Chief Lilly: Keeping it real for 30 years

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley
  • 23rd Wing Public Affairs
For the past 30 years, Chief Master Sgt. Kenneth Lilly has dedicated his life to bettering the U.S. Air Force through his straightforward approach to mentoring.

As a foster child who grew up in Jersey City, N.J., Lilly chose a military career instead of the more common path of crime for minorities from his community.

"If I'm just a regular person, a regular guy, a regular chief, who wants to be like me?" said the 23rd Wing weapons manager. "I could have used the bad environment I came from and the things I saw as an excuse to fall into the trap, but I was blessed with guidance and good people."

Most of his Air Force career, which started Feb. 22, 1982, was spent dealing with various weapons systems. His retirement ceremony is scheduled for Dec. 19, but his official last day as a chief is March 1 of next year.

Throughout his career, his habit of "keeping it real" helped him achieve a rank that 1 percent of the total enlisted corps ever will.

"I look people in the face and tell them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear," said Lilly. "I'm straightforward and brutally honest. People can be their own best friend or their own worst enemy, and it's important for NCOs to grab Airmen and mold them."

For each phase of his career, he has a different accomplishment he is most proud of.

"As an Airman, I felt proud that I came from the ghetto and was able to adapt to military life instead of going to jail," Lilly said. "As a junior NCO, I was proud to be able to reach back and mentor other Airmen. I tried to be the person others wanted to compete against.

"As a senior NCO, I had the ability to understand the big Air Force picture and was able to help others achieve their goals. And as a chief, I can reach across the complete spectrum and keep it real. I can be truthful with others and help them get beyond whatever is stopping them from moving forward."

He added that although people are often stuck in their own ways, they appreciate his tough outlook.

Another habit he's kept is encouraging younger Airmen to step outside their comfort zone through different activities. For him, it's playing golf and singing the national anthem at different ceremonies, among other activities.

As he retires, he has a few parting words for current and future leaders: "Don't be digital leaders. Don't spend all day communicating through e-mails; meet and greet people face to face when you can. Get out there, shake hands and kiss babies, so to speak. If you trust your Airmen and help deliberately develop them, they will bend over backward for you."

As for what the chief is planning to do as a retiree, he said, "I've got a few irons in the fire. We'll see what pans out."

At his retirement ceremony scheduled for Dec. 19, his wife Patricia will be there along with his children Senior Airman Kenneth Lilly Jr., Rebecca and Katrina.