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Highlights from the Air Force Academy National Character and Leadership Symposium on Ethics and Respect for Human Dignity by David Fein

By March 7, 2022May 5th, 2022David Fein

I was treated to a very inspiring day at the 28th annual National Character and Leadership Symposium (NCLS), at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The event brings together distinguished scholars, military leaders, corporate executives, and world-class athletes who share inspiring stories with powerful messages to motivate and equip participants to live honorably and lead effectively.

The theme of the symposium focused on building character and leadership based on the foundational principles of the Air Force Academy, including Integrity Frist, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do. This year’s theme was Ethics and Respect for Human Dignity, which is so much more than a just warm and fuzzy concept, it’s a core value that is crucial to the success of their Air Force’s mission. The speakers and their messages are so relevant for not only the Air Force but for all of us. The young cadets who organized and ran the event were inspiring and gave me confidence in the caliber of people who are stepping up not only to be leaders in the Air Force but who will eventually become leaders in our communities, country, and world.

I want to highlight some of the incredible speakers and messages that I was privileged to get to hear.

Miguel Lugo of Homeboy Industries, which is the largest and most successful gang rehabilitation program in the world, spoke about the amazing work they do through the power of helping people change. Miguel describes the program as, “a watering hole in the middle of the desert, offering hope, life and new beginnings to thirsty people.” Their process of teaching a moral code and values helps lift people up, and he made the point that moral code and values work whether you are an Air Force Academy cadet or a gang member looking for a better and more honorable life. Miguel spent 18 years in a California prison and when he got out entered the Homeboy Industries program, which transformed his life. He is now a leader in the program, helping others to transform their lives. This was the first time Miguel spoke in front of a large audience, and he did a fantastic job! He was the only speaker I saw that day who received a standing ovation from everyone in the room.


Kathy Buckley gave a talk titled, No Labels, No Limits: You Want to Get The Most Out Of Your Life. Billed as “America’s First Hearing Impaired Comedienne”, Kathy Buckley is a five-time American Comedy Award Nominee as Best Stand-Up Female comedian who says she overcame more obstacles in her first thirty years than most people do in their lifetime. Her story was so inspiring because she has been through so much as a person and yet her message was about finding the joy in life and finding and fully embracing your individuality. Born deaf and sent to a school for retardation, until she was properly diagnosed as being deaf at eight. She went to school to learn how to speak and then was transferred to a regular public school, which was a huge challenge. One day while on the beach sunbathing, she got run over by a lifeguard truck because she could not hear it coming, leaving her in a wheelchair for many years. They told her she would never walk again, she said since she was deaf, and that she didn’t hear them so she never stopped believing she could walk again, and did! She had cancer twice and at one point decided that she was going to take control of her life, her attitude, and her future and turned her life around. Kathy’s website sums up Kathy’s message well “Kathy Buckley is a motivational speaker and best-selling author who uses comedy to help audiences understand their gifts, their peers, and their choices.”


Shannon Sedgwick Davis, CEO, Bridgeway Foundation and the author of To Stop a Warlord spoke about how she dedicated her life to stopping the African warlord Joseph Kony, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and was responsible for untold horrors for decades in Africa. The LRA was one of the most fearsome and notorious groups on the planet. What the United Nations and the Ugandan military could not accomplish, Shannon and her team did. Shannon realized that “direct action” was the only solution to the LRA problem and that a new type of collaboration between her private foundation, the United Nations, and the Ugandan military was the solution. Shannon was much more than a mere bystander and organizer in the US, she spent months on the ground, at the front lines of this war against the LRA. Her courage and vision are truly inspiring. Although there were many organizations and many people involved in this project, none of it would have happened without Shannon. She exemplifies the difference one person can make in the world.


Dr. Kimberly Dickman, Assistant Professor, Center for Character and Leadership Development. Dr. Dickman spoke about leading and connecting with compassion.  Dr. Dickman says “Compassion often conjures up images of hearts, tears, or monks. When it is demystified and translated into the workplace and behaviors for leaders, it improves wellbeing, retention, and performance.” After hearing all the neuroscience, psychology, and organizational research she presented on how leading with compassion does all these things, it totally makes sense. It turns out that compassion is not just a “nice” thing to do, it’s a crucial component of leadership and we all need to learn to lead with more compassion. During the session she provided a link to a video for Mission: Joy (Finding Happiness in Troubled Times), with the Dali Lama and Desmond Tutu. It tells the story of the remarkable friendship between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Their message about forgiveness being a strength rather than a weakness is stirring.


Dr. Ben Carson, America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great. Based on his 2012 book, Dr. Ben Carson explores the critical historical characteristics of America that led to her rise to the pinnacle of nations almost overnight. The values and principles that produced outstanding characteristics like honesty, compassion, hard work, innovation, and decency are at least as important today as they were when our nation was born. His message was about how diversity fosters greatness and understanding. He encouraged us to use our God-given talents to improve our lives, our communities, our nation, and our world.



I had a fabulous day at the National Character and Leadership Conference, with messages relevant to all of us, especially during these incredibly challenging times. Our families, our communities, our country, and our world desperately needs leadership. Look at any problem we face, and strong leadership is always the answer. This symposium, these speakers, and their messages are meant to inspire and equip all of us to become better leaders, in whatever capacity we lead.

The symposium happens every year in February both in-person and virtual. It is free and I would highly recommend you attend the 2023 event. If you can’t attend in person, they provide an app to access all the virtual sessions.

Check out the NCLS website at

To see some of the recorded sessions from the 2022 event click here.