JOINT BASE-LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. --
Inspired by the Greek goddess of wisdom and war Athena, Air Combat Command recently completed the first-ever inaugural Sword Athena Leadership Symposium Aug 12-14, at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia. The theme for this year’s event was “Building Leaders Armed for Action.”
The event was previously envisioned to be a much larger in-person leadership symposium, but due to COVID-19, the event was 100 percent virtual and broadcasted over Zoom. The event had four mission area working groups (MAWGs): mental health, equipment & gear, family and psychological safety, which maximized virtual participation with one month of online collaboration leading up to the start.
Each day of SA20 included keynote speeches from Gen. Mike Holmes, commander of ACC, and Chief Master Sgt. Summer Leifer, 16th Air Force command chief. The event also included facilitated discussions and breakout groups, which were led by subject matter experts from each of the MAWGs.
Psychological safety was among the most highly discussed topic from each of the MAWGs.
“You’ve shown a light on the importance of creating and enhancing psychological safety to increase our lethality and squadron readiness,” said Leifer during her keynote speech. “Together you have tackled some of our nation’s, Department of Defense’s, and service’s most urgent and critical shortfalls in the interest of strengthening alliances and partnerships while building leaders.”
The psychological safety MAWG had four lines of effort: squadron readiness, formal resources, education and training, and policy and messaging.
“Psychological safety helps retention go up and mental resilience improve. Bottom line: feeling safe at work will positively impact overall readiness of everyone striving to not just survive their current assignment, but thrive throughout their Air Force career,” said Jason “JW” Womack, an Instructor of Leadership Studies at Air University, leadership coach, TEDx speaker, and published author. He facilitated a leadership development exercise in the morning, followed by a guided discussion about psychological safety in the afternoon. “We can, we should, and right now we must create policies, provide messaging and build a culture of safety, belonging and readiness, which is the charge from our Chief of Staff, Gen. Brown.”
One of the key points discussed under the psychological safety MAWG include the fact that Airmen long for a safe space to be whole so they can use their experience, education and talent to contribute.
“Airmen of all ranks fear feeling unseen, unaccepted and unworthy,” Womack said. “Make no mistake about it, if you want an Air Force that is inclusive, equitable, innovative and lethal, now is the time to change the way leaders commit to creating cultures of psychological safety. This must be a priority.”
Womack said all Airmen must be motivated to ask if they are able to contribute to creating a space where people can thrive.
“Today we face some grave and dangerous challenges,” Womack said. “And I foresee that generations from now, future leaders will thank us for stepping into the arena, rolling up our sleeves, and asking new questions about creating cultures and a climate of safety, belonging and inclusiveness.”
As the psychological safety MAWG focused on inclusion and the diversity within the work center, the mental health MAWG focused on demystifying mental health truths versus stereotypes, decreasing barriers to mental health resources, and encouraging Airmen to reach out before acute symptoms occur.
The lines of effort for the mental health MAWG include improving virtual mental health access, promoting an ACC mental health campaign to demystify the impact on seeking help, such as the impact on security clearnaces, utilizing an Airman Support Team to champion mental health efforts at the squadron level, and maternal mental health.
“Like many of us, I have mental health challenges in my family with family members I’m close to and it’s real to me as well,” Holmes said. “What I’m getting to is that realness means that if we face a risk that we recognize and it’s real in our operation, then we empower commanders to take risks and move out and do something about it.”
Holmes discussed during the briefing that sometimes risks come up against bureaucracy and commanders can accept them anyway.
“We start out the year a billion dollars short, but yes we still find money to do things. We’ll bring our contracting and financial management folks into this discussion too,” Holmes explained. “I look at everything from the Airmen/NCO page to the Airmen Helping Airmen page that was out there. Everybody – 100 percent of the sources identified barriers to seeking treatment through our system. So that’s justification for me that we need to move past those barriers and find a way to do it.”
As the goal of the mental health MAWG is to break down barriers, the family MAWG focused on empowering Airmen to rise to the challenge of building resilience. It also foot-stomped on remaining armed for action while simultaneously maintaining strong families that are resilient throughout the unique challenges that come alongside serving.
The lines of effort for the family MAWG included normalizing nursing mothers with awareness of base lactation rooms and sharing best practices, obtaining specialized postpartum support and resources to avoid delayed return to duty, negative mental trends and Airmen feeling forced to choose between a job and their family.
“We need to make sure that we build this training once we’re done with it in manageable bites,” Holmes said.
Another recommendation for improvement under the family MAWG that requires no money and little effort from wing commanders was for all ACC wings to make child development centers a “no hat, no salute area.”
As the family MAWG’s mission was to equip families with tools for resilience, the workplace and training MAWG’s goal was equipping Airmen with properly fitting uniforms and gear to increase squadron readiness.
In addition to properly fitting gear, some of the other lines of effort under the workplace and training MAWG included a physical fitness initiative focused on pre and post-natal care, an overhaul on the physical profile notification process and a change in hair requirement regulations to allow a functional and safe fit of operational gas masks and other head gear.
“I can imagine a room full of chiefs sitting around a room arguing about this,” the general chuckled. “I think we still have a cultural issue of trying to force women to wear men’s clothes and I think it’s well past time to take this on. I think this is a great opportunity now to press forward.”
Holmes closed the outbrief with a statement of gratitude to the Airmen who worked in the MAWGs for SA 20 and explained how the issues presented impact ACC’s critical role in terms of national defense.
“It’s no surprise to me, but just the brief, the staff work, the confidence of the work, the completeness of the work, the competence of the people who delivered the presentations, and the product we saw should let anybody know how important you are to the success of Air Combat Command and how much we need the women of ACC to bring their best to work,” Holmes said. “What we get from you makes a difference. I’m moved by it. It was spectacular staff work that was well put together and well thought out. You brought me actionable items to go move and I really appreciate that.”