The key to revitalizing the squadron: The supervisor

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Kevin Scholz, 736th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander

The 21st Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. David L. Goldfein, announced in 2018 the need to focus on the squadron. He said, “The squadron is the beating heart of the United States Air Force; our most essential team.” Goldfein, like many others, had witnessed the gradual decline of the squadron during his career and recognized that in order for the Air Force to continue as the worlds’ premier fighting force, we needed to refocus on what made us great in the first place and revitalize the squadron!

That sounds like a great plan, but how is this accomplished? Many things are easy to say but hard to do.  Goldfein entered the service in the mid-1980s, so in order to know where to start, one must go back and examine the differences between now and then. What made the squadrons of old the “gold standard” that Goldfein wanted to get back to? 

I entered the Air Force in 1992, as an enlisted Airman when Goldfein was still a young officer. There is one thing that I vividly remember during that time more than anything else; my supervisor. As someone who was there, serving in the era Goldfein wanted to take us back to, the biggest difference I have seen over the years is the role of the frontline supervisor in taking responsibility for and the development of their subordinates. 

Back in my early days, I didn’t know who my commander was, I didn’t know who my Chief was and frankly, I didn’t want to know! My supervisor, Buck Sergeant (E-4) Mark Baughman was my leader, my trainer, my mentor and my disciplinarian. My supervisor was, for lack of a better term, my whole world at that time. He was mature, confident and an outstanding technician and trainer. He spent time with me every night, teaching me how to be a great F-15 Eagle mechanic. 

As I began to think on these things, it became clear to me that the supervisor’s role had drastically diminished since I was an Airman. Due to certain norms, the supervisor was barely involved in their subordinate’s development. There was a precedent that was established by past leadership that pulled almost all discipline up to the flight and squadron level. Squadron commanders were giving letters of counseling for infractions that should have been handled by the supervisor. Upgrade training had been taken away from the supervisor and rebranded as a squadron program that mimicked formal technical training.

The reduction of the frontline supervisor’s role gradually resulted in diminished skills and an environment where tech sergeants and below were lumped into a single category of “workers,” and the role of supervisor didn’t really begin until the master sergeant level. Tech sergeants, and especially staff sergeants, were not delegated the authority by their leadership to take on their proper role as a supervisor, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that this was the origin of many issues within my unit. It was then that I realized the only way to revitalize the squadron was to first revitalize the supervisor.

This sounds like a great idea, but how is it done? The first step is for squadron commanders and leadership to define the problem to their units. A problem can’t be solved unless it is first defined as a problem. The next step is to reinvigorate your staff and technical sergeants by delegating their rightful authority back to them. That authority and responsibility is taught in Airman Leadership School, but so many times is not taken back to the work centers after graduation because of the “norms” described above. However, the only way those frontline supervisors will be successful using the skills they learn in ALS is to have the full backing and support from unit leadership. Once this environment is established by the commander, it is now up to that frontline supervisor to take up and fulfill their proper role, but squadron commanders and other leadership aren’t finished yet. 

In order to ensure these efforts are working, you must continuously evaluate the effectiveness of your supervisors and coach and mentor them as required. These skills aren’t automatic and need to be nurtured by leadership. When they are, you will soon see that the key to revitalizing the squadron starts with a focus on the supervisor.