Supporting High Performers – One Commander’s Story
Commanding a military unit is exciting, challenging, humbling, and inspiring. We grow ourselves by reflecting on our experience and may benefit others by unpretentiously sharing the lessons we learned. During my time as a squadron commander, I learned a great deal about the importance of building relationships with traditional and non-traditional support agencies, and the significance of aggressively and proactively reaching out for support with the express intent of creating an environment where the people not only feel valued but can perform at a high level. The result was a concept we called the High-Performance Team Initiative (HPTI). In this article, I will lead you through some of the thoughts and circumstances that led my team and me to create the HPTI.
Americans have been serving valiantly in the military since the country’s inception. Each generation of military leaders serves under distinctive circumstances, adapting to the evolving state of the world and the mentality of those they are leading. Our current all-volunteer force is faced with a world filled with conflict and global connectedness as individuals become more disconnected, disinformed, and distrustful of others and their intentions. On a personal level, servicemembers are challenged by the unique circumstances of serving in the military. Young men and women are extracted from their hometown, sent off to training in an unfamiliar location, assigned to a challenging career field, and then shipped off to one of approximately 800 military locations around the globe. And, if the servicemember chooses to stay on this path, the cycle of relocations and rebuilding a life in a new community repeats every few years. Additionally, deployments and training that involve lengthy family separations are often interspersed throughout. These and a host of other modern-day challenges demand creative leadership.
For me, that road to creative leadership began with one thought…if we want our military and civilian members to achieve the results of “high performers,” why not treat them that way from the very beginning?
Lebron James is expected to perform at a very high level as an NBA basketball player. To achieve those results, he has access to a team of special experts that attend to the Los Angeles Lakers. There is no room for mediocrity—every lever is geared toward ensuring each team member gives their very best. Why should military members that are repeatedly subject to stressful situations and expected to perform be treated any differently? And, how could we better utilize existing services to build such a team? I will get to the execution of this idea; however, I would first like to explain how my personal leadership philosophy influenced the development of the high-performance team concept.
A few years ago, I faced a setback that drove extensive internal reflection. Most of this reflection took place on the treadmill or while running around the monuments in DC away from my office at the Pentagon. During those quiet moments, I reflected on my life and why I wanted to continue to serve in the military. I dug deep, examining how pivotal moments had shaped me and how my attitude and reaction to certain events in the past played a role in my future path. I thought about the formation of my dream to become a pilot while living at Clark Air Base, Philippines where my dad served as an Air Force pilot. I thought about serving as the youth member on my church’s pastor search committee during high school, and how I felt being able to contribute to my community. I also thought about mistakes I made when flying fighters to navigating life-altering changes—marriage, children, and new assignments, and how that made me more resilient.
One word kept coming to mind as I considered the past and envisioned the future: Reach. Reach sounds aspirational, multi-dimensional, active. It reflects how I lead and operate. Reach encompasses the ideas of striving for more, learning new skills, mastering your work, offering to help a co-worker through a tough time, asking for assistance, mentoring, healthy living, having fun with your family and friends, going above and beyond, and loving life. Being a product of an abundance of military training, I couldn’t resist forming it into an acronym as well. R.E.A.C.H is supported by the principles of Respect, Engagement, Accountability, Character, and Healthy Living. I continue to refine, develop, and apply these concepts as I encounter new leadership opportunities and challenges. As I looked for ways to teach and encourage these principles amongst those I was entrusted to lead, I realized that military leaders have some amazing resources at their fingertips, especially when proactively sought and applied correctly.
Within 72 hours of taking command of a squadron, I was tested. I was informed of very serious and concerning claims against members within my squadron, and the challenges just continued to mount. Over the next year, my squadron was faced with a fatality and suicide attempts, among other tragedies. While the squadron met mission expectations, many squadron members felt disenfranchised.
Out of necessity, my leadership team and I reached out to our next echelon leadership, base support agencies, community leaders, friends, and family to create a culture prioritizing each squadron member’s potential. We found ways to provide resources, tools, and space and called this movement the High-Performance Team Initiative.
One of the first catalysts for the HPTI was my First Sergeant. After a challenging start, he could tell the burdens of command were weighing on me and asked simply, “Do you want me to set up a meeting with the chaplain?” My mind flashed back to previous instances when I witnessed my bosses meet with the chaplains for assistance. I replied without hesitation, “Absolutely.” Initially, I thought the meeting with the chaplain would center only around prayer. I was pleasantly surprised that the meeting turned into a strategy session (still maintaining a prayer component).
That first meeting with the chaplain helped me work through possible steps to turn the squadron into a truly high-performance organization, using the principles of REACH as the foundation. Squadron leadership and I intentionally met with and deployed base-level offices as part of HPTI, including: Equal Opportunity, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, Chaplains, Mental Health, Legal, Community Support Coordinator, and physical fitness resources. We established a routine visitation battle rhythm where each office was given an opportunity to walk through the work environment and build relationships with squadron members. We wanted to put a face to each office, break down barriers, and create trust between the local support agencies and the squadron’s military and civilian members. I saw changes almost immediately. I noticed that partnering with support agencies often resulted in better and more open communication. As an example, the Equal Opportunity Officer was uniquely suited to and highly successful in having challenging conversations.
My leadership team’s efforts did not stop there. We occasionally deployed comfort dogs from the local area, worked with leadership to carve out time for team building days, community leaders provided unfunded resources and leadership training, the USO sent care packages and a mobile bus, Operation Paperback provided books for our squadron library, the local Chamber of Commerce connected spouses with jobs, and sought expertise from our spouses as part of the Key Spouse program. We even asked my children and their friends to perform magic tricks at a squadron event. Over the next two years, we accomplished what we set out to do–treat each squadron member as a high-performing Airman by proactively applying resources and reinforcing the principles of REACH.
Looking Back and Learning while Moving Forward
HPTI was not developed with a global pandemic in mind. However, since the HPTI was already well established by March 2020, it proved invaluable as COVID swept into our lives. COVID impacted my squadron like any other organization, but we were able to quickly pivot to a supplemental mission the squadron had never previously supported, while maintaining a stable presence and support to the squadron’s enduring missions. I will always be amazed by the resiliency and dedication of the squadron members and their families during this time. After months of reflection, I believe that the HPTI was the driving factor in how the squadron performed in the initial months of COVID—professionally, creatively, and with determination.
I hope that sharing some of my experiences inspire current and future leaders to find new, creative ways to lead. Really think through and develop your own principles so that you have a strong basis for your leadership and can articulate what you stand for to those you lead. Build your own high-performance team–your people deserve it. If you treat everyone under your charge as high-performing team members, you will see tangible results.
Seek assistance frequently. The military builds technical proficiency and experts in a multitude of career fields. It provides leadership training, but no pilot is expected to be an expert in mental health, and no maintainer is trained to be a chaplain. Creating a team of experts that have been invited into your space and know you and your people before a crisis strikes will ensure you are better prepared when the time comes. Admiral McRaven, former US Special Operations Commander, was often quoted as saying, “You can’t surge trust.” It is critical to proactively build relationships, because when crisis hits, having those relationships established will make all the difference.
Finally, I will always be grateful for my leadership team, squadron members and the members of the supporting agencies that helped build our high-performing team. Reach out if you want to discuss further or share your own leadership insights with me at Christopher Mulder | LinkedIn.
Lt Col Christopher P. Mulder, USAF Mulder is a Senior Military Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, Air Force pilot, former squadron commander, and engaged on national security and leadership matters. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Additional information about Christopher Mulder can be found at: Christopher P. Mulder – Atlantic Council
2 thoughts on “Supporting High Performers – One Commander’s Story”
What a great article on team development, care for the individual, all amounting to a better team. It’s not just systems, it’s building trust, building relationships- relationships that are two-way, not just one. Well done Chris.
Rich and significant leadership indeed. So appreciate your perspective and insight.
But hey, are you sure it wasn’t your wife who turned things around for you at the squadron, we all know who the real superstar is…