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Develop Resilient Leaders

  • Published
  • By Commander’s Action Group
  • Citizen Airman Magazine

Developing resilient leaders can be complex. There is not a single solution or program that can mass produce the caliber of leaders we need to win in a competitive environment.
Chief Master Sgt. Timothy White, Command Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Reserve Command

Developing Resilient Leaders requires us to deliberately develop strong, adaptable and confident Reserve Citizen Airmen who can build trust within their units.

Resilient leaders are required at every level of every unit to lead teams independently and take smart risks to generate combat power. This priority aligns with the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s action order which acknowledges the need for Airmen to make decisions at the lowest levels as “critical so we can execute the mission even if the guidance is unclear or our ability to communicate is disrupted in a contested environment.”

The Total Force is in the process of shifting to an Agile Combat Employment model. ACE was designed to respond to a threat environment that requires us to pivot away from large, vulnerable bases with robust support to more distributed, remote and austere locations. To sustain operations, these smaller bases will rely on significantly smaller and more independent teams of Airmen who can perform several different functions.

These teams require resilient leaders at all levels who can potentially operate remotely in austere conditions and achieve results. Developing the leaders necessary to win in contested environments requires a multipronged approach that promotes measurable effects on resilience by optimizing helping agency service delivery, and providing realistic training that enhances both technical competence and emotional intelligence.

Understanding Where We Are

Measuring resilience is complex. One of the first problems the team examined was exactly how to assess the resilience of individuals and organizations. Chaplain (Col.) Nealy Brown was ideal for this task. A professor of psychology who teaches collegiate research and statistics as a civilian, she was able to develop the Comprehensive Airman Fitness Reserve Assessment.

The CAFRA looks at Airmen’s resilience holistically, across the mental, social and spiritual domains. It relies on established assessments like the Department of Veterans Affairs Deployment Risk and Resilience Inventory, the Brief Resilience Scale and the Brief Religious Multi Measure Scale to develop an assessment model tailored to the unique challenges Reserve Citizen Airmen face.

The CAFRA has already been tested at seven units. Initial CAFRA data has the potential to help leaders at the local level allocate resources at the point of greatest need. For example, if a squadron is undergoing a particularly trying time, the CAFRA can inform helping agencies on how to focus their interventions on the unique need of a unit, such as moral injury, suicide prevention or bolstering marriages.

Optimizing Local Helping Agencies

To further streamline program delivery to better meet Reserve Citizen Airmen’s needs, the DRL team launched the Connect the Network initiative, which works at the installation level to ensure our newly resourced full-time first sergeants are the single point of contact for every helping agency and resilience program across an installation.

The DRL team is finishing the development of its Connect the Network guide, which includes information on more than 30 different helping agencies at local, state and federal levels. The guide also incorporates problem-centric metrics for childcare, healthcare, wellness, suicide prevention, legal and other issues to help first sergeants tailor responses to specific issues.

The DRL team is also working to enhance the effectiveness of helping agencies through Community Action Boards and Community Action Teams. CABs are leadership forums at the installation level that serve to resolve helping agency gaps at the local level. CATs serve as working groups for the CABs, developing and implementing Community Action Plans to address local needs.

At AFRC host installation, this starts with ensuring all helping agencies are represented on CABs to ensure installation leadership can address resilience challenges with all of the tools available. As the CAFRA gets validated, it also has the potential to be a critical input to CATs working resilience issues, allowing CATs to better tailor Community Action Plans to the specific needs of units.

Building Strategic Depth One Resilient Leader at a Time

In addition to evaluating how the Air Force Reserve delivers resilience programs to its Airmen, the DRL team is also looking at how to base resilience into scenario-based training. Part of this effort is stress inoculation. Stress inoculation works to add realism to training by putting realistic stressors, such as fear or inherited error, into training scenarios tied back to specific job qualification standard tasks without adding additional requirements. 

These training scenarios are paired with sets of observable attributes, such as emotional intelligence, communication and receptiveness to feedback. Trainers can then debrief trainees on how to better use these attributes to navigate stressful situations. Stress inoculation has already been tested at 20 organizations and is expected to debut at new installations quarterly.

While we continue to build resilience, we must also defend it. The DRL team is acutely aware of the fact that our adversaries persistently seek to undermine readiness through disinformation. Social media campaigns continue to target service members and their families. One of the first steps to countering this influence is to recognize influence operations.

To help, the DRL team has developed unclassified intelligence briefings on influence operations and videos and guides on social media safety to help Reserve Citizen Airmen protect themselves against malicious actors online as part of a larger digital force protection initiative. These products are located on the Air Force Reserve’s section of the Air Force Connect app available on smartphones.

Developing resilient leader requires us to take a holistic approach to resilience. The CAFRA will provide the ability to be more deliberate in deploying preventative measures. Connecting the Network will optimize helping agency responses for Reserve Citizen Airmen and their families. Stress inoculation will train leaders at every level in how to lead through challenges. Finally, digital force protection will work to prevent those gains from being undermined by malicious actors.

“Lt. Gen. Scobee’s emphasis on developing resilient leaders within our force has been fundamental in ensuring our Airmen are poised to face and conquer any challenge,” said Maj. Gen. Matthew Burger, AFRC deputy commander. “It is a key tenet at both the personal as well as the organizational level. The resiliency of our AFR Airmen fosters a competitive mindset that solves operational problems despite unforeseen challenges. Highly successful teams and units leverage resilient leadership every day to provide a proficient force that properly manages risk across all mission areas.

“We have demonstrated the success of this initiative as we battled a global pandemic, faced multiple natural disasters, and confronted numerous resource challenges within the command in the last 24 months. Although none of us can say for certain what obstacles we may face next, there is no doubt that resilient leadership will be critical enables to the success of our Airmen.”