"Sir, I assume command"

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Chris Stricklin
  • 49th Fighter Training Squadron commander
On June 18, four words and an exchange of salutes opened a door for me and my family which we have dreamed of our entire career. With those four words, I assumed command of the greatest squadron in the Air Force, the 49th Flying Training Squadron. 

A squadron of experienced instructors, highly motivated to develop the next generation of fighter expertise and skill. A squadron whose students crave knowledge, and experience in such a way their motivation spreads like wildfire. For this squadron, I feel a level of pride only surpassed by that for my family. It is more demanding than any task ever experienced, more challenging than ever imagined and more rewarding than ever thought feasible.

Every new commander wants to be successful, but how? There are plenty of books written on the subject but no right answer. Every situation is unique, and can change day-to-day or even hour-to-hour. So, where does a new commander begin?

Air Force Doctrine Document 1-1, Leadership and Force Development, provides key guidance to fulfilling leadership responsibilities with three simple words: "make things better." This statement is extremely simple in text, but complex in depth. "Make things better" encompasses the ultimate goal of any leader ... improvement.

First, you must focus on personal leadership. I thought after 38 years I knew myself fairly well, but quickly found there was much left to learn.

Most importantly, you must fully understand how your personal leadership style and skill impacts all aspects of the squadron around you.

The next competency of leadership is leading the people. Our Airmen are this Air Force's greatest assets. They are an all-volunteer force, ensuring freedom of this great nation. We must devote the necessary time and actions to develop them in a manner that will allow the continuous improvement of this Air Force and nation. Merely the salary each receives does not motivate our people.

The cost of military service is felt through the routine moves of our entire family from base to base, by the increasing number of deployments, time away from families, and by the in-strength reduction resulting in increased workloads and responsibilities. How do we continue to inspire these vital keys to our success? The answer is in shared vision, values and accountability.

On a personal level, we all want to feel a part of something big, to feel a direct connection to the mission accomplishment. A successful commander does not lead a squadron of compliance, but a successful squadron contains members who are engaged in the mission. We are not a 9-to-5 organization of time clock punchers. Think of the jobs and work hours you have had during your career. Some of the most rewarding for me involved higher than normal levels of work and long hours, but for this cost the intrinsic satisfaction was rewarding and left me with a positive outlook.

As Airmen, we did not join the military to merely comply with job needs; we are a culture engaged in the drive for continuous improvement every day, in everything we do. This is what motivates and rewards all of us.

When the members of the squadron talk about the squadron, which pronoun do they use, "They," "We," or "I"? "They" tells you the members are disengaged from the unit, "I" tells you they feel a high level of extrinsic motivation, and "we" tells you they feel they are part of something meaningful and the squadron is functioning as a team. This is the ultimate goal of any organization, to accomplish the mission in a way each team member feels they contribute and are vital to success, a team which is intrinsically motivated.

The final competency of leadership is leading the institution. In order to establish long-range success factors and goals designed to achieve mission and organizational advantage, we must embrace change and transformation. We must strive to "leave the campground better than we found it."

To continue development of an organization precise in method and manner, and void of dependence of a key leadership personality. If we develop an outstanding squadron which crumbles after the departure of one individual then we have failed. Failed to develop those around us and failed to ensure future progress.

On the other hand, we should not transform merely for the purpose of change. As a mentor taught me, change must improve one of four key areas to be valid: decrease time required, increase efficiency, improve structure or increase simplicity. Is your organization changing for the right reasons?

This article was meant to merely scratch the surface of squadron leadership, a view from a new commander with much remaining to learn. A reminder each airman not only is subject to command, but also helps exercise command. The Black Knights are not the product of individual work, but of the collective intellectual capital contained behind our patches.

The future is about us, the black knight team, the ops group, Team BLAZE ... and our quest to be the best in the Air Force. It is our tasking to make each other better, to strive for perfection in all we do. We must never forget mastery of any skill-set is an unattainable goal, an asymptote. We can approach it, work toward it, but never quite grasp mastery. Through the journey, we will make each other, and the Air Force, better.

Our ultimate goal remains, mission accomplishment with continuous improvement of our processes, skills and people.