Document created: 3 June 04
Air University Review, September-October 1971

Squadron Officer School, 
Junior Officers, and You

Colonel Arthur R. Moore, Jr.

What is the matter with today’s junior officers? Why do they keep pushing against the system? Why is there a “generation gap in the U.S. Air Force? What are we teaching these kids? These are questions all commanders are asking or being asked today.

Squadron Officer School (SOS) is in a unique position to seek answers to this questions. Why? Because junior officers are our business, our only business. We educate, evaluate, and attempt to challenge about 2400 officers each year—officers whom you send to us, and who return to you 14 weeks later. As supervisors, you and I both feel a need and a responsibility to understand these officers. Therefore, in these few pages, I intend to address some of these more provocative questions in hopes of making the Air Force a better place for you and for the junior officers of your command.

To begin, what is the matter with junior officers today? After observing several thousand students at SOS, I must say simply—nothing. Nothing is the matter with today’s new breed. They are the best educated, most eager and dynamic group of men any air force has had anytime, anywhere. SOS classes have included pilots who have earned the Medal of Honor, blue suit scientists who have probed the edges of the unknown, missilemen who operate systems you and I thought only Buck Rogers could operate not too many years ago, women of the Air Force eager to secure a place in today’s and tomorrow’s Air Force second to none, and officers from every career field and every major command in the Air Force.

These officers are being taught some of the same problem-solving techniques that were taught at the Squadron Officer Course (SOC) (predecessor to SOS) 18 years ago. They are being challenged mentally and physically by a number of the field leadership exercises that you may remember if you attended the SOC of the early fifties. Today’s students are making many of the same mistakes that 50,000 other SOS students made before them, but they are also doing some of the same things correctly. This is not to say that our curriculum and methodology have been standing still. The requirements of the Air Force have changed in the last two decades, and the school has changed to meet those new requirements.

During this calendar year, for example, our management curriculum has been completely revised to insure that our graduates are prepared to use today’s techniques on today’s problems. We give our students a chance to study and work with such management techniques as systems analysis, probabilities and statistics, and network analysis. We teach the Air Force concept of managing men, money, and materiel, and we challenge the students to demonstrate their understanding by participating in case studies of Air Force problems. The management-techniques case study in particular gives the students a chance to integrate the techniques they have studied so as to “game” a weapon system decision. The students can compare their results with the actual Air Force decision, since the case study is based on an existing weapon system.

Some things have remained the same over the years. We still attempt to make every graduate a more effective communicator by requiring him to write and speak in “real world” service situations. Every student must complete nine writing assignments directly related to the needs of the Air Force—letters, OER’S, message rewrites, etc. We teach a standardized approach to the art of writing which stresses clarity, conciseness, and directness. Some students improve greatly, some improve only slightly, and some need to improve very little; but they are all more effective writers when they leave. So too are the students more effective speakers when they leave. The speech program, which emphasizes formal and informal briefings, prepares the SOS student to operate effectively in the day-to-day working environment of the briefing scene. Group discussions and logical-thinking exercises are still other means of improving communicative skills, and these are heavily emphasized at SOS. Through the annual surveys, commanders of our alumni have reported that SOS graduates write better, speak better, and are more effective communicators than junior officers who have not taken the SOS course. Improved effectiveness in communication seems to be the most readily discernible characteristic of the SOS graduate.

It was once believed that leadership traits are inborn, but now we know that leadership can be taught and learned. We use small groups of 12 to 14 men in seminar workshops so that each man can see, feel, and try the principles, attributes, and techniques of leadership which we teach. Each student’s leadership ability is described to him by both his peers and the faculty so that he can better understand his potential and his limitations. We encourage the students to try new leadership techniques. Some succeed, some fail, but all learn from their efforts. Human relations, the foundation of leadership, is taught from the lecture platform, in the seminar rooms, and on the athletic field. Some of our students are effective leaders when they arrive at SOS; most are more effective leaders when they leave. A small percentage of our students find that other people are just not responsive to their style of leadership. These students are also given descriptive feedback about their leadership efforts, which gives them a better idea of their abilities and shortcomings. Difficulties which he encounters at SOS, early in his career, can motivate the officer either to master the techniques of leadership or, in some exceptional cases, to look for another career. In either case the Air Force, the country, and the individual will benefit by the experience. It is a much-needed benefit.

The world has changed rapidly and significantly during the last twenty years. A veritable explosion of information has increased the visibility of international affairs, and it has cast a spotlight on the military. Fully 10 percent of our curriculum is devoted to examining the world, the nation, and the military system. SOS is the only opportunity 75 percent of our students will have to learn the why, what, and how of national power, international relations, and ideological conflict. Our graduates have a better understanding of the world and their role in it. Our curriculum does not certify the SOS graduate as an expert in international relations, but he is able to explain to others, and to himself, why the Air Force and the nation are involved in the arena of international politics.

In summary, the graduate of SOS is a more effective communicator, a somewhat improved leader, a trained manager, and a more knowledgeable military officer. You have sent us a fine young officer, and we have returned to you a better-informed, more capable man. Perhaps that statement suggests my answer to two of my original questions: “What is the matter with today’s junior officers?” and “What are we teaching these kids?” We at Squadron Officer School are convinced that there is nothing the matter with today’s officers or with what we are teaching them. Having told you what we do to make him more effective, I would like to consider what senior officers generally can do to make our junior officers more effective.

It has been popular during recent years to characterize the differences between generations as a gap. The very word “gap” makes one envision a clear break, a bottomless chasm across which we must build bridges to communicate.

I believe that there is no such thing as a “generation gap.” Yet, I also believe that I am different from the junior officers I encounter. They do push against the system, they wear different clothes, they demand a challenging task, and they think more of the future than of the past. They are different from me now, but they are not so different from what I was when I was their age. I wore different clothes, I pressed the limits of the system, I demanded a challenging task, and I thought more of the future than the past.

Stop and think about yourself when you were a junior officer. If you’re from my year group, you participated in a war and were present at the beginning of our Air Force. We had challenging tasks, and we had boring ones. We surely looked and acted different than our seniors. We groused about an army that was rooted in the past and couldn’t see the future as clearly as we. Thus it seems that junior officers are not such strange animals as we previously believed. They are really a mirror that lets us look back into our past, and, believe me, we are a lens that lets them look into the future. Though we and they see through the glass but darkly, I hope that by telling of some things we have observed at Squadron Officer School, I may help clarify your image of the junior officer and also his image of you.

General James Ferguson, former Com­mander of the Air Force Systems Command, once said, particularly for the benefit of other general officers and colonels, that

. . . if our junior officers have a problem, then we have a problem. And it may very well be our predominant problem: in a very meaningful sense, these young officers are our responsibility, and we have a strong obligation to the Air Force for their training and development. Because, sooner than we like to think, they are going to be the Air Force. . .  To develop this new Air Force generation, then, requires that we communicate very seriously with those who are junior to us. We’ve got to find out what they’re thinking and feelingand why.

At SOS, we have tried to find out what they’re thinking, and we have asked them “Why?”

Since we get an excellent cross section of Air Force junior officers three times a year, it seemed logical that SOS could provide useful information on the career motivation of junior officers. In order to tap the talent and experience of each class, I asked the school staff to develop the Career Motivation Program. The program, which began in June 1969, continues in-being today.

The SOS Career Motivation Program consists of a council of faculty members which studies each class, using questionnaires and seminar discussions. The results to date have benefitted SOS and the Air Force. The data collected here have been provided to the Military Personnel Center and members of the staff at Headquarters USAF.

The survey results indicate that SOS students are career-oriented and satisfied with their jobs; that they like Air Force people and enjoy the travel opportunities which the Air Force provides. The survey results also show that junior officers are dissatisfied with poor leadership, bureaucratic inflexibility, and assignment uncertainty. The seminar discussions provided further support of these conclusions and allowed the students to further define areas of satisfaction and dissatisfaction.

During the Career Motivation Seminars the students have indicated that their jobs allowed them to be creative, make decisions, and meet challenges. Both they and their wives are pleased with Air Force life in general and with Air Force people in particular. Our students tell us that they desire better leadership, a better rating system, and more career progression visibility. These results support to some degree the contention of Dr. David Whitsett, management consultant and provocative lecturer in the management area, who contends that the Air Force must provide interesting, challenging, and satisfying jobs if it desires to retain and motivate its junior officers. The students consider the quality of their jobs—not security, pay, or fringe benefits—to be of prime importance. They are quick to point out, however, that the latter items could become important factors if their needs for security went unsatisfied. To quote Lieutenant General R. J. Dixon, Deputy Chief of Staff/Personnel: “. . . they insist on satisfying, self-fulfilling jobs.”

One of the most satisfying “spin-offs” of our seminar program has been the junior/senior officer interface. Since the inception of our seminars we have invited Air War College (AWC) students and Air University (AU) senior officers to participate with our students and faculty. The exchange of ideas between junior and senior officers has been a revelation to both groups. The students have been favorably impressed with the open-minded, sincere interest displayed by their leaders, and the senior officers have been impressed with the quality and depth of today’s junior officers. One AU general officer enjoyed the exchange so much that he expressed a desire to return later for more discussion with his seminar. Another senior officer said the seminar was “. . . the most refreshing and rewarding experience of my career. I want to come back again!”

We intend to have those senior officers back again as we continue to search out answers to the questions, “What motivates or demotivates junior officers, and why?” I would suggest that you, as commanders and leaders of junior officers, use a direct “face-to-face” communication channel such as we have used. I have noted during the past few years that our students pick as their most effective leaders those officers who actively seek out personal contacts with the young officers. Try our approach. I think that both you and your subordinates will benefit from it.

As the Commandant of an Air University school, I assure you that I don’t propose to tell you how to run your organization. Such an attempt would be presumptuous, but I feel that here at SOS we have practiced some techniques and approaches that have worked for us, and I want you to know what they are. Why? Because you, as a group, have an opportunity to affect a great many more officers for a longer period of time than we can with our limited enrollment and short-duration course. I hope you will consider these suggestions, adapt them to your own particular needs, and accrue the benefits I believe will result.

Here at SOS we challenge our students both mentally and physically. We tell our students that very few of them will fail the course and very few of them will be distinguished graduates. We tell them that, for most of them, the real reward they will gain will be satisfaction—satisfaction for having tested and exceeded what they had thought were mental and physical barriers. For example, we tell our students what effective writing and speaking should be, and then we let them apply what we have taught them. We compare their performance against an unwavering standard of excellence. We know some students have more ability than others, and we know some may never reach the highest level of communicative ability. We have found that by demanding excellence from all our students, every student improves—the best improve a little, the average improve much more, and the weak improve the most.

Our students—your junior officers—don’t rebel against the criticism we give their efforts; they welcome it. Students have complained that they have not been critiqued enough, rather than too much. We have found that students oftentimes grade their writing and speaking assignments lower than the instructor would have. How do we manage to convince the student to seek out criticism and develop the ability to criticize himself? It’s relatively simple. We let him know we are trying to help him be a more effective officer. We don’t criticize only what the student did wrong; we tell him what he did right, and how he can correct his mistakes. We have found over the years that our students are constantly searching for an honest, constructive evaluation of their ability. Often they tell us that this is the first time during their career that someone tried to help them improve.

I personally feel that many of you have tried to help junior officers improve, but perhaps because of the manner in which advice or criticism was offered, it was not recognized or accepted. Ask yourself, “Have I made certain my subordinates understood that I was trying to make them a better officer, pilot, missileman, etc.?” You can’t assume that your subordinates know this, but you can assume that, if they know you care about them as individuals, they will outperform any standards you have set. You are probably asking yourself, “How can I convince my subordinates I’m trying to help them?” We have found some techniques very effective. I hope they can work for you.

Here at SOS we work hard at learning everything we can about our students. They turn in an autobiography the first day they arrive here at the school. We read these autobiographies to evaluate each student’s writing ability, and, more important, to learn as much as we can about his background. We memorize all the students’ names so that when we first meet we can address them by name. The work involved is worth it when on the first day of class a student freezes in the hall as a faculty member passes him and says, “Good morning, Dave.” It is only a small gesture, but it helps us let the students know that we respect them as individuals.

Learning the names of hundreds of students is only half the problem; we also try to make their wives feel welcome, too. We insist that our section commanders be married because their wives play an important role in bringing the wives of students into the school activities. Every section, wing, and division at SOS makes sure that the student wives are welcomed, considered, and challenged during their brief stay at SOS. During the first weeks of school the wives attend formal and informal receptions and coffees. Members of the faculty prepare a two-hour presentation on SOS activities so that the wives can better understand what their husbands are going to be doing during the next 14 weeks. Throughout the course, evenings are set aside to brief the wives on the Air Force medical, personnel, and promotion systems. Most of the wives report that this is the first time they have received this kind of briefing. The wives also plan and conduct luncheons, with the assistance of wives of the faculty. The wives in every section make colorful outfits to wear to sports functions, where they join in the evaluation process by “critiquing” their husbands, the other team, and the referees.

We believe that an officer’s wife can be the deciding factor in his decision to make the Air Force a career. We try to let the girls know we care, and I believe they do care when on graduation day they leave with a smile on their faces and tears in their eyes. If we can establish close bonds in 14 weeks, I am sure that you and your wives can do much more during the years an officer is under your command. With all the emphasis on an all-volunteer force, we sometimes forget that perhaps the most important thing we can do to keep our people costs us nothing except time.

One other thing we have found is that young officers respect the U.S. Air Force and desire to learn more about its history. We have a program to tell them some of the things their chosen service has done. One of the most popular voluntary programs in our curriculum is the lunch-hour film series, during which we show the students what happened at Ploesti, Korea, and Vietnam. We show films about great military leaders, hoping that our students can learn from their successes and failures. We are proud of our Air Force, and we let it show. We are also proud of our heritage, and we let that show too. The fact that young officers are interested in our heritage can be best understood when you see a student gazing at a wall of heroes” that has on it the picture and story of every USAF Medal of Honor winner. These officers admire you for what you have done. There is no “generation gap” when a 25-year-old student watches a 25-year-old film showing a 25-year-old pilot strapping on a “jug” (P-47). These men are standing now where you stood then, and they want and need your help to stand some day where you stand now.

Give your people help by teaching them to help themselves. Don’t tell them exactly how everything is to be done. Let them try to solve their own problems. When you give a man a task, don’t answer his questions on how to do it. Instead, ask him questions that will enable him to find the right answer. We have found that if we tell a man what to do, he learns how well we understand the problem. On the other hand, if we ask probing questions, the man learns how well he understands the prob1em. The latter course sometimes takes longer and does not solve the problem as efficiently as the former, but it helps the man become more effective, and in today’s Air Force any other course is second-best.

It is not easy to turn away from a situation where you know exactly what should be done. It is not easy here at SOS in the seminar room or on the athletic field; and I know from personal experience that it is more difficult in an operational situation where you are responsible for accomplishing the mission. Remember, your job is similar to that of an instructor pilot who must constantly expose himself to a student pilot’s mistakes if that student is ever going to learn to fly.

The most effective leaders in the history of the Air Force have made their subordinates lead. You and I are where we are today because our seniors gave us opportunities to succeed or to fail. Give your young officers these same opportunities. You won’t be disappointed and they will welcome the challenge.

Squadron Officer School


Contributor

Colonel Arthur R. Moore, Jr. (USMA; M.S., George Washington University), is Commandant, Squadron Officer School, Air University. A command pilot and navigator, he has held operational positions at SAC headquarters and in several bomb wings. He was one of the first twelve officers assigned to the initial staff and faculty of the Air Force Academy. He is a graduate of Squadron Officer School, Naval War College, and Air War College.

Disclaimer

The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.


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