Exclusive Interview with
 General Lester Lyles

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Ex
clusive Interview with
General Lester Lyles, Commander, U.S. Air Force, Materiel Command

Michael Frazier Howard University April 6, 2001 

Imagine you are at a secure conference room at a major United States Air Force installation in a midwestern state. The room has approximately 20 high-ranking general officers, members of the senior executive service (SES) and other high-ranking military officers none-are African Americans. This is the conference room of the Commander of the Air Force Materiel Command at Wright Paterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. The Commander supervises 82,000 military and civilian employees at 14 military significant installations and manages a $40 billion budget, and has worldwide military and national security responsibilities. Suddenly, at 8:00 a.m. four-star General Lester Lyles (1968 Howard University alumnus) enters the room. An order is given

Attention” and everyone rises. This is the beginning of an average day in the life of General Lyles. The General invited me as the editor of the Government & Politics Journal to spend a day with him as part of his “Shadowing the General Program.” When the workday was concluded he directed or participated in 11 meetings. He even met with approximately150 junior officers to answer questions and encourage them in their careers. The next day the General was flying to California for a series of other important meetings. A very busy 

man, General Lyles is currently the only African American four-star General on active duty in all the military services. What advice can the General provide to young African Americans? What motivates the General? How has being an African American influenced his career? Who are General Lyles’ heroes? Why seek education at Howard University? What role has family and God played in his extraordinary career? 

Dr. Frazier: When did you first decide to make a career in the Air Force? 

General Lyles: First, it was not a certain thing that I was thinking about when I joined ROTC at Howard. It was almost serendipity concerning my involvement with the Air Force. There were so many exciting programs in the engineering pro- gram, the space program, and the new aeronautical program, in addition to many classified programs that stimulated my interest. What really “kicked me over to the other side,” so to speak, happened when, as a young captain, I was named “Air Force Junior Engineer of the Year.” That designation, I was told, immediately identified me for what was called “the fast track,” that is, a young officer who showed potential, whose career people would watch, and who would receive mentoring. It was probably that designation and that recognition that started me thinking that my work in the Air Force was some- thing that I was excited about. And I enjoyed it. So, this recognition probably helped to really stimulate me.

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Dr. Frazier: Did you have any early childhood heroes? 

General Lyles: It wasn’t until that fatal day in August 1963, when Martin Luther King, Jr. had his march down in Washington, D.C. that I gained a national hero. Since I was from D.C., I was there, not for any altruistic purposes, but I was down there to socialize, to grow. I was a teenager. But grow- ing up, it was my father primarily who was my hero, not because of his academic background; he only finished the 8th grade. But it was his character, the way he supported the family, his love and respect for God and the church, the way he carried himself in spite of not having had a formal education, and the way he cared for my mother,– all of these aspects made him my first hero. As I mentioned, Martin Luther King, Jr. became my hero, and as I went along in my career, I met many others

that I admired, including General Chappy James. I met him when I was an ROTC cadet at Howard, and meeting him the first time, I saw how charismatic and larger than life he was. So, he also became a sort of hero and role model.

Dr. Frazier: Excellent. When you were in high school, were you active in organizations and various kinds of events that caused you to look at the broader world? 

General Lyles: Yes, to some extent. I was and still sort of characterize myself as kind of a shy kid. I

Government and Politics Journal • Spring 2002

was not as social as some, but we had a high school fraternity at my particular high school. Membership in the fraternity broadened me a little bit because I met people from outside of my neighborhood. I don’t know how familiar you are with Washington, D.C., but I grew up in the area of DC that fed into some of the lesser-known high schools. But if you did academically well in school, then you could go to any high school in the city as long as you could get there. And I chose to go to McKinley Technical High School, which was known for its technical orientation and college preparation. I had to take the bus across town to McKinley, and there, I met entirely different strata of young people. I characterized my own neighborhood as lower middle class, or lower class. But in this community most of the kids had parents who were doctors, engineers, lawyers, and accountants. So I encountered an entirely different social stratum than what exist- ed in my neighborhood. There was a high school fraternity and a sorority. There was also a junior ROTC program in which I participated.

Dr. Frazier: Why did you choose to attend Howard? There were perhaps many colleges and universities you could have selected, universities with expertise in areas you were interested in studying. Was Howard really the school you wanted to attend

General Lyles: Howard was always the choice that was available out there. It was an obvious choice for a black student particularly growing up in D.C. Two factors came into play. I had an opportunity for an appointment to the Air Force Academy, but I turned that down partly because of my mother who would be so worried about her son going across the country by himself. Also, as a shy kid, I didn’t go against her wishes. So, I passed on that opportunity (to attend the Air Force Academy) and went to Howard. Howard was also an obvious choice because of the scholarship offering, and because my mother worked there as the secretary and special assistant to Inabel Lindsay, then Dean of the School of Social Work. Also, I was used to Howard because it was a comfortable environment for me. I was used to the campus, used to the school, and my mother worked there everyday. We drove in together everyday. Since I lived at home, I drove every- day with my mother and usually went home with her at the end of the day, unless there was some activity taking place on campus. So, Howard was just a comfortable environment for me, a place I was familiar with.

Dr. Frazier: Was there anything that happened to you during your time at Howard that influenced you in terms of shaping some of the values that yo

hold? Was there a professor, or was there some- thing about Howard that was special? 

General Lyles: Yes, there were many additional role models that I encountered at Howard. I met many administrators largely because of my mother who was very much of a social person, very friend- ly, outgoing and gregarious. She worked on the campus, and everybody knew her, so I had a chance to meet and occasionally talk to almost every Dean who was associated with the university. My best friend in high school was James Washington whose father was the Dean of the Law School. He was somewhat like me; that is, some- one who was a shy kid whom also chose to go to Howard. When he wasn’t in class, he stayed around the Law School. And when I wasn’t in class, I stayed around the School of Social Work. Neither one of us spent a lot of time at the student union. Each of us had a sort of natural comfortable environment-he, in one of the lounges at the Law School, and I in the lounge for students and professors at the School of Social Work. It was a place to study and there were faculty members at the school who were role models.

But I guess if there was one person who really shaped something for me as an engineer, particularly working in the Air Force, it was my professor of nuclear engineering at the School of Engineering, Dr. George Ferguson. He was very larger-than life and very distinguished ‘guy’ who was very charismatic. He was very well known in the engineering community, not just within Howard. He did work for the National Bureau of Standards, creating research capability throughout the city. Professor Ferguson exposed us to engineering outside of the confines of Howard University’s School of Engineering.

But it was the way he prepared us for the future. He was a professor who graded in a strict way: For tests, for homework, you had to get everything right to earn an “A.” If you had anything wrong, you received a zero or “E” What he was trying to do was to discipline us as engineers. He would say, “We cannot afford to be less than complete and comprehensive in our work. We cannot afford to do shoddy work. We cannot afford to do less than perfect work.” Professor Ferguson wanted us to be pre- pared to be very strong in getting everything done correctly. He wanted to prepare us for perfection. I received a straight “A” in that class. From the first week of his class, I think that all of the engineering students were a little bit daunted by his method of grading, and by the zeros on the papers. But we certainly learned very quickly, and that discipline was something that is still in me. I remember, and I always talk about him when I talk to young students about preparing themselves for life. So, the one professor that I can think about would be Dr. Ferguson and what he taught me about being an engineer.

Dr. Frazier: I looked at your resume and saw that your specialty is space and missiles. There used to be a program that was called “the Star War Program, and I think that you were a commander of the missile defense program. 

General Lyles: The Ballistic Missile Defense Organization.

Dr. Frazier: And is that the new name of the Star Wars program? 

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General Lyles: It is. It is the star wars organization, which is called the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. It had the nickname “Star War” given to it by President Reagan, the media, or somebody. I took over as director of that organization in the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The organization works directly for the Secretary of Defense, and so all services are involved, as well as a number of civilian activities. Lots of politics are also associated with missile defense. In August of 1996, I

became director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and stayed there until May 1999.

Dr. Frazier: You have said that lots of politics are involved. I believe I have seen you a few times on Capitol Hill, leaving various offices. I assume either you were coming from briefings or meetings, or were involved in hearings

General Lyles: Both. Missile defense, as we are now seeing in the new administration was a very strong item on the political agenda for the Republicans and for the very Conservatives. And there are many missile defense supporters on the Hill. I was on the Hill almost every week, usually visiting some member office and talking with them about what our needs were and what our technical problems were. There were lots of hearings that involved testifying before the House and the Senate, the appropriate authorizers. You name it. There was a great deal of political interaction.

Dr. Frazier: It would seem then that it is difficult to try to do your job from a technical standpoint and at the same time try to placate and manage the political types who perhaps have no clue as to the technical requirements. How do you feel about the role that politics plays?

General Lyles: In some cases there is a very fine line, and a great deal of diplomacy is required. In other cases, you have to undergo a kind of baptism under fire, and you have to try to adapt to that. What I found out is that you must never lose your integrity and never your honesty. You just can’t compromise when it comes to your basic values, no matter what the politics might be. Otherwise, you are going to lose somewhere along the way. I try to use that principle going into these sessions, but I also still try to, at least, make sure that the Senators, Congressmen or their staffs, understand all of the issues. I try to be very open with them, for if they understand the issue, and understand the difficulty  that something might have, then you have created a environment that would also address some of their needs. Sometimes, however, that was just not possible. What I found, though, is that regardless of the politics, most people really respected honesty and integrity. As long as you are straightforward, you come out ahead whether they agree with your answers or not.

I did have one conflict back in 1998, and that became a story in the Washington Post. One of the missile defense supporters, he was heading a committee and constantly criticizing the administration for not putting more money into something. But I knew that there were a lot of technical problems that precluded anybody from committing another dollar until it was understood what the technical difficulties were. He wanted me to say something in the hearing that fortified his position against the administration, and I could not do that in good con- science. I just could not say that we needed to pour a lot more money into something until we under- stood the technical ramifications. This member became upset because I did not answer his questions as he expected. He stopped the hearing, and in front of the press started yelling at me. He made the comment that he could not trust me. He thought he could trust me to give him the answer that he wanted. My immediate response was to say that if he could not trust those of us in uniform, then whom could he trust. Both of those lines made their way into the Washington Post. The conservative press lauded the congressman, and others thought it was great that I had responded to him in the manner in which I had. But the situation was exactly as you described it. We have subsequently made-up, and if not friends, we at least respect each other. Sometimes you run into those types of situations.

Dr. Frazier: During your career, about 32 years now, you have had a lot of assignments. Most of the rotations have been domestic. Is that because of the nature of your specialty? 

General Lyles: Yes. Research development acquisition defines the technology. All of our facilities are bases here in the United States. Really, there are a couple of minor offices that we have in Europe and in Japan. There really is no opportunity for overseas assignments in that particular career field. That is something that the Air Force is trying to change a little bit. We think that everybody could benefit from having at least one operational tour in the Air Force. So, we are changing some of our career management policy in that we are going to almost insist that engineers or scientists, for example, get an operational overseas tour to really understand the operational aspects, whether it is the first, second, or third tour. But it was not a rule. When I came up, all of our bases and our command were here in the United States. I have taken trips overseas, but no assignments overseas.

Dr. Frazier: I have just a few more questions. One, have you experienced race problems as a commander, or has that ever been an issue that you had to address, considering the fact that you command a large number of people of diverse backgrounds and experiences

General Lyles: That is an interesting a question. I like to be honest with everybody. I can’t point to a single case of overt racism at all in my military career. I can’t think of a single thing that I can pin- point. Sometimes you just sense that people are uncomfortable dealing with somebody who is not from the same background. That has sort of waned as I obviously have progressed through the ranks. It is amazing what a star does in terms of getting people to be open-minded. But I can’t point to anything specific other than the obvious perception of some being uncomfortable. My wife and I talk about this occasionally.

Dr. Frazier: This question has pretty much been answered, but I want to hear directly from you. How has your family, your spouse and your children, enhanced your life as well as your career

General Lyles: I can point to and single out lots of peers, associates, friends, and even people I don’t know whose family has not been supportive of their work in the military. Ultimately, they end up personally becoming discouraged. Occasionally, we have some situations with the family breaking up. But in my case, my wife has been extremely supportive throughout everything, and my children, all four of them, have been just ideal. They enjoy the opportunity and the successes I have had and a chance to be a part of, as much as I do, if not more than I do. They have been a source of strength, if you will, and the foundation for everything that I have been able to do.

Dr. Frazier: What about God

General Lyles: There is nothing I could accomplish without the spiritual. I pray and thank God every- day, and I tell people that I am very blessed. Whenever anybody asks me about this position or about being a General, I just say that I have been very blessed. It’s really the bottom line. That is all that I can say.

Dr. Frazier: Do you see your success as the by- product of divine intervention, luck, family support, opportunity or what

General Lyles: All of that is there. But my first response has always been that I have been very, very blessed. I am blessed to have had good jobs, blessed to have had good bosses, blessed to have bosses regardless of their background, and who have been good mentors and supportive of me. I am blessed to have a wonderful family and their support. And, obviously, I have been lucky in terms of timing. All of that is there, but I just say, I was very, very blessed.

Government and Politics Journal • Spring 2002 

Dr. Frazier: If you could speak to a large group about many shared values, what would you recommend to young people to help them be successful in their careers, their lives, and in obtaining a positive sense of well being? Are there three or four principles or lessons you would recommend to them

General Lyles: There are two that I specifically point out to people. One is that I don’t care what your job is, I don’t care what position you hold, or what your aspirations are. I always tell people to try to be the very best person they can be at that particular thing. I say this for two reasons: One reason is that most people don’t think that way; they don’t think in terms of being the very best they can be in their particular career field or their particular profession. Being the very best means understanding in everything you care about in that particular job. It means that you understand from both the customer’s and the supplier’s perspectives, understand what feeds into your job and what those people who are feeding you need to know to do that, and to understand what happens to the product in your job, and what the people you give it to need to know. If you really understand your job and try to be the very best you can be, you will stand out in the crowd. The average persons often just think in terms of a 9-5 job. The people, though, that try to be the very best are the ones people will ask to help solve problems. They are going to literally be the cream of the crop. There is a poem that I always try to quote during Martin Luther King celebrations. We all know the “I Have a Dream” speech, but this particular poem is about a street sweeper. Basically, he says that if you are a street sweeper, be the very best street sweeper you can be. At some point, the gods in heaven can look down and say, “There goes a street sweeper who did his job well.” Perhaps, that’s not a good analogy, but it is to tell everybody to be the very best you can at that par- ticular thing you do, and you will stand out above your peers. The (second) thing is that I never stop learning. I don’t care how much education you have or whatever your background is, or what your profession is, you can always learn something new everyday. Never lose that thirst for learning, and that also will put you above the rest of the crowd. The third one, I would always tell people is to stop to smell the roses. There are many interesting aspects around your culture. Just enjoy those. I par- ticularly point that out to minorities in the Air Force. We used to have a couple of groups in the Air Force where the black young officers would get together and socialize and help each other, if you will. At the same time, though, they were standing

apart and excluding other people. And, they were not giving themselves an opportunity to learn other cultures and to learn more about the community around them. Do not forget to enjoy and learn about the culture around you. You will benefit from it, and then the other culture will benefit from learning about you.

There is one thing I’d like to add, as we talk to career opportunities, transition and change- and this is directed to those young men and women in schools like Howard across the country: Definitely consider the Air Force among your many career options. If you do you will be blessed to work with a truly dedicated, talented and diverse team. And you don’t have to serve in uniform to be a part of the world’s most respected air and space team. We have thousands of civilian jobs in exciting disciplines like research and engineering. Minorities and people with disabilities serve in my command and are doing truly great things to shape and modernize our Air Force for the future.

Dr. Frazier: I also talk to young people. I tell them that if you stay in one circle, then you never move the paradigm. You have to move the paradigm when you get stuck. Last question, absolutely the last question, and it concerns the future. I assume at some point that all of this will end, and it will be time for a next challenge. Do you have any hypothesis about the future, or do you just play it as it comes

General Lyles: I more or less play it as it comes. But I will be very honest with you about this. I have fears about the future. I have been very blessed and very successful in the Air Force, but I don’t know what the future might portend. There is one area where again “racism” is too strong a word, but this is one area where I have fears and trepidations. To be specific, I have seen too many of my peers, even some who were junior to me get tremendous, lucrative job offers when they leave the Air Force. Some of them get these offers before they leave the Air Force, and this forces them to make a decision to go. And then I see that this is the non-minority group.

On the other hand, I have seen some very competent black guys, including some generals who end up with good jobs, but never perhaps (I should not say never), on the top rung. I know of one retired gen- eral, whose situation really shocked me. He could- n’t find a corporate job. This man was a pioneer early on, a black one-star general, even a fighter pilot. When he left the Air Force, he ended up work- ing for a corporation where his boss was a former master sergeant who also got out, but ended up being the vice president of this company. I know another retired four-star general who retired and ended up getting a pretty good job in terms of salary but not in terms of position.

I can’t prove there was any racism or prejudice or bias in these cases. I have many of my non-minor- ity peers who ended up with great things, and I have minority peers who ended up not quite on top of the world. I just don’t know what’s out there. It’s scary to me.

Dr. Frazier: I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to interview a four-star general, one that manages a $40 billion corporation. I know your talents will be appreciated and rewarded. 

General Lyles: We’ll see. I tell everybody, my wife, and my twin daughters who are freshmen at Ohio State that I can work anywhere. My wife says that I have to get a good job after I retire to help take care of them. I tell people facetiously that as long as they have a McDonald fry-

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