Leadership, teamwork focus of SOS training program

Members of Squadron Officer School class 09A participate in a leadership wargame-style simulation as part of their coursework Nov. 13. (Air Force photo by Melanie Rodgers)

Members of Squadron Officer School Class 09A participate in a leadership wargame-style simulation as part of their coursework Nov. 13. (Air Force photo/Melanie Rodgers)

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- As students at Air University's Squadron Officer School, captains from across the Air Force experience a unique training program.

A mix of Air Force and private sector academic expertise, the Leadership Development Simulator, or LDS, is a partnership between Squadron Officer College and Michigan State University.

The purpose of the course is to improve student leadership and teamwork skills.

Dr. John Hollenbeck, a noted expert in the field of team decision making at Michigan State, has collaborated with Air University to develop LDS.

He said the roots of the program began at Michigan State in the early 1990s and were noticed about five years ago by then Air Education and Training Command commander Gen. Don Cook, who decided to incorporate LDS into Air University's curriculum.

"We were able to take our scientific findings and wrap the SOS course around them to develop better teamwork and better leadership," Dr. Hollenbeck said.

Lt. Col. Steve Harmon, an Air Force Institute of Technology doctorate student who has been involved in the LDS program and will soon be a professor of management at the Air Force Academy, said he hopes the interaction between Air University and Michigan State University will set the tone for future collaborations.

"This is an example of how the Air Force reached out to the academic world, and both sides won," he said. "This doesn't happen very often, and it is important for people to take note of how well it can work so it can happen more often in the future."

Dr. Hollenbeck said the students first hear three lectures about LDS then go into the laboratory (simulator) to see those principles at work. He said it is a "good fit" for SOS because it also works for people who have never been exposed to an air operations center.

"The simulator is like a wargame, but students don't have to be pilots to play meaningfully in the game," he said. "One of the strengths of LDS is that it makes each person accountable for their actions. This keeps everyone involved by tracking all decisions made during the simulator and providing feedback to each participant."
Colonel Harmon said another advantage of LDS is the influence it has on Air University.

The simulator is broken into three days with each day concentrating on different aspects of a field operation.

Each SOS flight develops leadership and teamwork skills through working together to accomplish the simulator.

"As the simulator tasks become more difficult each day, the students are actually generating leadership and teamwork research for Air University," the colonel said. "That research is often incorporated into the LDS program as new training so we're not just teaching old methods."

Dr. Hollenbeck feels the students at SOS are particularly important, and his involvement in the program is a great experience as a teacher and researcher.

"These captains will go back to jobs in the Air Force where they will handle a lot of money and have important responsibilities. Those responsibilities can have an impact on the future of the Air Force," he said. "That, in my mind, makes them very important students."

The doctor said a major issue with teamwork and leadership is that people often come to a course like LDS thinking they already have those skills.

Capt. Pedro Feliciano, flight commander for SOS Flight A-10, watched as his students worked the simulator segment of the training and said they were doing "exceptionally well."

"The biggest difference between a flight that does well in this course and one that does not is the communication structure," he said. "One side of the room is intelligence and the other side operations, and each side cannot see what the other is doing. So, proper verbal communications between the two sides is essential to success of the operation."

Captain Feliciano said there is a chain of command from operators to directors to commander, and the closer a team follows that chain of command in terms of communications, the better they will do. He said the small flight room is actually a hindrance the the exercise because it encourages the natural instinct to just shout information across the room.

"One of the things I watch for is what commanders do with information I give them," the captain said. "Do they follow communications discipline or not? That can make the difference between success and failure."

In a recent class, Flight A-10, which consists of 14 SOS students, had accrued 104 points at the halfway point. They needed a total of 140 to successfully complete the simulator.

"They are well ahead of where they need to be to make their goal," Captain Feliciano said. "If they continue along these lines, they could easily reach 200 points or more, and that would be a great score."

Dr. Hollenbeck is scheduled as a speaker at the AETC Symposium in January. He was invited to the symposium by AETC commander Gen. Stephen Lorenz, and his invitation required a special clearance.

"I feel it is a unique honor to be invited and a great opportunity to expose the rest of the Air Force to this training model," he said. "I will talk about what we have accomplished at AU, and what that can do for the Air Force. I will also discuss the history of leadership and how LDS can make a difference."