M-RCBG Associate Working Paper No. 138

Educating, Training and Inspiring Officers to Lead Adaptively with Character in a Complex 21st Century Environment

Jacob C. Hawkins

May 2020


The mission of the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) is “to educate, train, and inspire men and women to become leaders of character, motivated to lead the United States Air Force in service to our nation.” In short, it strives to develop both “leaders” and “character.” Leading with character today differs from what it was at USAFA’s founding. The contemporary environment into which USAFA sends its graduates is faster-paced, more complex, and riddled with uncertainty. Officers require new knowledge, abilities, and attributes, but must be leaders of character more than ever.

I interviewed 52 individuals to determine the demands of the contemporary environment. They identified five main challenges that this new environment poses. Officers must be able to (1) operate in complex systems, (2) tolerate risk and change, (3) lead through a new great power struggle, (4) care for and empower their people, and (5) continuously learn. Interviewees identified characteristics that officers must develop to meet these challenges. Interviewees identified strong character as the base of these characteristics while others included various forms of knowledge, team-based skills/action-sets, and adaptive attributes like risk-taking, agility, critical thinking, and shaping systems.

USAFA must adequately develop these characteristics in officers. I surveyed 446 recent graduates to ascertain USAFA’s current development performance. The striking data indicated USAFA’s current vision, structures, and curriculum inhibit the required development. Its vision is not linked to the external environment, and it fails to link value instilment to the reasons for those values. Structurally, there is little collaboration between mission elements, employees have unclear job priorities, and leadership produces disjointed messages to cadets. These structures lead cadets to become fearful and distrusting. As a result, many skirt around a harsh discipline system as they struggle to endure the day. The curriculum does not adequately teach cadets to be strategic thinkers. Rather, it yields cadets who are cynical, focused on individual achievement, and unsupported emotionally.

USAFA must make urgent changes to address its shortcomings: It must align its vision to the external needs of the environment and reform their structures so that the institution portrays the behaviors it wants its cadets to practice. Mission elements must unify and synchronize their messages. Redefine job descriptions to fit the overall mission. Debriefing, 360-degree feedback, and job training need to be commonplace. Compliance and discipline should be secondary to virtue and leadership development. Cadets should have time to reflect, grow, and thrive. They should be allowed to experiment, take prudent risks, and learn—not burn—from their mistakes.

Though difficult, the environment demands these changes. Air Force officers need new skills in this complex environment, and the structures to develop these skills are dramatically different than those currently in place. The environment necessitates these changes. Our adversaries are only growing stronger, and the world is only speeding up. The time to act is now. USAFA must shed many pieces of its traditional development system. It must relinquish some control and put the power in the cadets’ hands to develop cadets to be effective leaders of character in this new environment. Human capital is the most important resource today, our officers can and must be better. Our adversaries demand it.

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