The “Cultural” Path to Success

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla -- Editors note: Lt. Col. David Vardaman is an AC-130 crewmember by trade and has been serving as an action officer at Headquarters Aif Force Special Operations Command for the past two years.
Success for an organization, or an individual, does not come easily, or by accident. Success is an evolutionary process resulting from an accumulation of small steps, which over time, leads to a superior outcome. Most would agree that Air Force Special Operations Command has been a successful organization. I base this claim on two basic, yet intangible, metrics: 1) our nation's leaders continue to call upon us to execute the most difficult missions and 2) AFSOC continues to attract volunteers who want to remain as part of the "tip of the spear." With the premise that AFSOC as an organization has been successful, we must ask where we need to invest to position ourselves for continued future success. I submit the answer may very well lie in our unique "culture."

Let's briefly consider the concept of culture. Business and science author Malcolm Gladwell describes in his best-selling book, Outliers, the Story of Success, that one's culture has a profound influence on how people and organizations address challenges, interact with authority and each other, and how decisions are made. Translating this into military terms, our training and combat missions are the "challenge;" as members of the USAF and USSOCOM teams we "interact" across multiple levels; and as leaders, we make "decisions" that are in many cases influenced by risk and compressed time-lines. The culture, which so broadly affects us is akin to the soil which we grow from as well as the ground that supports us. Fertile soil produces strong plants and solid ground forms a foundation providing protection.

Throughout our Professional Military Education and training we continually emphasize leadership, and rightfully we should, but when was the last time we discussed military organizational culture? It can be difficult to pinpoint a definition of this culture, but to be brief, let's skip the definition and agree that we know it when we see it, but we may not be able to precisely put a definition on it.

So what exactly does the importance of culture mean to the broad audience of AFSOC? Again, I submit that our future success as an organization may well rest in maintaining and evolving our culture of today. Before examining how we can influence our culture, let's take a look at some factors that have changed in our environment, as well as other factors that have remained constant.

Changes -- 1) We have grown and will continue to grow. Just look at the 27th SOW and Cannon AFB to recognize the groundwork laid to accommodate this growth. 2) New mission areas such as manned and unmanned ISR weren't even on the horizon before 9/11, yet there is an insatiable appetite for them on today's battlefield. 3) We will move from conducting pockets of Aviation Foreign Internal Defense (AvFID) to conducting AvFID on an "industrial" level to build partnerships and partner nation capacity. 4) The addition of the tilt-rotor CV-22 adds the combined dimensions of speed, range and precision unlike any previous Air Force platform. 5) Lastly, no longer do we conduct operations in a "start fast and redeploy quickly" fashion; but rather we start fast and remain for sustained operations.

On the other hand, here are some AFSOC factors that remain relatively constant -- 1) We will continue to rely on a significant portion of our enlisted force as combat operators. Based on 2009 figures, roughly 22 percent of AFSOC's enlisted force are active operators in the air or on the ground. While this is common for us, our percentage is significantly greater than any other Air Force major command. This figure doesn't even include our support personnel forward deployed to locations your spell-check system wouldn't even recognize. 3) We will continue to operate under the inherently joint environment that is second nature in all SOF operations. 4) Most newcomers to AFSOC made a concerted effort to join our team. Though new to special operations forces, they are eager to learn and participate. With these elements of what has changed and what has remained constant, let's examine how we set the path for success for future generations of Air Commandos.

Gladwell's research for Outliers details three components that influence one's culture: the values of the organization, who they identify as heroes, and how they treat newcomers. Let's briefly touch on each of these in order to understand how we invest in these areas for the future.

The timeless core values of USAF and USSOCOM are solid and speak for themselves; integrity, service, excellence, courage, creativity, and competence. These air-tight values serve as excellent guideposts as to how we should conduct and model ourselves. As we welcome newcomers, we must instill our values through the examples we set.

The next component of our culture is where we would anticipate changes to occur as we evolve from one generation to the next. The year 2010 marks a unique changing of the guard regarding our heroes in two ways. Earlier this year, we lost a true hero best described as the godfather of the Air Commando, (retired) Brig. Gen. "Heinie" Aderholt. His exploits were legendary and his vision on applying specialized air power was well ahead of his time. Secondly, it has been 20 years since AFSOC was officially established as a MAJCOM. This coincides with the end of service for all but a very few of the "plank owners" who ushered in our command. Their courage, vision, ingenuity, and "can do" attitude set the foundation for where we stand today. The departure of these heroes sets the stage for the next generation of heroes, who are plentiful in numbers. Just go into any squadron and you will find them. The gunship Fire Control Officer who has deployed 18 times in support of OEF/OIF and serves as a model of stability to crewmembers both old and new; the Special Tactics Squadron Controller who coordinated nearly-simultaneous resupply and fire support missions saving the lives of his team; or the aircraft maintainer who deployed with a handful of airmen and worked magic to get another nation's aircraft in the air. While these accomplishments may seem routine by today's standards, they are significant in their effects on the battlefield and the global environment. We should not pass up the opportunity to reinforce the significance of their work and to share their stories. They are today's heroes.

Lastly, how we treat today's newcomers will have a profound impact on tomorrow's success. I view this as a reinforced continuation of what we are currently doing along two lines of operation; professional respect and caring for one another. Regarding respect, the majority of our personnel come to AFSOC from other MAJCOMs. Once trained, AFSOC personnel have the trust of their unit commanders to conduct any mission. Our operations tempo is too high for elitism or what is commonly referred to as the "A-team" versus the "B-team" within our units. This individual trust pays huge dividends as AFSOC personnel mature in their careers. We see this ever day within Headquarters AFSOC as action officers and NCOs take on large responsibilities, often well above their pay grades, not afraid to make difficult decisions and provide to-the-point recommendations to our senior leaders. This level of individual confidence is what allows AFSOC's small staff to achieve great success. In addition to respect for newcomers, and the skills they bring to the fight, we must continue to take care of one another. While this is important across the board for all our personnel, it is particularly important for our newcomers as they establish themselves within our unit support structures. AFSOC has always been a tight-knit family. By continuing to take care of one another, and our families, we will continue to be so.

Exactly what lies ahead for AFSOC remains to be seen. We are rapidly growing and evolving in an extremely dynamic environment. We can anticipate some of our future challenges while some will catch us by surprise. But rest assured, if we set the conditions for success by keeping an eye on and investing in our organizational culture, the current and future generation of Air Commandos will continue to be impressive.