Being a Squadron Commander is Challenging: Here's the Most Difficult Part
Updated: Oct 8
"When you get kicked in the rear, you know you're out in front." - John C. Maxwell
As a young officer, I viewed squadron commanders like this:
They were experienced officers
They had an incredibly difficult job
They had to be phenomenal leaders to be selected for this job
They knew everything
I put them on a pedestal and was disappointed when I realized how wrong I was. Sure, they were experienced officers and they had incredibly difficult jobs. But they weren't all phenomenal leaders. And they definitely didn't know everything.
Why I Didn't Think I Could Be a Squadron Commander
If you asked me when I was a brand new Second Lieutenant whether I would ever be a squadron commander, I would have said no. The job seemed very stressful and there was so much they dealt with. My first commander handled allegations of a young lady who pimped out her fellow airmen and a pharmacist caught abusing narcotics (according to the rumor mill). I wasn't equipped to handle that kind of stuff!
Then there were there was the constant criticism. The commanders were charged with the responsibility of making decisions, but everyone had an opinion about the decisions they made. And it seemed like everyone was always complaining about their commanders.
They don't understand what we're doing.
They don't make decisions fast enough.
They made a poor decision.
They try too hard.
They don't even know me.
They don't care about me.
I didn't think I had the mental fortitude to deal with that. Even worse were the required unit climate assessment surveys. These were surveys where members were asked to provide anonymous feedback about how things were going in the unit. They're helpful for the commander to understand what needs to be improved, but they can also be painful to read. People can be brutally honest in these things!
Plus, let's be real. I'm an introvert and getting in front of people was simply not my thing. I wasn't comfortable speaking in front of large audiences and I never knew what to say to people. How could I possibly be a squadron commander?
But after several years, I realized that despite the stress and difficulties, squadron command could be very rewarding. They got to lead and mentor people, and watch them grow to achieve their potential. They shared in thrill of accomplishing projects and making things happen. They were there when people graduated from training and congratulated them on promotions. And even though their decisions were theirs alone, they were surrounded by experts to help them through it.
My interest in becoming a squadron commander grew over the years. But how was I going to set myself up to be selected for squadron command? I took my ROTC Lieutenant's advice and took it one step at a time.
What Is a Squadron Commander?
So what exactly is an Air Force squadron commander, and what makes the job so difficult? I’ve heard it compared to titles such as executive vice president or chief operating officer, and simply put, people are what make the job so difficult. To be fair, people are also what make the job so fantastic.
Military commanders lead people to accomplish missions, which is not that different from a CEO or president of a company who leads people to achieve business objectives. But commanders also have legal authority and responsibilities over the morale, physical well-being and welfare of people under their command. While civilian CEOs and presidents may feel an ethical obligation to look after the welfare of their employees, they do not have a legal obligation to do so.
Why Command is Challenging
I have been a squadron commander for nearly five years now. I often get asked what I feel is the most challenging part of being a squadron commander.
I have had to recommend discharging Airmen from the Air Force, which meant they were out of a job. I've signed off on disciplinary actions that included reductions in rank and/or pay. I've restricted Airmen to base or signed off on confinement in jail.
None of these decisions were easy. I realized these decisions were life-altering and often impacted their family members in one way or another. But every decision was made after consulting my trusted advisers and only after carefully examining the situation, evidence and exhausting all other rehabilitation options.
Outside of disciplinary actions, I've made unpopular business decisions that garnered criticism. I appointed an individual in a position of leadership that was deemed inappropriate. Leaders senior in rank to me kept questioning my decision, but I was certain the individual I appointed was perfectly capable of filling that role. I held my ground and that individual proved that I made the right decision.
Then there was the dreaded unit climate assessment survey. These surveys are mandatory for commanders to offer. The first time I did one, I was terrified to see what people would say about the way I was leading the squadron. Ironically, I had to beg everyone to fill it out even though I privately hoped no one actually would. I have had three additional surveys completed, and while it gets easier to see what people have to say, I still have to brace myself every time.
And because I work in a health care facility, it's not uncommon for disgruntled patients to demand to see the commander. Typically I'm blindsided by these unexpected visits. It takes all of my customer service skills to de-escalate their anger and get the patients to explain their concerns so I can figure out how best to help them.
The Most Difficult Part of Command
The most difficult part of command for me was having to look someone in the eye and give them bad news. As a commander, I haven't had to break the worst news to anyone, but I've been trained to deliver death notifications to next of kin. Honestly, all the training in the world will never prepare me to do this. I know myself and I become a blubbering mess when it comes to family members who are grieving the loss of a loved one. In my mind, delivering a death notification to next of kin would be the most difficult part of command.
But outside of that, I've had my share of breaking bad news to people. It's one of the most heart-wrenching experiences for me when I have to inform someone, after they worked so hard for something, that they weren't selected. I've informed people they weren't selected for a special duty assignment they had their hearts set on. I've told people they weren't selected for officer training school.
And I've had to tell people they weren't selected for promotion. That is one of the hardest things to do because sometimes, I'm sharing the same bad news to the same person multiple years in a row. Each time have to do this, I feel their disappointment deep in my core.
Keep Encouraging Them
As a squadron commander, I wanted to devote most of my time on developing and growing the people within my squadron. I encouraged personal growth and did my best to help people work towards their dreams and goals. If there were barriers I could remove, I would remove them. If there was a door I could open, I opened it. And if people needed an extra push to get to where they needed to be, I pushed them.
Therefore, I was right there with them, watching and helping as they worked toward their goals. I knew how hard they worked, which made it that much more difficult when I had to tell them they weren't selected. I hated to see people get disappointed and didn't like that they thought their hopes and dreams were slipping through their fingers.
It was stressful, but I did my best to keep them in the game. I looked for ways to keep them motivated. With some people, I encouraged them to keep trying and offered solutions to improve their chances next time. With others, I reminded them of the obstacles they overcame to get to where they were.
My Advice for Leaders
If you're afraid to be criticized for your decisions, make sure your decisions are based in your values.
If you're afraid to make the wrong decisions, make sure you're consulting your advisors.
If you're afraid of what people might think of you, first learn to be comfortable with who you are.
Don't pretend you know everything and be willing to admit that you don't.
Don't try to be someone you're not, because you won't be able to keep up the façade.
Don't think you have to do it alone, because you aren't alone.
Welcome feedback, no matter how difficult it will be to hear. You can't get better if you don't know what to fix.
Always deliver bad news in person. Don't let them find out from a coworker, the rumor mill or social media. Be sensitive to how they might feel and be empathetic to their disappointment.
Delivering Bad News is Always Hard to Do
The most difficult part of being a squadron commander for me is not the tough decisions, getting criticized or disciplinary actions. It's having to deliver bad news to great people who have worked incredibly hard. But you know what? This isn't unique to being a squadron commander. Any leader who cares would find this to be just as difficult to do.
Comment below: What do you think is the most challenging part of being a leader?