Our naval strike-fighter (F/A-18) community is confronted with sinking morale and reduced retention among its junior officer (JO) aviators.1 With the loss of these JOs, we lose the millions of dollars invested in their training and their operational and combat experience. Their departures also reduce the pool of qualified aviators from which we will select the next generation of strike-fighter leaders. If not corrected, the loss of these JOs (some of our best and brightest) will degrade the standard of tactical and professional excellence we have come to expect within our community.
This article started with some notes scribbled on the back of a napkin from strike-fighter aviation’s finest O’club on the high desert of Nevada. During a recent visit to Naval Air Station Fallon I encountered a JO pilot in the club who asked me a simple question, “Why did you stay in?” After some thought, I realized my primary reason had surprisingly little to do with flight hours, duty stations, bonuses, or shiny new jets. Rather, what came to mind was simply a list of call signs of all the leaders and mentors who throughout my career had influenced me professionally and personally. Some of them have been so influential in my life that it was difficult to talk about them without welling up a little. Those leaders were why I stayed in.
The epiphany I had was that although operational tempo and fiscal constraints ebbed and flowed throughout my career, some squadrons managed to retain significantly more JOs than others under the same circumstances. Ultimately, squadrons with better “command cultures” retained more JOs. In strike-fighter aviation a portion of this culture specific to the ready room is something our community calls “fighter spirit.” Fighter spirit is a combination of tactical and professional excellence, a profound sense of team, and a culture that promotes critical self-assessments.ses
Great leaders foster and encourage fighter spirit in their aviators. This article attempts to quantify the qualities of our community’s best leaders. Armed with this knowledge, squadron leaders will be better equipped to boost JO morale and retention in their squadrons and, more important, help preserve the strike-fighter community’s top warfighting asset, our people.
Junior officer morale and retention issues are the consequence of three interrelated factors. First, JO morale is low because current job satisfaction is low. Second, JO retention is poor because many officers do not aspire to assume their bosses’ jobs down the road. Third, poor morale and retention are exacerbated by a breakdown in trust within some squadrons and the greater strike-fighter community.
The principal influence on strike-fighter JO job satisfaction is squadron leaders—i.e., the training officer (TO), department heads (DHs), executive officer (XO), and commanding officer (CO). While senior leaders above the squadron level (O-6s and above) can address contributing factors such as benefits, policy, operational tempo, and treatment of squadron leaders, their direct impact on JOs is limited. Ultimately, morale and retention problems must be solved in the squadron. Like politics, most JO problems are “local.”
The first order of business when addressing these matters is to ensure we are creating and maintaining an environment of mutual trust within the chain of command, both tactically and professionally. Once trust is achieved, JO job satisfaction and morale will be high when their work offers them three elements: challenge, autonomy, and reward.
Busting the Millennial Myth
There are those who argue that the generational culture of our JOs, the so-called Millennial generation, makes them more difficult to lead.2 Some studies contend that Millennials have a deep-rooted desire for frequent recognition, are technology dependent, and demand a better balance between work and recreation.3 Ironically, many of those critiques were leveled at Generation X, the generation tasked with leading Millennial aviators in squadrons today. Whether cultural generalizations reveal underlying truths or not, they offer little utility in developing interpersonal relations. Until we get a monolithic group of “Stormtroopers” to replace our squadron JOs, strike-fighter ready rooms will continue to be filled with a diverse and unique conglomeration of individuals, all of whom may need to be led slightly differently.
If there is a generalization to be made about strike-fighter junior officers, perhaps the more useful one is that they are all young and lack operational experience. Lest we forget, when most JOs check into their first squadrons, they possess little military experience outside that gained from their commissioning sources and their approximately three years of flight training. Although they bring talent, most have little knowledge of how an operational squadron should be run, what their jobs entail, what is important, and how to balance the flying and non-flying portions of their jobs. As a result, their impressions of the command, as well as the strike-fighter community, will be developed by what they witness in their squadrons in the air and on the ground.
Steve Covey, noted businessman and author, analyzed the effects of what he called the “trust tax” on organizations.4 He observed that the level of trust in an organization is proportional to its success. This premise holds true in a strike-fighter squadron as well as in our community as a whole. In addition, creating and maintaining a high level of trust within squadrons positively correlates with increased JO morale and retention. To build and maintain trust in a unit, squadron leaders must foster a command environment that promotes what I refer to as the Five Cs:
1. Caring about subordinates as well as the mission.
2. Communication: effective, efficient, and two-way.
3. ompetence: both tactically and professionally, at a level commensurate with rank.
5. Cannot fake #1.
Caring: In a professional squadron environment, caring for JOs is demonstrated through mentorship. While we talk a lot about mentoring our JOs, too often there is a difference between what we say and what we do. This say-do gap inevitably erodes organizational trust among our JOs. There usually is little doubt JOs understand we care about their tactical development because our actions and words are in sync. Competent senior flight leaders mentor junior officers each time they debrief a tactical evolution. Over the course of a JO’s three-year tour, this equates to hundreds of debriefs, most lasting an hour or two.
When it comes to mentoring junior officers about non-flying duties and their careers, JOs and leaders may have only a handful of substantial interactions per year. In the tactical realm, mentorship improves the junior officers’ abilities to plan, brief, fly, fight, debrief, and ultimately achieve their mission objectives. Comparable benefits will occur in JOs’ non-flying skills when leaders make similar efforts to improve their performance. Whether these interactions are formal or informal is not important. What is critical is ensuring that regular mentoring between JOs and their leadership is happening. Increased mentorship will improve understanding, performance, and trust within the command.
Communication: Effective communication enables the command to synchronize its efforts to achieve a common goal, enhancing unit efficiency and effectiveness. Squadron leaders should deliver clear, concise, and tailored communications to their junior officers. The leaders’ directions, whether written or spoken, always should assign responsibilities, convey goals, manage expectations, and set timelines. Leaders should view their communications much as they would a legal contract. When a contract is clearly and concisely written, it is easy to understand, follow, and accept the consequences of actions resulting from it. When it is written poorly, the opposite is true. Sun Tzu said it best, “If the words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood then the general is to blame.”5
There is another part of communication that too many leaders often forget: to listen. As a former command master chief whom I respect used to say, “God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason, now use ’em!” Leaders must facilitate two-way communications in the chain of command, with the appropriate military decorum of course. When leaders knock down barriers to two-way communication, leaders and subordinates gain a better understanding of the other’s perspectives. For JOs, good two-way communication will help them better understand the decisions made by squadron leaders. They also will gain faith that their concerns are being taken into consideration. This understanding promotes buy-in even for decisions with which JOs disagree, thereby enhancing organizational trust.
Competence: Hard work and competence must be paired together to convert goals into reality. Laziness breeds mistrust; so does incompetence. Many factors contribute to one’s competence, such as talent, hard work, and training. F/A-18 aviators must have competence both in the jet and on the ground, with an aptitude commensurate with their rank and experience. Obviously more is expected of senior aviators as they have greater responsibilities, both tactically and professionally. Leaders who are not competent in a portion of their jobs will not have credibility among their JOs in that area, partially degrading organizational trust.
Nowhere is incompetence harder to hide than in the cockpit of an F/A-18. Unfortunately, an increasingly common area where XOs and COs struggle to perform at a level appropriate with their experience is in advanced tactics. This situation occurs in part because many strike-fighter aviators spend two to four years out of the cockpit after their department head tour. Because of this, our community leaders should reevaluate the timing of this large break in most F/A-18 aviators’ flying careers. Perhaps non-flying tours of these lengths are better placed after squadron command.
Character: Personal and professional integrity defines character that is the very foundation of organizational and interpersonal trust. Character is a combination of words and actions, but actions always trump words. Character is embodied in our service values of honor, courage, and commitment, as well as in the “Golden Rule” (to treat others as you would wish to be treated). However, imposing personal values beyond those advocated by the Navy may degrade trust instead of fostering it. Leaders must not only espouse Navy values but also hold all accountable to them, as “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” (Lieutenant General David Morrison, Australian Army).6
Creating Professional Motivation
Dissatisfaction results when one’s reality does not meet one’s expectations. The more expectations that are not met, the greater one’s dissatisfaction. Although strike-fighter junior officers, like all military members, knowingly cede control over their personal lives, they seek careers that present them with opportunities to excel. They desire a profession that will be challenging; allow them to perform their jobs with autonomy; and reward them fairly for their efforts. These three elements are inextricably linked.
Challenge: Strike-fighter aviators’ greatest professional fulfillment occurs when they complete difficult tasks requiring them to use their intelligence, initiative, creativity, time, and work ethic. There is little doubt that the tactical side of the F/A-18 JO aviator’s job provides high levels of challenge that results in high job satisfaction. For example, it takes F/A-18 aircrew 12-14 years of tactical training and experience to achieve their final community qualification: designation as “Strike Leads.” Even after this qualification is met, the evolving threats, hardware, tactics, and sheer difficulty of aircraft carrier-related flight operations will continue to present a constant challenge to even the most seasoned aircrew.
Aviators’ non-flying duties can offer gratification as well, but only if leaders promote an environment in which junior officers can apply their intellect, resourcefulness, and personal creativity in their work. Squadron leaders can stifle these traits in their JOs if they micromanage. Leaders who tend toward micromanagement do so in an effort to mitigate risk; however, we must assume risk to train our JOs. Micromanagement reduces the challenge of assigned tasks and stifles a JO’s professional growth.
Autonomy: In a squadron ready room, autonomy refers to the opportunity for JOs to choose how best to achieve their assigned tasks within the guidelines presented by squadron leaders. This independence facilitates motivation, which encourages greater ownership in a task, enhances the sense of responsibility, and, in turn, generates further motivation.
Autonomy is inherent in the tactical portion of aviators’ jobs. When aircrew are told to accomplish a mission objective, they are not told how to achieve it. Rather they are given clear guidelines, assets, and the acceptable levels of risk for their mission. With this guidance, aircrew plan and execute, then are evaluated on the results of their work. Even junior aviators are granted a significant level of autonomy. From the first day these JOs join their squadrons, they sign for the jet, assuming responsibility to safely launch and recover that aircraft by themselves. This level of autonomy can be less prevalent in non-flying tasks.
When supervising JOs, we need to “trust but verify,” rather than micromanage. The difference is telling a JO what to do, not how to do it. Of course, when a JO is learning a new skill set, leaders may have to suggest “how” to accomplish a task simply because of a subordinate’s lack of experience.
There is a growing perception that the command authority within the greater strike-fighter community is eroding. This is of significant concern not only to squadron COs but also to those JOs who are evaluating whether to stay in the Navy. If JOs sense that their CO, XO, or DHs are being micromanaged, they will not see these leadership positions as rewarding, and many will opt out of the Navy. Clearly our senior community managers deal with immense pressures, ranging from balancing resources, budget cuts, and external stressors from civilian leaders, to intense and ever-changing operational environments. Still, they must resist the temptation to degrade squadron COs’ autonomy, ranging from administering nonjudicial punishment to managing the unit’s aircraft, flight schedule, or personnel. If strike-fighter command authority is deteriorating or, as some argue, continues to deteriorate, JO retention will be adversely affected.
Reward: Unlike in the corporate sector, where management can reward personnel with bonuses or other items of monetary value, squadron leaders have fewer tools to reward superior performance. That said, the effect of recognition on personnel should not be underestimated. People are social by nature, and recognition by others is powerful influence on their behaviors, regardless of age, rank, or position.7 In addition to increasing job satisfaction and morale, recognition also reinforces desired organizational behaviors. For recognition to work, it must adhere to three rules:
1. The credit is proportional to the deed.
2. The individual recognized is responsible for the act.
3. All who perform similarly receive similar rewards.
When leaders recognize a person for outstanding performances, they reinforce the behavior of not only that individual but also the whole command. If an awardee is undeserving, however, the leaders’ credibility is damaged and organizational trust is adversely affected.
Recognition also can be negative. Still, the same three rules apply. Negative recognition, if administered correctly, should lead to growth for the unit as well as the person or group it targets. Throughout my career I have had the “opportunity” to receive this type of recognition on multiple occasions. One such time was when I had violated (quite egregiously) a tactical training rule that affected the safe execution of a strike group exercise. After landing from this high-visibility incident, my commanding officer—surprisingly—simply talked to me and assigned me a project instead of launching into the verbal tirade I had been expecting. Rather than grounding me or assigning extra unrelated duties, he had me brief the squadron on how I made my error, and how I, as well as they, could prevent similar errors in the future. This task provided me the opportunity for redemption, demonstrated my CO’s continued confidence in my abilities, gave ownership to me to fix a potential problem within our squadron, and ultimately made the squadron better.
Coincidentally, during the same exercise, another squadron had a similar issue. That unit’s CO chose to reprimand the offending aircrew publicly and implement new squadron-wide limitations on training. Those limitations would remain in effect until the CO had regained confidence in their abilities. Needless to say, this CO’s method for dealing with the problem had a very different outcome in his ready room. The JOs were demoralized and divided, and the offending aircrew was given no opportunity for redemption.
It is easy to relate to the CO in the latter case, especially considering the pressures on him. However, when negative recognition punishes instead of teaching, or embarrasses instead of offering opportunities for redemption, it probably should not be implemented. Unfortunately, there seems to be a growing tendency for leaders at all levels to hold the masses accountable for the misdeeds of the few. If a group is to be held liable for the mistakes of an individual, this expectation needs to be clearly communicated to the group beforehand, and the group must also have an ability to affect the actions of the outlier.
“Reward” has maximum effectiveness when coupled with an explanation of how the award was achieved, regardless of award type (medal, ribbon, honor, qualifications, etc.). The more personal the recognition, the more meaningful it will be to the recipient as well as the command, as this instills faith that hard work does not go unnoticed and is appreciated when done well.
If JOs observe rewards handed out in violation of one or more of the three rules, future rewards will lose significance, which will adversely affect the unit’s trust in the process. For example, if a poorly performing JO receives the same reward as a top-performing JO, the whole squadron’s morale will be degraded. Likewise, if JOs observe violations in these rules for reward within the strike-fighter community, their desire to stay in the Navy will be lessened.
Leading Our Future Leaders
Strike-fighter junior officers want to be part of a winning organization that offers challenge, autonomy, and reward and maintains its operational focus. They desire, as we all do, to work within a high-trust organization. To retain our best, we need to give them the opportunity to achieve great things as a team and as individuals, through their hard work. As a community, this requires us to focus on tactical and professional excellence. As leaders, we must know our jobs, know our people, and care about both.
2. Philip Bump, “Here Is When Each Generation Begins and Ends, According to the Facts,” The Atlantic, 25 March 2014, Generation By Birth (Chart), www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/03/here-is-when-each-generation-begins-and-ends-according-to-facts/359589/.
3. Snodgrass et al, ““Results of 2014 Survey.”
4. Stephen M. R. Covey and Rebecca R. Merrill, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything (New York: Free Press, 2006), 58-73.
5. Lionel Giles, “The Art of War: Introduction: Sun Wu and His Book,” www.sacred-texts.com/tao/aow/aow03.htm.
6. Philip Darbyshire, “Army Chief Deserves Acclaim,” The Australian: National Affairs, 25 June 2013, www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/opinion/army-chief-deserves-acclaim/story-e6frgd0x-1226669007789.
7. Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), 35-47.