“Winning Through Culture: How Air Force Squadron Commanders Can Set the Conditions That Drive Innovation and Success”
John “Lobo” Echols and Matt “Poker” Getty
May 2018, 166 pages

“It’s been said that people only remember two types squadron commanders, the best they ever had, and the worst. Our charge to you is: be the best. Be remembered as a commander whose bold leadership changed lives and inspired greatness. As squadron commanders we are entrusted with our Air Force’s most valuable assets – America’s sons and daughters. If that isn’t enough intrinsic motivation, this job isn’t for you.”

For the first time here on the blog, I’ll be sharing about an academic paper rather than a book!

I’ll be the first to admit that oftentimes Air Force academic writing is a bit… dry. While they may have good content, some papers are difficult to get through. I’m happy to say this is not one of those, so stick with me!

Winning Through Culture: How Air Force Squadron Commanders Can Set the Conditions That Drive Innovation and Success” was written by two former squadron commanders. I got the chance to talk to Lt Col Getty on the phone a bit about their thoughts in writing the paper. He confirmed that their goal was to provide current and future squadron commanders with practical leadership guidance they gleaned from their studies and their personal experiences in the role. They intentionally made it accessible and easy to read, and that’s the thing I loved most about the paper!

Echols and Getty cover how to build effective, innovative squadron culture by breaking it down into its foundational elements. They start with how a squadron’s culture begins with its commander, and then they expound on how to facilitate and practically apply skills and ideas to a squadron to make it its most effective.

“Given that innovation is required for the Air Force to succeed in a future characterized by increasing competition and complexity, and given that squadrons are the organizations that determine our success or failure, what can squadron commanders do to drive the innovation required for success?”

The paper is about 150 pages (plus appendices and notes). Another great thing about it is that they’ve read and studied books we’ve all heard of like Team of Teams and Leaders Eat Last. They condensed and synthesized them then applied the concepts to an Air Force setting FOR YOU.

There is a lot of good, pragmatic information. The authors make it easily digestible and applicable by sharing anecdotes and even examples of documents they created and used during their own times as squadron commanders in the appendices.

Although some of you may be in career fields where becoming a squadron commander is not a normal experience (wooo, Wing Staff!), the leadership principles in the paper are still helpful and applicable to smaller units. I’ve also found it valuable insight as a staff officer into how the squadron commanders I work with think and what they may be concerned about. This will help me better support them in my Public Affairs work.

Quotes from the paper:

“Take risks consistent with your values that will benefit your people and your mission, rather than choosing the easy option that minimizes your personal risk… If you are taking risks for the right reasons, not only will your bold actions solidify your squadron’s values, they will foster a deep sense of trust and dedication to you and your mission by those affected by your decisions.”

“Leaders set the culture, culture influences human behaviors, behaviors drive organization’s success or failure.”

“[W]e hope to convince you that Winning Through Culture is not limited to a specific Air Force Specialty Code or certain type of squadron. The power of culture can be leveraged by virtually any organization that seeks constant improvement, wishes to be more adaptable to change, and wants to drive innovative solutions to complex problems. In summary, we believe a Winning Culture is the vehicle to your organization’s success…and it all starts with you.”

“By asking yourself, ‘Does this directive match my organization’s values, foster mutual trust, protect my personnel and aid in mission accomplishment?’ you can make better, smarter decisions.”

“If a squadron is not built on shared values, or if those values become fractured over time, mutual trust will begin to crumble and along with it your squadron’s culture. Unfortunately, however, we as leaders sometimes overlook these realities and instead dive headfirst into the more familiar aspects of command like mission and vision. Understanding what makes humans tick and how shaping an organization’s culture by beginning with values can influence human behavior is taking squadron command and mission accomplishment to the next level.”

You can access the paper here, and I’d love to hear your thoughts after you read it! What principles in the paper did you find most intriguing? Do you have any personal experiences that correlate to their points?