In the military, where Fritz says his job description changed every three years, failure is both “public and painful.” There is constant pressure to be effective, even in unpredictable circumstances. “Variables in the military equation are extremely diverse, and every day, things change that we have no control over.”  

It is best to assume the attitude of the pilot, he says, by compartmentalizing the tasks at hand. Composure and anticipation are crucial because even the most perfect flight can be thwarted by wind, weather, and birds. There will always be obstacles, but with experience, Fritz has learned to put himself in front of a situation.

“As a young pilot, I always felt I was hanging on to the tail of the airplane. Now, I think ahead.” It’s a lesson for the private sector as well, he notes. “The speed of business is extremely rapid. There may not be lives on the line, but there are jobs on the line.”

Volatility in both the military and private sectors has convinced Fritz that relationship-building and dedication to the group are fundamental to long-term sustainability. They are the soft skills he learned growing up in Arthur, Ill., ones that haven’t yet become a regular part of “the military lexicon,” he says.  

Even in Afghanistan, he’s discovered that American military personnel are perceived as people who don’t listen very well. “We’re very time-driven, results-driven. In America, people live by their watches. In Afghanistan, people live by their relationships.”  

Fritz recommends that we slow down and be more intentional.  Talk to people, see what they know, he says, just as his grandfather did while sweeping the sidewalk in front of his store. That’s how a village came to life where the tracks crossed the road in Arthur, whose welcome sign reads: “You’re a stranger only once.”  The message? Now that we know each other, we can build things together.