Col. Tim Curry on leadership: ‘You can do tough things’
Former Grand Forks Air Force Base commander reveals surprise connection to UND in 18:83 Speaker Series talk
Editor’s note: A video of Col. Tim Curry’s talk is below.
Col. Tim Curry, the former commander of Grand Forks Air Force Base, remembers getting lessons in leadership at a young age, from a person whom he said was a “master” of the art: his mother.
Curry, now retired from the Air Force after decades of service, was the third speaker in the 18:83 Speaker Series, where guests from the local and campus communities are invited to share their ideas on leadership. The series is held on the Social Stairs in the UND Memorial Union, and on Wednesday, Sept. 13, those stairs were occupied by plenty of people who gathered to hear the colonel speak.
Those conversations with his mother when he was growing up, plus her style and the manner in which she guided him, gave Curry his early cues into being a leader, he said. She’d ask questions at first (“How are you doing, are you OK?) before giving him practical advice (Don’t do what I did!) to then letting him have some quiet time to reflect, before coming back to hear his thoughts. The encouragement she offered at the end of those talks instilled in him a value he has relied on throughout his career.
“At the end of our conversations, probably like great leaders have done with you, she looked at me and said ‘You know what, you can do tough things,’” Curry told the audience. “You are a Curry, and Currys can do tough things.”
Throughout his life, Curry has encountered some tough things, not the least of which was the passing of his mother shortly before he took command of GFAFB in mid-2021. He also lost his father in his junior year at the U.S. Air Force Academy. At that time, he thought he might not be able to graduate; but an Academy advisor helped him get back on track.
“I went to my professor and academic advisor, and I said ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it through the tough times here,’” Curry said.
The advisor guided Curry to a different path, a different major, and told him he could make it – “I’ve watched you,” the advisor told him. (More about that advisor below.)
Curry succeeded in his new area of study. Because he can do tough things. And on Wednesday he let his listeners know they could do tough things as well, and he laid out his vision for doing so.
Leaders, Curry said, need to check their ego. He said he became well acquainted with his ego playing football at the Air Force Academy, and even more so when he broke his back and couldn’t play. He made a full recovery and credited everyone at the Academy for helping him through that recovery.
And a great reason for checking your ego is so that you can focus on making an impact, Curry said. He referenced the Tuskegee Airmen (also called the Red Tails because of the painted tails of their aircraft), a group of Black pilots in World War II, who became renowned for protecting Allied aircraft in battle.
Because of their success, those pilots had the credibility to “beat their chests,” but instead they chose to focus on the impact they were making, Curry said.
“It was about more than just that,” he added. “It was about more than just their race. It was about all of you in here, and national defense. It was about our way of life.”
People can check their egos in a number of ways, but Curry goes back to what his mother taught him: Asking questions and listening. It’s something Curry said he did before flying missions in the Air Force, for both himself and his teammates.
“What is on your mind, what is your objective?” Curry rhetorically asked the crowd. “How am I doing mentally … spiritually, socially?” Asking these pointed questions – and then really listening to the answers – improves understanding and builds confidence.
Another leadership lesson he learned from his mother is the importance of self-reflection. Curry said it is important to make time for solitude, to listen to one’s thoughts, and even write them down. It is through reflection that he said we can learn our core values. For Curry, reflection led to adopting the Air Force’s core values of “Integrity First, Service Before Self and Excellence in All We Do.”
Willingness to talk about mistakes is also a hallmark of a leader who “engages to impact,” Curry said. It was something he learned from a superior officer, who told Curry he once left classified material at a location in a foreign country. The officer made his way back to that location, recovered the material and returned to his aircraft, thinking no one had noticed. Half an hour later, a four-star general walked by and casually asked, “Did you forget something?”
Leadership is a strange journey, and people from one’s past can resurface in different places. Moments before reaching his allotted time of 18 minutes and 83 seconds, Curry referred to a leader he met much earlier in life: the professor and academic advisor who helped guide him to a new major when he was at his lowest point while at the Air Force Academy.
“That professor was Andy Armacost,” Curry said. “It’s interesting how leadership works. Talk about engaging to impact! I had a teammate for life, literally for life, who first met me when I was 18 years old.”
The 18:83 Speaker Series will continue on Wednesday, Sept. 20, at 2:30 p.m. in the Memorial Union, when Amy Whitney, director of the UND Center for Innovation, will take the stage.