Cadets learn character through immersion

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Don Branum
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
From the day basic cadets hear the words, "Get off my bus!" to the moment they toss their hats into the sky and become second lieutenants, they live in a culture that shapes their character and helps them develop the leadership skills they will need to succeed in the Air Force.

The Center for Character and Leadership Development helps create that culture and turn intangible properties into qualities that can be not only developed but assessed, said Col. Joseph Sanders, the center's permanent professor and director.

The center first activated as the Center for Character Development in the mid-1990s and organized programs such as the National Character and Leadership Symposium and the Falcon Heritage Forum, events that continue nearly 20 years later.

Since its foundation, the center's mission has expanded. In 2009, Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould announced that the Center for Character Development would become the Center for Character and Leadership Development, or CCLD. Along with the name change, the CCLD took on researching and assessing a core question: How does the Air Force Academy turn high school graduates into leaders in the 21st century profession of arms?

"For me, character development occurs primarily in the culture, not the classroom," Colonel Sanders said.

Classroom learning is one-third of cadets' character development experience, which the colonel calls "head habits." The other two thirds, "heart habits" and "hand habits," entail cadets to feel and act in ways reflecting the Air Force core values: Integrity First, Service Before Self and Excellence in All We Do.

"Do you self-identify as a leader and a person of character? If you're concerned about it and doing it enough times, it becomes part of who you are," Colonel Sanders said. "A leader of character is a person who knows, cares and acts in a way that expands the moral capacity of oneself and others as well as elevating the effectiveness of oneself and others."

But it's not enough to develop cadets' character: the Academy must also do so in a way that is repeatable, deliberate and integrated into cadets' overall Academy experience, Colonel Sanders said.

"We have to have an enterprise solution," he said. "We don't want to do things in isolation. We're finding ways to integrate character and leadership development into other areas. I can tell you, from my background in athletics, you can develop character on the field."

To that end, the CCLD works with other mission elements -- Athletics and the Dean of Faculty -- as well as with air officers commanding and Academy military training NCOs to create an environment of professionalism into which cadets are immersed during their four years here.

"If you just 'teach' the content of character and leadership, because it's intangible, you're going to miss something," Colonel Sanders said. "The class setting provides structure for interactions, but it's the culture that ultimately shapes the character. Character and leadership development occurs in a context. Even Aristotle talked about how important society is to defining character."

But the center must also make sure its programs are effective. That's where the center's Scholarship Division comes into play, observing cadets' behavior and measuring it against Academy outcomes such as respect for human dignity, critical thinking, discipline, teamwork and knowledge of the profession of arms. Some of the CCLD's methods are outlined in the Academy's 2009 Institutional Self-Study Report.

Observation starts almost as soon as basic cadets get their uniforms, said Cadet 1st Class Dirk Strykowski with Cadet Squadron 24.

"There are standout basics in every squadron -- they're the people who try to help and motivate the other people in their units," Cadet Strykowski said.

Cadre identify those basics as leaders early on and give them greater responsibilities within their units, said Cadet 2nd Class Allison Laning, also with CS 24.

"We talk to the standouts about our expectations and have them share that with their flights," she said. "We have them lead one another and keep one another motivated."

In two years, some of today's basic cadets will be cadre. Two years after that, newly minted second lieutenants from the Class of 2014 will accept responsibility for Airmen's lives. Through providing an environment rich with opportunities to develop cadets' character and leadership, the Academy makes sure tomorrow's leaders are ready for tomorrow's challenges.