Creating a resilient Air Force through adaptability, self reflection and empathy

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Charles Rice, 426th Air Base Squadron commander

For the lives of our service members and families, stress is potentially at an all-time high. It is more than relevant to re-address aspects of resiliency and leadership (at all levels) as our words and actions have an impact, often more then we will see…unless we are really paying attention. Good leaders empower others and instill a sense of self-worth and belief they can accomplish goals. They do this by being adaptive, self-reflective, and empathetic.

A story: Cadet Smith had a strong desire for something greater in life, wanted to serve, and wanted to belong to a cohesive family. Joining the AFROTC program to commission was a symbol of success, a path to something greater. Not just a career, but a way of life. She worked diligently in her academics, and in her training. When a senior cadet approached her to take corrective actions towards mistakes she was making in her drill, Cadet Smith was asked “Why can’t you figure this out,” and “I don’t want to tell you again,” and even worse, “What is wrong with you, why can’t you get it right!” What the senior cadet did not know, even though the intention was to improve the junior cadet, was that Cadet Smith immediately recalled nearly 19 years of being asked, “What is wrong with you” by her abrasive father. During PT when she struggled and nearly fainted, and was instructed to perform alternate, and somewhat humiliating, exercises she recalled earlier that morning when her mother performed the daily weight check to ensure her 19 year old daughter was not over 99 pounds. If she was, there was discipline administered and nutrition withheld.

The sense of self-worth required to be an effective leader or follower was ultimately being destroyed with the intent of establishing a greater capability, two opposing forces, contrary to either goal.



Adaptability is often viewed from aspects of mission accomplishment, essentially focused on the functions our force provides; however, I would argue that it is more critical for leaders to be adaptive to their workforce. I am not referencing simply “knowing your people,” but also knowing how they think, and why they believe or behave the way they do. Far too often, our own human nature tells us to accomplish tasks in conjunction with our own beliefs or understanding. Adaptive leadership can often require a change of self and a clear understanding of how we may stand in our own way. I can point out several examples throughout my career where I have seen this mistake, from the most junior to the most senior leaders. A Commander who tasks a product with the end in mind that is uncommunicated to the workforce, then the workforce is reprimanded when the outcome falls short. Or a subordinate who is told they are not performing well, but have not been empowered to do so. Understanding the problem set requires a focus on the end objective. As I often state, it is not who is right, it is about getting to right…as a team…with each member contributing to the whole as a critical piece to the solution. Today, we may experience stress in nearly every area of our lives, from COVID restrictions, to illness in loved ones and a feeling of disconnect. Also, internal struggles within our own country and families from extremism to racial disparity and economic factors to what a positive outcome looks like in the many regions of the world where we are stationed. Understanding the problem set requires understanding the nuances that affect the Air Force family, and the individuality that is required to complete the picture.


Adaptive leadership requires two primary factors, understanding the full spectrum of the problem set, and understanding their position within that problem set. I think the area where most of us fail is understanding our own intent and communicating that correctly.  In the story of Cadet Smith, the senior cadet was prideful of her capability and knowledge, and seeking validation placed an expectation on a junior cadet who had not had the opportunity to achieve that level of knowledge. With a little self-reflection, the senior cadet may have understood that she was projecting something unintended and communicating the intent of self-validation versus achievement of empowering the more junior cadet with capability.


The empathetic leader will not only understand the thoughts and feelings of those around them, but will also become a part of it. If the leader genuinely cares about the individual, then simply alleviating any problems in order to achieve the task or provide a solution to the problem set will not be enough. One area that I believe is often overlooked is that a junior Airmen entering the workforce has had 18+ years of development, perceptions, subconscious factors from childhood, and experiences outside of a professional environment that shaped their understanding of situations and other human beings. In reality, even if one retires on the day they hit 20 years that is still half of their life outside of the work force. This is where one bad experience can have a lasting effect.


I am reminded today while watching email traffic flow (nearly 15 years in the future from Cadet Smith’s story, and prior to the resiliency program) that the way in which we communicate can have a lasting effect on our Airmen’s lives. We still make these mistakes. Dignity, respect, inclusion, and resiliency are inter-connected. During this pandemic, with displaced personnel working from home, communication becomes even more relevant as there are fewer opportunities to correct our mistakes. We often rely on electronic communication, which can create a significant barrier in communicating effectively.

We have come far in our Air Force, yet we still face challenges that require our attention. We cannot establish a resilient force, enhance our mission capability, or create a cohesive environment unless we take the time to be adaptive, self-reflective, and empathetic, and simply pay attention.