Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. — The final 18 months of my assignment to the 435th Fighter Training Squadron at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, brought about an interesting shift in our approach to student training that has cemented my views of leadership.
During that time we actively sought out techniques and principles to improve as instructors and leaders as we introduced our students to fighter fundamentals.
Our improvement efforts were captured in a program called Next Level Instruction, or NLI. In January, nine of the squadron’s Reserve and Active Duty instructors briefed NLI to the Secretary of the Air Force and the incoming Chief of Staff of the Air Force as a method of improving productivity, climate and culture.
NLI is founded on three principles that serve as pillars for the development of our Airmen. The first pillar establishes an environment where our wingmen were thrivers or survivors. To understand if our wingmen were survivors or thrivers, our instructors were asked to think critically about the student’s mental state: “Is this student thriving or surviving?”
The thriving student is comfortable in the learning environment, excited about the training and motivated to take on the next challenge. Conversely, the surviving student feels like an outsider to the organization, is just trying to pass the next event, and fails to recognize the value of the training. The survivor’s only objective is to pass the ride.
Our wingmen would arrive excited about their futures as fighter pilots. Over the course of the training program, short-term setbacks can be devastating to their mental state. Our instructors recognize the impact they have on each student’s ‘thriver’ or ‘survivor’ status. No matter what the setback, our instructors continue to convey they are bought-in to the students and their training.
Instructor buy-in leads to confidence that helps overcome setbacks and builds thrivers. Our students must know how confident we are in their ability to learn and perform in our challenging training environment. In turn, students become open to instruction, and give instructors permission to identify their weaknesses. This permission is a vulnerability that must be treated with dignity and respect. When students see their vulnerability handled with respect, they are more open to instruction, which leads to the second pillar of NLI.
The second pillar of NLI is feedback. Feedback compels personal improvement for everyone in the squadron, students and instructors. We went outside the Air Force to understand feedback by studying the works of Harvard professor Dr. Sheila Heen, a world-renowned feedback expert. Although challenging, Heen suggests leaders must lead from the front when it comes to receiving feedback to ensure organizational improvement. When the leaders of an organization are able to receive and incorporate feedback, the organization will emulate the leader’s behavior.
Feedback is comprised of two diametrically opposed concepts: the desire to improve, and the desire to be accepted in your current state. With these conflicting human desires, opening the discussion for honest and productive feedback is a challenge. To overcome this challenge we asked our instructors to end debriefs with a two-part question “What was most beneficial about my instruction and what part of my instruction was least beneficial?”
As these young Airmen recognized how our instructors were willing to accept feedback, they emulated that behavior. With feedback channels open, the squadron saw better instruction and improved student performance. We also revealed more of our own faults and areas for improvement. This unanticipated benefit led us to the development of the third pillar of NLI.
The third pillar of NLI was an instructional shift from a squadron of evaluators to a squadron of coaches. In an interview with leadership expert Bill Hybels, we were surprised to find we were mixing two types of feedback: coaching and evaluation. Hybels explained to us that combining coaching and evaluation is a poor method for productive feedback. He described evaluation as the most “emotionally loud” type of feedback that drowns out the improvement-driven feedback — coaching.
By recognizing the demarcation between evaluations and coaching, we realized we were a squadron great at evaluation and needed work on coaching. Our mind-shift brought about improved student performance in our course and in their follow-on training.
As Airmen, we are obligated to identify “survivor” wingmen and buy in so they become “thrivers.” We must lead by example and accept feedback to create a more receptive environment for feedback. Identifying when to coach and evaluate and separating the two types of feedback creates a climate and culture of self-improvement and acts as an impetus for positive change.
The three principles of NLI can be applied to any environment involving the training and leading of Airmen. In terms of resources, NLI is free. In terms of results, NLI works. We invigorated a culture of excellence and mutual respect. Best of all, our students graduated with more excitement, confidence and ability to excel in today’s Air Force.