Culture First, People Always

  • Published
  • By Maj. Ryan VanArtsdalen, 3rd Munitions Squadron Commander
  • JBER

Everyone knows what it feels like to have a bad leader. Leaders can be so focused on achieving results that they fail to provide a clear vision for the organization and take care of their people. Without organizational vision and values, Airmen can aimlessly execute the mission without a sense of purpose. This dynamic will certainly result in substandard performance and unsatisfactory mission accomplishment. It’s even worse when the leader fosters a toxic climate that is disrespectful, degrading, or demeaning.

A recent Business Insider survey indicated that 61 percent of U.S. workers want to quit their job in 2023. An Air Force study identified that immediate supervisors are the greatest reason people separate from the service. The old way of leading through a mission-only (i.e., bottom-line) approach is resulting in limited performance metrics and retention issues.

In particular, the Air Force maintenance, munitions, and security professions are known for high stress, challenging work environments, and a mentality of ‘get the job done at any cost.’ The consequence is in an unhealthy workplace and lifestyle that leads to worker burnout and higher rates of suicide.

The good news: we don’t have to wait for a new Air Force policy to start making changes. Leaders can transform their organization at any level by simply shifting their leadership focus on its culture and people to set the right conditions for team-oriented mission success.

Research has shown leaders who focus on culture and people by communicating a vision, establishing shared values, and prioritizing relationships make people feel more connected with the team. Workers who feel connected are more willing to collaborate to help others around them achieve greater success.

Championship sports teams are highly effective because each person knows each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and they are coached to reach their full potential. It’s especially powerful when the team can establish an identity that conveys camaraderie and a winning reputation. When leaders focus on coaching instead of managing, individuals will feel seen, heard, and valued and the overall performance of the team is improved.

The following are recommendations to start your own “culture first, people always” organization.

1. Define your team’s shared values. It’s not enough to simply establish your unit’s vision and mission anymore. While the vision is helpful in establishing a purpose, organizations also define the team’s values and beliefs to create intrinsic buy-in. Values build strong cultures that stand the test of time, empower leaders with intent at all levels, create shared beliefs, and enable the team to thrive during adversity. Take intentional leadership actions that align with your values and hold others accountable to embody them.

2. Establish a psychologically safe atmosphere. The higher the level of trust and collaboration, the better the team will perform. Leaders must establish an environment which enables its workers to feel safe to contribute and allows people to ask questions and receive timely mentorship. Champion the Airmen and Soldiers who are willing to manage risk — they are the adaptive leaders we need to win the next war. Lastly, higher-performing teams are tied to coaches who use inclusive language, such as “we” and “us.” Make your people feel included and a part of the greater team.

3. Create cohesion through unit identity. There’s a reason professional sports teams use mascots, mottos, and logos — they distinguish the team and create an identity for others to rally around. Fans even buy swag and wear their team’s jersey with pride. It’s especially powerful when that image represents victory. Leaders should seek to establish a similar sense of pride and ownership within their team. Humans naturally seek a sense of belonging and want to feel like they are a part of something great. Create buy-in by choosing a symbol that best represents the team and gets people excited. Remember, winning matters in the profession of arms.

4. Build authentic relationships based on trust. Successful leaders understand that it is about creating relationships with each member on the team. Every relationship in life is based on trust — without it, you will never reach your full potential. Leaders must be authentic and lead with empathy and compassion, and do more listening than talking. Take the time to actively listen to their stories and experiences, and ask about their passions in life. Find common areas of interest to explore and then share personal stories that develop rapport and strengthen the connection, while remaining professional and never making them uncomfortable. The team won’t truly follow you until they know you care.

5. Promote a healthy lifestyle. It is easy to let our work define us as a person. Some leaders describe success based on their rank and duty position; however, this will result in bad behaviors, both personally and professionally. The real measurement of success in life should include your mental, physical, and spiritual health, self-awareness, spending time with family and friends, living a purposeful life, and helping others. Promote a healthy lifestyle where caring for yourself is not selfish, it’s necessary.

Our nation offers their sons and daughters to the armed forces, and they expect our very best in taking care of them in return. Leaders must prioritize establishing the right culture through the power of psychology, emotional intelligence, and team identity. Allow people to feel seen, heard, and valued — to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Then let your organizational values guide and empower your team to achieve greater mission success than ever before.