AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq –
Learning new styles of leadership can be a tough process in the best circumstances, but studying them in a combat zone presents its own challenges.
U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army Reserve service members found a receptive audience when they created just such a class on Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, last year. The Combined Forces Leader Development Course allowed all branches and Coalition Forces to take part, bringing together personnel of various ranks and countries.
The course pairs people management techniques with relational skills to help build up subordinates and peers, U.S. Army Maj. Bill Bobowicz, 327th Medical Detachment Combat Operational Stress Control behavioral health officer in charge, said.
“It’s a move away from the traditional model of ‘Because I told you so,’” he said. “We’ve seen that the service members are being forgotten. There’s a way you can still give an order… but build your personnel up in the process.”
The course went through two six-week iterations before the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting physical spacing orders forced it to stop holding classes. Regardless, organizers continue to make plans for the program’s future and it has already helped troops who attended.
U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jose R. Pagan, first sergeant, 1st Expeditionary Rescue Group, designed the course in October with U.S. Army Capt. Patrick Sylvers, 1972nd Medical Detachment Combat Operational Stress Control psychologist.
“It doesn’t matter what rank you are,” Pagan told one group of students in February. “It matters about leadership.”
Pagan, a Reservist who is a high school principal in his civilian life, said the goal was to make a productive class for troops at Al Asad that involved interactive leadership discussions and cooperative activity-based exercises.
U.S. Army Master Sgt. Holly Boslet, 207th Regional Support Group supply NCOIC, attended the first round of classes and said she appreciated that it included a variety of ranks and therefore various points of view.
“For me, I guess, because back at home I’m a platoon sergeant and just being in charge of people, I wanted to reexamine some of the basics… and make myself a better leader,” she said.
The informal nature of the class allowed students to share personal stories about their leadership experiences, rather than just concentrate on military-related items, Boslet noted. The tasks also made them work together to solve problems and get to know each other.
“It pushed me out of my comfort zone… That’s never a bad thing,” she said, describing the course as fun and challenging. “It was a good experience.”
Boslet smiled as she remembered an exercise where one student tried to get another to draw a picture by describing what it should look like in shapes, location and size – but not telling them what they were drawing. In this case, it was supposed to be a bird.
“Some birds were spot on and others looked like abstract art,” she said. “It was a lesson in communication.”
In another exercise, participants briefly paired up and then had to do a formal introduction of someone they had just met. Afterwards, the class divided into small groups to work through – and discuss solutions for – specific management scenarios.
“All lessons included an ice breaker at the start… which led to the meat of the lesson,” Pagan said, adding that they help grab students’ attention and gets them to look forward to the objective. “We call this an ‘anticipatory set’ in education.”
Organizers worked to make the course better throughout its run. Pagan said they repeatedly canvassed the students to get input and plan to submit the program for an official blessing that would allow personnel to get official credit for taking the classes.
“It’s great to hear the different stories,” he said. “It was also great to get the critical feedback at the end of each class in order to make proper adjustments to the course. This is what we do as leaders. We need to know where we can improve and better ourselves.”