Air University’s new leader development course helps squadron commanders ‘thrive’

by Phil Berube
U.S. Air Force

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. (AFNS) -- Air University’s newest course will help future squadron commanders thrive – not just survive – in command positions.

Structured as a foundational course that builds on leadership experiences and education, the new Leader Development Course for Squadron Command equips potential commanders with the tools to create more “effective, adaptive and lethal” squadrons.

To aid Airmen in developing these qualities within their squadrons, the course’s primary emphasis is to instill in them a greater mastery of the “human domain,” or people skills. Even technical skills such as personnel and budget are presented in context of a squadron commander and the impact these aspects have on squadron members and the mission.

“Squadrons where people know their purpose, feel part of the team and are trained, empowered and trusted to achieve represent our highest performing organizations,” said Lt. Col. Andrew Hosler, Ira C. Eaker Center for Professional Development course director. “These conditions are set by leaders who create the right kind of environment with their people. The Air Force has some of the most highly skilled technical experts in the world, but leadership experts at the squadron level are people who can unleash Air Force capabilities.”

The eight-day course goes to the heart of Air Force senior leaders’ vision of revitalizing squadrons by strengthening the interpersonal development of leadership teams. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein identified the need to revitalize squadrons—calling them the “beating heart of the Air Force”—as the first of his top three focus areas shortly after entering the position in 2016.

Air Force and Air University leaders started looking at the need for a leader development course following a squadron revitalization survey of nearly 20,000 total force Airmen and spouses in 2017. A common theme among respondents was that the Air Force needed to pay more attention to how it develops its leaders.

“Airmen expressed that leadership training and development should be taking place at all levels in the Air Force, particularly at the squadrons, as this is the key point where leaders can make a tremendous impact on the mission and the Airmen they lead,” said Lt. Col. Michael Harris, deputy director, Revitalizing Squadrons, Air Force Strategic Integration Group.

While the course fulfills its purpose of preparing potential commanders to lead individual Airmen, it also feeds into the Air Force’s broader “continuum of learning.”

The continuum of learning is the Air Force’s approach that recognizes that Airmen development is not just a function of professional military education and technical training schools, but development and learning occurs across a continuum of education, training and experience that takes place both formally and informally. Air Education and Training Command is leading a series of initiatives to put learning at the center of Air Force culture and help make it part of an Airman’s daily life in the squadron. The command fully understands that the military that can aggressively continue to learn and adapt the fastest will be more lethal and ready to win the next war.

“This course is a great complement to the Air Force’s leadership training and development continuum,” said Harris. “It also fills a gap and recognizes that leadership, like other skills, must be developed and practiced. Leadership is not simpler, more obvious or any less important as to require less practice than any technical skill.”

Course content is built around seminar-based discussions, practical exercises and case studies facilitated by recently graduated squadron commanders and augmented by civilian experts in leadership as well as adjunct professors and senior mentors.

The mentors are a mix of Air Force leaders, such as retired general officers and active wing commanders and wing command chiefs, said Hosler.

“In both cases,” he said, “students will have a unique opportunity to engage with current or recent senior-level Air Force leaders in small seminar-sized settings where frank and open discussions about leadership and decision-making occur.”

Open and honest communication with those up and down the chain of command, building self-awareness, valuing critical thinking and aligning Air Force core values with the unit mission are important aspects of effective leadership featured in the course.

“Students can expect to learn more about themselves and their tendencies, and more importantly, know what it’s like to be the person interacting with them,” said Hosler. “Most importantly, they’ll learn about the extreme opportunities they’ll have to impact the Air Force and its people. We hope they’ll come away inspired to thrive in command and make a positive difference in the lives of Airmen.”

Learning, however, won’t stop at the end of the eight days.

While in attendance, each student will work with an instructor to create a personalized self-improvement plan and a plan to further improve leadership development at his or her base. The plan will then be sent to the student’s commander to continue working on development.

“We think this unique aspect has a chance to inject some energy into squadron-level learning,” said Hosler.

Course candidates are wing commander-nominated active duty, Reserve and Guard officers with nine to 16 years’ time-in-service tracking toward command or GS-13 civilians who could fill civilian-equivalent director positions. The ideal student is about one-to-three years away from their first squadron command, said Hosler. Each class will be made up of around 66 students and, with classes running year-round, have approximately 1,000 annual graduates.

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