MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. — Sometimes there are things in life that happen to you that are so unexpected you fail to comprehend their inherent value. Such was the case for me in my assignment to Officer Training School.
OTS was an assignment that I was not expecting and had entirely no interest in. However, since arriving at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, more than two years ago, this duty has proven to be the assignment I never knew I needed.
What’s so special about OTS? As an OTS instructor, you are truly challenged to become a better officer. As it turns out, many of the same traits expected of a good leader, such as enthusiasm, patience, confidence and empathy, are some of the same traits exhibited by highly effective instructors. The abundant amount of interaction with adult learners provides a near-constant feedback loop that the instructor can then refine old patterns of behavior and sharpen leadership skills.
Let’s consider the aspect of communication. There seems to be a natural human tendency for us to think of ourselves as sufficient communicators; however, this is often an incredibly naive assumption. Directly leading a flight of 16 cadets from sunup to sundown will quickly highlight any shortcomings in your methods of communication. This deliberate focus on precise, confident speech is something that lies at the foundation of being a leader. Subordinates, peers and supervisors alike thrive on clearly thought out communication and intent. It is not enough to simply understand the importance of precise speech. You must practice this skill just like any other.
What I’ve come to realize as a flight commander that isn’t self-evident is that when it comes to sharpening your ability to connect with people in meaningful and productive ways, you really have to pay attention. Making the conscious effort to do things like being more attentive to people and more precise in your speech begins to create the habit of metacognition, that is, thinking about how you think. This is how you can begin to slowly influence those micro habits of your own personal leadership into becoming more effective. The fast-paced daily routine of a flight commander forces the examination of those inefficient or ineffective leadership habits. In this environment, the shortcomings of your unconscious habits rear their loathsome heads and demand immediate attention.
It’s important to remember that as a flight commander, a significant part of your duties involves teaching, and the foundation of teaching is centered on developing a relationship with each person in the room, albeit a brief one. On the face of it, it may seem as though the activity of guiding a discussion or teaching a lecture is a one-way flow of information, but this is definitely not the case. If you allow yourself to explore the material at hand using the knowledge and experience of a flight of students, you, the flight commander, have the potential to learn just as much, if not more than your students from the abundance of teaching and mentoring interactions.
In a sea of deliberately designed chaos, the pressure of performance is equally felt as an instructor; the difference in outcome is determined by how seriously you shoulder the full weight of responsibility that comes with modeling the ideal officer. Due to the nature of your position as flight commander, cadets typically have extremely high expectations of you. This heavy expectation to perform has the potential to amplify the motivation of the individual flight commander in a way that pushes you to want to be better. With this responsibility comes great reward, for you are truly affecting more individual change than you will ever imagine, and you’re doing it by simply paying attention to how you handle yourself as an officer.
Being a flight commander has allowed me the time to improve in areas such as public speaking, articulated thought and speech, time management, increased openness to creative on-the-fly leadership, peer leadership, defining repeatable processes, conflict resolution, counseling and delivering clear expectations. It also has allowed me to understand the tremendous value of individual and team goals.
I am truly grateful for the opportunity to be a flight commander at OTS as it has provided me with the perfect environment to sharpen critical leadership skills while at the same time allowing for the possibility to make an immediate and lasting positive impact on hundreds of future Air Force officers. We all have areas we can improve when it comes to leadership; the catharsis takes place when we boldly peer into the abyss and decide to face our shortcomings. This is where true change takes place.