In Conclusion: Reflections on Five Wonderful Years of Squadron Command
Updated: Nov 19
I recently finished my second assignment as a squadron commander. This marked the end of five consecutive years of squadron command for me: two years at Dyess Air Force Base and three years at the United States Air Force Academy.
Squadron command has been an absolute blast for me. You know how they say it doesn’t feel like work when you’re having fun? I didn’t work a single day in the past five years.
What is Squadron Command?
In a previous post, I described it to be similar to a CEO or president of a company, but with the added legal authority and responsibilities for morale, physical well-being and welfare of the people under their command.
Be the right kind of leader for the people under your command and the unit will flourish.
Be the wrong kind of leader and the unit will disintegrate. The best outcome in these situations is for a commander to be fired, but often this happens after the unit has already been stressed beyond its breaking point.
Before I took command, I heard stories of squadron commanders getting fired. All I knew from the Air Force Times was the commander was fired due to “loss of confidence” in their ability to lead. What did that even mean?
What did these people do to lose the confidence of their bosses?
I was terrified of getting fired. I wasn't the only one. Several of my peers about to step in to command expressed the same fears.
It felt like we were walking into a high-risk high-reward type of situation.
Was this really something I wanted to do?
Yes. Yes it was. I felt like I’d been preparing my entire career for this. I pushed thoughts of getting fired out of my head and prepared to take command.
Change of Command Ceremony
Here is the background for a change of command ceremony, according to just about every program book published for an Air Force change of command:
The change of command ceremony is a military tradition, deeply rooted in history, and dating back to the 18th century during the reign of Fredrick the Great of Prussia. In that period, military organizations developed flags bearing specialized colors and symbols unique to each particular organization. When soldiers followed their leaders into combat, they kept sight of these flags. If a banner still waved after the conflict, it was a sign that their side had not tasted defeat on the field of battle. To this flag and its commander, the soldiers of the unit would dedicate their loyalty and trust.
Because of its symbolic importance, when a change of command was to take place, the flag was passed to the individual assuming the command. This gesture was accomplished in front of the unit so that all could see and witness their new leader assuming their dutiful position. The commander holding the flag also held the soldier’s allegiance. This symbolic tradition has survived throughout military history.
Every ceremony generally consists of the officiator saying a few words about the outgoing commander, then a few words about the incoming commander. This is followed by a medal presentation for the outgoing commander, remarks by the outgoing commander and perhaps a final salute from the squadron. Then the actual change of command takes place where the orders are read and the flag is passed to symbolize the changing leadership of the squadron. Finally, the new commander shares remarks and gets a first salute from the squadron.
In the week leading up to my last change of command, I was an emotional wreck. I was reluctant to go even though I knew it was time to move on. I frantically ticked off a checklist of all the loose ends I wanted to wrap up before I left. I stressed about getting my family ready to move across the country. There were a lot of tearful good-byes and see-you-laters.
I spent a lot of time reflecting on my two squadrons, on their similarities and on their differences. We created a lot of memories and big moments I will cherish forever. And there were several key lessons I learned from the past five years.
A Team Follows the Lead of Its Leader
All worries of getting fired disappeared from the moment I took command. I simply didn’t have time to dwell on it. There were so many people to get to know, things to learn and projects to accomplish.
My first wing commander (my boss’s boss), Colonel Brandon Parker (now Brigadier General) informed me that within six weeks, my squadron would take on my personality. My initial thought was How could that be? Did he mean to say everyone would be quiet and introverted?
I realized soon enough what he meant. A team follows the lead of its leader. Leaders who are mission-driven will have teams that become mission-driven. Leaders who procrastinate or stress out over the smallest things will cultivate a team who does the same. And leaders who focus on developing other leaders will develop a team of leaders.
General Parker was right. I observed this phenomenon in my squadron and the squadrons throughout the base. It was incredible. My personality is what it is, but I was deliberate about the “traits” I wanted my squadron to adopt.
I wanted to pass on my leadership philosophy.
Before the first time I interviewed for squadron command, one of my mentors suggested I develop and understand my personal leadership philosophy. After much thought, I determined my philosophy would be centered around growing future leaders, empowering others and ensuring everyone took pride in what they did.
I reinforced this philosophy at each meeting and interaction I had with anyone in the squadron, not by quoting it verbatim ad nauseam, but by living it.
Show, Don’t Tell
Leading by example was something I heard a lot throughout my life. I never gave it much thought until I heard a senior Air Force officer talk about his time as an installation commander. He had started picking up trash that had blown onto the side of the road somewhere on base and thought nothing of it. He’d drive by and stop and pick up the trash and get back in his car. Others witnessed this and pretty soon, they were doing the same thing. It was never something he asked them to do.
Show, don’t tell is a technique writers keep in mind because it is a more effective way of sharing a story. This same technique can be used in leadership.
You can’t just tell people to grow others, you have to do it. You can’t just tell people to empower others, you have to do it. You can’t just tell others to take pride in their work, you have to be proud too.
At the end of the day, showing others what you’re saying is a whole lot louder than just telling them. It worked for that installation commander and it worked for me too.
It wasn’t long before I noticed people in my squadron growing the Airmen around them, empowering them to be innovative and take ownership of their programs and subsequently, taking pride in what they did.
There are No Limits to What Can be Achieved When Your Team Knows You Trust Them
A couple months ago, one of my senior non-commissioned officers thanked me for trusting his team to get through a national accreditation survey from the College of American Pathologists.
I was surprised when he said this, because of course I trusted them.
I asked him what he meant.
“Well, you never hounded us on the status of our preparations.”
They’d been working hard, basically preparing for this survey since the conclusion of the last survey two years ago. I had no doubt they would do well.
“I didn’t need regular updates. I could see how hard you were working,” I said.
“I’ve worked for people in the past who expected weekly updates,” he said, “and I just appreciate that you didn’t do that.”
“I wouldn’t even know what to do with that information," I said. "They must have been lab officers with a better understanding of this stuff than me."
He just smiled and shook his head. “No, they weren’t lab officers.”
I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong way to do this, but I will say demonstrating trust goes a long way. I had no reason not to trust the team, and this team in particular achieved a zero deficiency accreditation survey - not an easy feat.
While some leaders won’t trust until they feel one has earned it, I start by trusting. Some might think I’m foolish to do this, but I just don’t have time to wait to trust.
As a result, I found there are no limits to what people can achieve when they know you trust them.
Connect with People
Something I hadn’t put much thought to before taking command was the importance of connecting with people. But it was something I sought out to do as a leader and commander.
A large portion of my time as a leader was spent focusing on the people. It doesn't have to be loud and flashy where everyone knows you're doing things for your people. You just have to find ways to connect with people.
This is where I've seen commanders struggle. They didn't bother to take the time to connect with their people. Either they didn't know how or didn't think it was important. They believed their past experiences made them subject matter experts and that their way was the only way. Even worse was when they believed their position of leadership brought them certain entitlements and expected everyone else to bow down to them. This was the opposite of connecting with people.
It was important to me to get to know people as well as they were comfortable letting me get to know them. I wanted to understand people’s backgrounds and their personal motivations.
On the other hand, I learned it was easier to remove those barriers to connection by opening up about myself. I highlighted my human traits - the mistakes I made as a young officer and the mistakes I made as a sitting squadron commander. I talked about the challenges of raising two little boys and shared experiences from my career that made me say, "WTF?"
All of this helped me connect with people and positioned me to take care of them.
The Air Force encourages everyone to take care of people but this happens to varying degrees of success.
To truly take care of people, you have to take care of them the way they need to be taken care of. It can be difficult to identify what the need is and there are as many ways to do this as there are people.
Which leads me to another common phrase heard in the Air Force: "Take care of the people and mission will take care of itself."
With respect to the mission, we accomplished a lot. After all, five years is a long time.
But what I will remember most are the notable milestones in my Airmen’s lives:
Starting new relationships, getting married
Overcoming challenging relationships and the ends of relationships
Saying good-bye one last time to a loved one
Welcoming new babies to the world
Becoming first-time home owners
Becoming commissioned officers
Because fundamentally, every Airman is a person.
Typically the reason someone joins the Air Force is different from the reason they choose to stay. It was never far from my mind that Airmen have lives, dreams and aspirations that are separate from the Air Force. What was important to them was important to me too.
And in the End
During the change of command ceremony, my group commander, Colonel Thomas Stamp, quoted General George C. Marshall, saying “There is no limit to the good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
He used this quote to describe my leadership style, and it was one of those rare moments where I had the chance to see myself as others saw me. This quote resonated with me and I appreciated this insight from a person who I admire as a leader.
Both of my squadrons did a lot of thankless jobs. Honestly, it was the norm for us to be notified every time we fell short, and overlooked when things worked seamlessly. Yet every day, we showed up to do better than the day before.
Getting credit for what we did was not a priority.
I found ways to ensure my Airmen knew I valued what they did and continued to encourage them to take pride in what they did. And my last piece of advice to the members of my squadron was to remember the value they bring to their friends, family and squadron.
If I could be a squadron commander forever, I would. But it’s time for me to move on and let someone else take the reins.
I hope the lessons I've learned from my experience as a squadron commander helps you, whether you’re new to a leadership position or you’ve been doing it a while.