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Developing leaders of character, leaders of Airmen

Superintendent's Commentary

Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy, is shown here speaking at the Academy's Center for Character and Leadership Development. In a commentary published Sept. 28, 2018, the superintendent discusses the advances the Academy has made involving the CCLD and the steps taken to better prepare today’s cadets for tomorrow's war fighting missions. (U.S. Air Force photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. --

A year ago I was honored to assume command of my Alma mater, the U.S. Air Force Academy. In this unique role, I serve as the commander of a large and diverse military institution, and as president of a leading undergraduate university. During the last year, I have come to more deeply appreciate this distinctive institution and the various constituents it serves. I have found this position presents unique leadership challenges as we develop our cadets in the context of the profession of arms. It has been an inspiring journey not only intellectually but also personally, as I interact daily with young men and women who have chosen to serve their nation. 

 Our Mission

The mission of the Academy is to educate, train and inspire men and women to become leaders of character, motivated to lead the Air Force in service to our nation. This mission is a critical one and certainly a worthy (and necessary) endeavor, as the news is replete with examples of leadership shortcomings and failures across all occupational domains. While many organizations can endure multiple leadership failures when outcomes revolve around such factors as profits and market share, the military does not have such luxury. Since the Academy provides leaders who will serve as part of the larger Air Force, nothing shy of excellence fulfills the needs of our vision of being the world’s greatest Air Force, powered by Airmen, fueled by Innovation. Unlike other universities, our graduates go to a single employer – the Air Force. It means the Academy exists to develop, commission, and provide qualified and lethal officers to the Air Force. This puts a unique context on what we do. We automatically know what each of our graduates will be doing upon commissioning and the accompanying characteristics they must possess. Our Air Force requires its officers to be lethal war fighters.

However, it is not enough we develop leaders who have good character to lead our military forces. The battle space these leaders will face is dynamic and necessarily complex, and success demands qualified, educated and capable leaders. The enemies of today are more capable, lethal, and unpredictable than we have experienced in past conflicts. This creates a demand signal we must be ready for and must prepare future leaders to embrace. We must provide leaders who can leverage efficient and lethal war fighting capability to the joint force. The Academy’s purpose is clear.

 The Academy

To develop these leaders of character and leaders of Airmen, we use an integrated 47-month combination of education, development and experiential learning. Not only are cadets challenged with an arduous military regimen that helps them appreciate and prepare for service in the profession of arms (i.e., warrior ethos), they also undertake an extensive bachelors of science program, preparing them to be thought leaders in the career fields  they will enter upon graduation.  All cadets participate in athletics to prepare them physically for military service, they develop leadership skills by leading organizations of their peers, and they have the opportunity to participate in airmanship programs. While our process ensures they have the necessary skills and education for successful military service, the development of leadership and character are not simply process functions.  Instead, they are more participatory and occur at the individual level. This creates a challenge for the institution, as individual development takes time and intentionality from the individual and the institution.

This challenge is best articulated by noted leadership scholar David Day of the Kravis Leadership Institute when he discusses the distinction between leader development and leadership development. Leader development focuses on human capital and involves functions that occur at the individual level. This includes individual training on desired skills and abilities related to effective leadership. In addition, it helps leaders gain a realistic understanding of themselves and who they are as a leader. Typical skills for leader development include self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-motivation. Leadership development, on the other hand, focuses on the relational aspects of effective leadership referred to as “social capital.” Instead of focusing simply on training effective skills and abilities at the individual level (leader development), leadership development examines the interrelationships between individuals and the social processes that occur.

Typical skills for leadership development include social awareness (i.e., empathy), team building and interpersonal skills. As future leaders, this also includes a thoughtful understanding of such factors as culture, inclusivity and diversity, as these leaders will be leading diverse organizations that are joint (interactions with other U.S. military services) and coalition (other countries’ militaries). If we are interested in the development of leaders of character, we need to be deliberate about challenging our cadets at not only the individual level (who they are), but also in their interactions with one another (how they show up) and the larger organization.

Core Values

It is important to mention all of this occurs within a particular organizational context Otherwise, we risk developing officers with inadequate skills to accomplish our mission. One way we ensure alignment is with a common set of core values.  These core values not only indicate what is important to the Air Force, they also serve as an orienting function by letting those in the organization know the standards to which they will be held accountable. They send an explicit message to those outside of the organization on what we value as a military service. These core values, first established by the Academy in 1994 and adopted by the Air Force in 1995, are “Integrity first, “Service before self,” and “Excellence in all we do.”

“Integrity first” means all individuals will act with a soundness of character. We will be honest, truthful and authentic in what we do and in our interactions with others, both inside and outside of the military. When we consider when accomplishing our mission (the delivery of lethal force) our lives could be on the line, we should expect no less.

“Service before self” indicates military service can require sacrifice. We serve something larger than ourselves and we do this freely. This means there may be times when we need to suspend our own personal desires to answer the call to which we have committed. There is a powerful point of connection when you understand others who are serving by your side are willing to sacrifice for the greater good. When we look back in our military history, this sacrifice and commitment to something larger than ourselves has resulted in significant outcomes and results in the freedoms we enjoy today.

“Excellence in all we do” is not just a mantra, it is how we approach our profession. It becomes the standard by which we can expect others to perform. It implies we are always willing to better our best. This means we are constantly challenging our cadets to be the best that they can be instead of being complacent with prior or current success. This is a point at which innovation can be leveraged.

These core values create a strategic direction. Whether it is a military member leading a training program or a civilian academic professor in the classroom, we all understand what is expected of us and what we can expect from those around us. However, while the core values provide a foundation for how we act and interact with one another, they alone do not ensure our cadets actually develop along the trajectories we want them to. We must also add intentional aspects to our developmental paradigm (leader development and leadership development). We do this through our Leader of Character Framework.

 Leaders of Character

While there are numerous definitions of leadership and countless explanations of what good leaders do, there is less understanding of what a leader of character entails. Therefore, several years ago we codified what we refer to as the Leader of Character Framework.  A leader of character is someone who lives honorably by consistently practicing the virtues embodied in the Air Force core values, lifts others to their best possible selves and elevates performance toward a common and noble purpose.

From this definition of a leader of character, you can see multiple linkages between the mission of the Academy, the vision of the Air Force, and the core values. This alignment ensures we are working toward purposeful development. We enable this through a three-step process. First, we teach cadets to “Own their development.” They must own their part of the process. Their part includes understanding their attitude and effort, their duty, their commitments and owning their role in the developmental process.

The next step is for them to “Engage in purposeful experiences.” This is done through a collaboration of the individual and the organization. The institution can provide developmental experiences, but if the individual is not willing to engage in the development, then the opportunity is of little value.

The final step is to Practice habits of thoughts and actions. This process includes the steps of awareness, reasoning, deciding and acting. Cadets can utilize this approach through intentional experiences, programs and courses provided by the organization. From a developmental process, the challenge for most cadets comes between the deciding and acting steps. It is one challenge to decide what needs to be done and another to take action. We call this the “Decision-Action Gap,” and we work with cadets to move past this gap toward intentional development.

 Innovation

Not only must we equip our leaders to be successful in the situations they face upon graduation, we must also attend to trends and forecast an uncertain future. I view my leadership approach as superintendent through a prism of firsthand experience gained in leading Airmen on the 21st century battlefield. As I have experienced throughout my career, modern warfare is complex, lethal, fast paced and rapidly changing, and will require leaders who not only lead Airmen, but who can also lead in joint and coalition environments. Future leaders will need to have a warrior mindset (understand their profession) and lead in austere situations. This means we must provide them both the skills and education to successfully lead today, and the tools necessary for making sense of the future. We must be able to analyze and assess our current processes and be able to incorporate new ways of doing things to ensure we are outpacing rivals in an uncertain future. To that end, one of my strategic priorities as superintendent is innovation.

Innovation in large, regimented, and traditional organizations can be challenging, and change of any kind can be difficult. Questioning assumptions, processes, and policies can often be seen as threatening as they challenge the status quo. However, we cannot let that stop us from being the agile organization we need to be and the Air Force requires us to be. To do this, I will tirelessly focus on innovation for the duration of my tenure as superintendent. A couple of ways I am leading this charge involves the Academy’s Center for Character and Leadership Development and the Journal of Character and Leadership Development.

We have had a Center focused on character (and leadership more recently) for several decades. While our efforts have been in place for some time, we have been through several organizational iterations of this concept. To maximize the CCLD’s impact and relevance to the institution, I have taken steps to realign and clarify the mission of the center in such a way that it will serve as an integration and innovation facilitation function for the entire organization.

For example, one of the common struggles of large organizations is that many people are doing great work (often very innovative work), but not everyone is aware of that work. That can often result in duplication of effort and a less than optimal use of resources. It can also stifle innovation by limiting it to pockets within the organization. The CCLD’s mission is now to interface with all organizations in the institution in order to leverage best practices and highlight innovative practices, thereby acting as a force multiplier for the organization.

A second step has to do with an intentional focus on scholarship. The Academy has a proud tradition of scholarship and research. However, we haven’t always been as effective at socializing that work outside of the organization. For example, most people don’t realize that the Academy has 21 research centers and institutes and is rated as the No. 1 Undergraduate Research University.  Hundreds of publications and presentations are produced every year by Academy faculty and staff. This past academic year alone, our staff and faculty produced multiple patents and published books in addition to numerous scholarly publications. The quantity and quality of the scholarship at the Academy is truly outstanding. To facilitate the distribution of some of this work, we have reintroduced the “Journal of Character and Leadership Development.” We will facilitate communication to other organizations (academic, military, businesses and etc.) about all of the significant work being done (facilitate distribution of innovative practices) as well as partner with other thought leaders with respect to character and leadership development. We will also use it as a means to ask challenging questions about what we are doing and what others are doing to develop leaders.

 Conclusion

While we have a unique mission, it is not one that can be successfully done in isolation. We must partner with other thought leaders to ask challenging questions, innovate and further understand the relationship between character and leadership. Through such collaboration we can ensure we are developing leaders of character with lethal capability for an uncertain future.

Editor's note: This commentary has been edited for length. To read the full version, visit www.usafa.edu/jcld.