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Realignment - Considering Culture, Values and Relationships to End the Air Force Suicide Crisis

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Daniel Hulter
  • Sixteenth Air Force
In the year 2019, the U.S Air Force reached an unprecedented rate of suicide, and our leaders were at a loss. Many took on a puzzled, somber tone in addresses to Airmen, often asking for insights, repeating over and over that they were listening, unsure how to take on this unrelenting, invisible adversary that continues to take our brothers and sisters from us. In August of 2019, I watched as Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General David L. Goldfein, stood in front of hundreds of Airmen at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam with little more to say than “We don’t know why this is happening, but we are listening." I couldn’t help but wonder how a force with him and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright at the front, both vocal proponents of human-centered and connected leadership, could struggle to hear what it is our Airmen need.
I see similarities between this conundrum and the push in recent years for the Air Force to adopt a “culture of innovation." Here also, our highest-level leaders demonstrate a firm grasp on the value of a new, inclusive approach- calling on leaders to temper their risk-aversion and deconstruct barriers to divergence so that new ideas can emerge. Yet, the reality for Airmen on the ground often doesn’t reflect the proposed cultural shift. Mere insistence from the top appears to be powerless in the face of ingrained culture.
It is remarkable how senior leaders can insist on a new approach, yet it doesn’t do anything to change leadership habits on the ground. The truth is that leaders throughout our institution are aligned to a set of values with far greater influence than any senior leader. To solve this, we need to realign ourselves to new values, and that will take a lot more than mere commands from the top.
Our current leadership values are the product of a persistent industrial-age management mindset, in which individuals are mere complicated components whose productivity and efficiency should be optimized. This approach aims to calibrate parameters for maximum output. Motivation is simply the product of proper doses of punishment and reward. Managers are like chemists, adjusting doses of praise and punishment to a prescribed balance. That approach succeeded in a manufacturing-heavy world, where most work was the repetition of uniform tasks, at the quickest rate possible, with the least variance and error. But that is far from the world we live in today, where most work is knowledge work, and increasing complexity requires a new degree of autonomy, adaptability, and agility.
The Power of Relationships
Chris Fussell and General Stanley McChrystal know what it takes to successfully navigate the complex human domain. In their books One Mission and Team of Teams, they describe how a cumbersome, hierarchical command structure rendered U.S. forces in their Joint Task Force helpless against an agile, decentralized, and ideologically aligned enemy network in the early years of the Iraq War. This prompted them to undergo a complete organizational transformation. In One Mission, Fussell provides a clear prescription for any organization to transform into an agile team-of-teams, prepared to take on the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment that we now face. Here, I found insights that I believe the Air Force could take to the fight to keep our Airmen alive.
General McChrystal had an equation that he repeated often as the basis for the Joint Task Force’s realignment:
Credibility = Proven Competence + Integrity + Relationships
Relationships are an integral part of becoming an agile organization. In One Mission, Fussell describes how relationships serve to shorten the distance between information and action by creating a network of “dotted-line” connections that aren’t stifled by the inherent friction and latency of our bottlenecked official, hierarchical chains of communication.
Creating an agile team-of-teams requires:
1. Orienting around an aligning narrative.
2. Adopting conditions, habits, and systems which cultivate relational, dotted-line connections that span boundaries and connect silos.
3. Granting decision-space to leaders at the lowest levels.
The Air Force Aligning Narrative
The Air Force core values:
Integrity First
Service Before Self
Excellence in All We Do
These tenets constitute the Air Force‘s aligning narrative-- the set-in-stone principles that will guide us, regardless of what Air Force leaders attempt to advocate. It is significant that our core values only mention the individual to imply that they are less important than the mission.
Core values are far more important than many of us realize. They are a powerful instrument to grant decisive autonomy to leaders at lower levels, because they place guard-rails that define boundaries within which a leader’s actions are preemptively sanctioned. Values-based execution empowers leaders and individuals across an organization to step outside standard practice when values are being threatened.
In the case of “service before self," what we’ve sanctioned is the unimportance of people relative to the function that they serve. Though intended to be in praise of sacrifice, in practice the value of individuals’ experience is diminished. A degraded view of the individual has found its way into our aligning narrative. Though this may be a perversion of what “service before self” was intended to mean, the real power of core values lies in their clarifying simplicity, in their capacity to provide unambiguous guidance in uncertainty. If historical background and caveats are required to understand it, a value will not serve its aligning function well.
Throughout my career, I have seen the core value of “Service Before Self” employed casually as a bludgeon by NCOs, to justify the needless suffering of their charges, to dismiss objections to the sacrifices demanded of families, and to excuse their own tendencies for toxic, reactive, punishment-first, norm-enforcing management. Many leaders exercise their autonomy through negligence and cruelty, feeling perfectly aligned to our core values.
Making matters worse, we still intentionally train our leaders to view people as components of systems of systems. We fail to teach the leadership competencies required to navigate the more complex domain of human beings. This isn’t a mere misunderstanding of one of our core values. It is something we intentionally instill in our leadership corps, beginning with how they themselves were treated as young Airmen. An unchecked demand for sacrifice at the expense of the individual is a core component of our culture.
The human social environment is highly complex–the complexity of social dynamics compounded by that of each person’s internal state. Within that environment there is significant noise, so it takes a type of ‘weak-signal detection’ to know when a person near us is spiraling into a quiet, internal crisis. That detection is not just a skill. It is a function of the distance between us and the amplitude of the suffering individual’s signals. To draw any closer than arms-length, to express vulnerability over the cacophony of our noisy environment, to move against all of the cultural friction that holds us back, a suffering Airman has to feel they are safe. But Air Force leaders are often kept at a distance. Many are not trusted, because they explicitly value the individual’s function over feelings, in concert with the language of their core values. Many Airmen simply do not feel safe.
“If we want people to fully show up, to bring their whole selves including their unarmored, whole hearts—so that we can innovate, solve problems, and serve people—we have to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard, and respected.”
― Brené Brown
The human-centered leader, in contrast, exercises autonomy on behalf of the individual. They foster an environment in which distress can be detected and responded to. They actively engage with their charges to build trust and detect anguish, to sense out the need to adapt their approach to what will empower the individual to contribute. They value, above all else, the well-being of every individual in their charge.
“Probably the most important thing you can do to build trust is to spend a little time alone with each of your direct reports on a regular basis.”
― Kim Malone Scott, Radical Candor
Every one of us plays a part in rolling this massive boulder of culture forward. We must personally and institutionally embrace and internalize the value of our people without pitting their well-being against mission accomplishment. Until we recognize, communicate, and consistently demonstrate putting people first, we will continue to fail to create the sense of safety that they need to allow us to know what they need. It takes a different kind of bravery to remain unmoved by how a person’s struggle may be impeding our mission.
Even beyond the recent scourge of suicides, our lack of alignment with human-centered values holds further consequences. Relationship-driven, human-centered values play a pivotal role in making our organization agile, adaptive, innovative, responsive, and resilient, as General McChrystal did with the Joint Task Force. The culture that facilitates openness, candor, psychological safety, and positive divergence pays dividends not just for individual well-being, but for advancement and innovation as well. Human-centered leadership is how we move the mission forward.

We, as a culture, have drifted drastically off course. We have contracted a cultural malady that confounds our best efforts to detect it. It pulls us apart and isolates us. It saps our creativity and inhibits innovation. It strips us of our sense of safety and belonging, and leaves in its wake a devastating chain of deaths.


It is time to realign to better values. We must create a culture propelled by the power of relationships, in which leaders value the 'self' of their charges more than merely their 'service'. This is how we will lay the groundwork for an Air Force that allows, enables, and empowers Airmen to escape their isolation, to admit their pain, and to brave the vulnerability of expressing their experience.


Until our Airmen feel safe enough to speak, no amount of listening will let us know what they need.