Inspiration, drive, determination: Journey to leadership
Story by Staff Sgt. Lance Pounds (U.S. Army Africa) – VICENZA, Italy – In most tales of adventure, discovery or heroism the main character faces many challenges throughout his or her own journey. Good, bad, right or wrong, each choice he or she makes will ultimately determine how others perceive them.
Often times the character will come across mentors who offer inspiration, identify drive or focus determination to help them see the potential within themselves. For example, when Qui-Gon Jinn takes in young Anikin Skywalker as an apprentice in Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace.
In the film, Qui-Gon said to Skywalker, “Your focus determines your reality,” and although they are fictional characters, some meaning can be taken from this statement.
On Nov. 17, one Soldier’s focus to become a leader was realized when the U.S. Army’s most senior enlisted leader, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel Dailey, promoted him to the rank of sergeant.
Sgt. James Sheridon, a driver for U.S. Army Africa’s commanding general, Maj. Gen. Joseph Harrington, stood before his friends, coworkers and fellow Soldiers as Dailey welcomed him to the coveted Noncommissioned Officers Corps in front of the USARAF Headquarters on Caserma Ederle.
Dailey was here to discuss his Army-wide leader development initiatives with the Soldiers assigned to U.S. Army Garrison-Italy tenant units.
“By being here today, it is saying something. He is setting an example for all NCOs to follow,” Sheridon said.
Sheridon also celebrated his tenth year of military service, of which the last three years have been active duty. The halfway point marked an important achievement in his journey, which is to continue his family’s legacy of military service.
Sheridon hails from a long line of service members that dates back to the 8th Commanding General of the United States Army, Gen. Philip Sheridan, who was noted for his rapid rise to general during the American Civil War.
“Timing was perfect,” Sheridon said about the day’s events being so close to Veterans Day. “It felt like they were with me.”
Sheridon said as a child growing up in Wayne, Michigan, located on the outskirts of Detroit, he always knew he wanted to be in the military.
“I was that kid, always playing soldier,” he said. “When I saw a person in uniform I knew they were someone special… I was drawn to them.”
Sheridon is the youngest of his siblings; so much so that he said he might as well have been an only child. He admits that he was spoiled to an extent, but was still expected to earn the things he wanted by doing chores.
This simple transaction was Sheridon’s first taste of responsibility and served as the foundation of a strong work ethic that he carries with him to this day.
Another character trait he picked up in his youth was a “never give up attitude” something that his football and powerlifting coach, Craig Hnatuk, instilled in him while attending Wayne Memorial High School.
“I was 115 pounds playing varsity football against 200-plus pound guys,” Sheridon said. “I literally got the crap beat out of me… but I just kept getting up.”
Sheridon said coach Hnatuk trained and mentored him, both on and off the field. That investment of time in another person was something he placed in his mental tool kit.
In 2004, Sheridon competed in his first powerlifting competition, but was disqualified for not performing the event to the specified guidelines of the competition. With the never give up attitude he learned from his coach, Sheridon returned the following year and took 1st place in his weight class at the Texas National Powerlifting Championships.
Hnatuk, who currently teaches at Stevenson Middle School, was the first to mentor and influence Sheridon, but he would not be the last.
Sheridon said he knew he wanted to join the military, but became hesitant upon graduating high school.
According to mythologist Joseph Campbell’s breakdown of a hero’s journey, this hesitation could be attributed to the “Refusal of the Call” phase. First described in Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), this phase is the moment in time when the hero realizes his or her mission, but doubts whether or not he or she is up to the challenge.
On Nov. 17, 2006, nearly a year after graduating high school, Sheridon joined the Michigan Army National Guard. There he would serve for five years until the unit he was in deactivated. This did not sway Sheridon, who was fully committed to his journey; so with his never give up attitude he transferred to the Michigan Air National Guard.
There he would meet his next mentor, Capt. Robert Mclean, commander of the Michigan Air National Guard’s 127th Wing. Sheridon described Mclean as a leader who could inspire others to achieve more.
“He took me to a whole different level of thinking,” said Sheridon, comparing his experiences at both organizations. “He showed me how to look beyond the mission and ask myself what more could I do.”
According to Sheridon, Mclean’s one-on-one mentorship style of leading significantly contributed to a positive work environment. Sheridon said this too went into his mental tool kit.
Mclean would prove to be so inspirational that in 2013 the young guardsman decided to go active duty and enlisted in the U.S. Army in pursuit of a prestigious green beret.
“I wanted to be a green beret,” Sheridon said. “Special Forces!”
Sheridon got his wish and began training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Unfortunately, Sheridon said he was unable to make it to the selection phase.
“I got injured and the doctors told me that I had done enough,” Sheridon said.
Disappointed he would not be able to continue on his current path, Sheridon recalled the advice of his former coach and did not give up.
He reclassified from special forces candidate to infantryman and was assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Italy.
While assigned to the 173rd Sheridon was placed on a 6-month driver’s detail, which he said turned out to be a blessing in disguise; describing it as if fate had parted the heavy fog of self-doubt and earlier career disappointment revealing the path he was meant to be on.
Nearing the completion of the detail, Sheridon found out that he would remain in the position as a result of his professionalism and dedication to the task he had been given. He has since laterally transferred from the 173rd to his current position as one of USARAF’s command drivers.
“I like USARAF,” said Sheridon. “When I started this position, I was driving for (former USARAF commander, Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams) and he was all about dignity and respect.”
“You respect your Soldiers and they will respect you,” he added. “That is what we have here in USARAF.”
Sheridon said the benefits of being in USARAF go far beyond a positive work environment.
“I have had opportunities here that I didn’t even know I wanted,” he said.
Sheridon, upon William’s request, traveled to Tanzania, a country in eastern Africa, in support of the 2016 African Land Forces Summit.
“It meant that (Williams) trusted in me and that I could handle what needed to be done,” said Sheridon. He added that being a part of such a high-profile event, where 37 land forces chiefs came together to discuss regional problems and solutions, would be an experience he would never forget.
Being a part of this organization is important because it is an opportunity to be part of something bigger, he added. A sentiment shared by the sergeant major of the Army.
“Every time we send our Soldiers to train with our foreign partners is an opportunity for leader development and to build relationships internationally,” said Dailey. “I have talked to Soldiers who have been to Africa and they are overwhelmed with the experience.”
“Italy has extended us a hand… I encourage you to get out and enjoy the culture,” Dailey said. “I think this is one of the best duty stations.”
Since his transfer to USARAF, Sheridon has earned a SCUBA diving certification in Croatia, learned to snowboard on the mountains of northern Italy, and traveled to Rome, Naples and Germany.
“Being here has ignited a passion for traveling I didn’t know I had,” he said.
Sheridon said he is grateful for the opportunities that have been afforded to him to include being promoted by the sergeant major of the Army.
“It is an absolute pleasure and a big deal to me when we promote someone to the rank of noncommissioned officer, because we are investing in the future.” Daily said.
Following the promotion ceremony Sheridon gave thanks to all those who had helped him over the years.
“This day would not be possible if I didn’t have great leadership and great mentors,” he said.
It was an honor to have Dailey take time from his schedule to be here, said Sheridon. He added that by doing so, Dailey showed him how NCOs should treat their Soldiers.
“If the sergeant major of the Army can make the time, we can too,” he said.
“(Dailey) set the example. Now I have to set the example,” Sheridon said. “And the last thing I want to do is fail a Soldier.” He described the whole experience as that moment when the Jedi master Yoda shows Anakin’s son, Luke, the ways of the force in Star Wars: Episode 5 – The Empire Strikes Back.
“Do. Or do not. There is no try,” said Yoda when teaching Luke that even the largest of objects can be moved if the mind is focused.
According to Sheridon, the promotion did not mark an end to his journey; it was the beginning of the next episode.