Leadership, emotional engagement form missing link

  • Published
  • By Dr. Tom Tirey, Violence Prevention Integrator
  • 88th Air Base Wing

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – Air Force leadership resilience skills and behavior efforts are having a positive effect on stemming the tide of suicides and strengthening resiliency among Airmen and the “Total Force.” However, some commands are still experiencing high numbers of suicide ideation and deaths.

Available data also suggests that, although many leaders exhibit resiliency skills and behaviors, some do not. Furthermore, the data indicates this subset of leaders may not have the skill sets or motivation to engage with their Airmen emotionally and facilitate their resilience.

This suggests that at least part of the reason current Air Force resiliency efforts have not been successful is a lack of emotional engagement among some Air Force leaders. It’s what may be the missing link.

Emotional engagement is defined as leaders who have both the skill sets and motivation to emotionally engage with their subordinates and create environments where resilience challenges can be shared and addressed. To address this skills-and-behavior gap, the Air Force has several efforts underway to address emotional engagement and leadership.

The first is an attempt by Air University Leadership Institute to create or modify a curriculum to address empathy and then make it available to integrate into professional military or continuing education courses. This course will potentially aid in increasing empathy (a key component of emotional engagement) across the force and especially if integrated into officer PME programs.

The Air Force has also developed a set of foundational competencies for Airmen through Air Education and Training Command’s Force Development initiative, a “holistic, learner-centered approach that deliberately connects our Airmen’s training, education and experiences throughout their careers to develop the Airmen we need to succeed in complex, multidomain operational environments,” according to its mission and strategy.

In addition, the Air Force announced a set of 10 leadership qualities that will be integrated into Airman Comprehensive Assessment feedback forms and ultimately evaluation systems for officers (second lieutenant through colonel) and senior NCOs (master sergeant through chief master sergeant). These largely match up with the foundational competencies and may provide an incentive for Airmen to improve themselves.

Another promising avenue of increasing emotional engagement is the Leader Development Course taught at Air University’s Commander Professional Development School. The course’s objective is to “improve leader development of officers, civilians and enlisted approaching command team selection to sharpen and focus human-domain leadership skills to achieve mission success through high-performing teams.”

Obviously, the Air Force will not be able to solve its emotional-engagement problems overnight. However, this does not mean the challenges are impossible to overcome. Leadership will need to seek opportunities for self-improvement.

First, leaders must themselves be resilient to encourage resilience in their subordinates. Second, they must possess self-awareness of their own emotions and the skill sets to manage and influence subordinate emotions. Third is leadership styles matter and create environments that are more or less conducive to subordinate resilience.

These trends led to the concept of leader emotional engagement as the missing link for Airman resiliency.

Air Force leaders must not forget their outsized role in the Air Force’s organizational culture. The challenges above will not be overcome without the efforts of leaders to embed them into the Air Force’s culture.

By modeling the skills and behaviors that promote resilience, today’s leaders will show the way for tomorrow’s leaders. It has happened before and the Air Force culture continued to evolve in the years since.

Evidence suggests a majority of Air Force leaders are modeling the appropriate skills and behaviors. One can hope it may even be enough to inspire the modern-day Capt. Ron Keys who populates Air Force Reddit to one day come out of the shadows and believe, “If you’re better to your Airmen, you’ll have better Airmen.”