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Practice makes perfect: Airmen attend Airman Leadership School

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Natalie Filzen
  • 113th Wing

Mountain Home Air Force Base, ID — It’s common for people to be hired for the first time in their teenage years. For some it is working a counter at a cashier’s desk. For others, a tall chair overlooking a swimming pool. For less than 1% of the U.S. population, it is getting off a military bus and stepping onto Lackland Air Force base training grounds, freshly enlisted and ready for basic military training.

In a civilian job, it is not so common for supervisors to ensure that their subordinates’ homes are tidy, their finances are in good standing, or that their education is being pursued. In the private sector, while supervisors understand that young employees may not have many life skills yet, it is not typically in their wheelhouse to foster these vital skills. However, for military supervisors, this is a carefully observed domain.

In a workforce that begins at age 18 – where it is critical that these young adults stay mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally fit and ready – supervisors take on a more involved role in and outside of the workplace. Because of this unique relationship, when airmen progress through the ranks and are considered for their first supervisory position as a staff sergeant, they go through an Airman Leadership School, to ensure that they are equipped with the tactics necessary to mitigate life issues, address complex and interpersonal problems, and learn how to motivate and empower their troops.

This five-week school brings together Airmen from all parts of the country, with different motives, life stories, ideas, and ways of thinking into one room, to find a way to work together while excelling individually.

Recent ALS graduates reflected on their experiences, such as Senior Airman Rick McGhee of the 366th Security Forces Squadron based at Mountain Home Air Force Base. McGhee already had multiple supervisory positions in the civilian world before he enlisted at 27, starting a new path as an Airman.

“I was 18 when I first started supervising [as a civilian], I had 30 individuals who worked for me,” said McGhee. “This course encompasses the people skills you need to lead. If I had taken it then, it absolutely would have benefited me in communication and setting expectations.

“Even with some life experience, the ALS lessons were still valuable. In keeping myself humble, I realized that while I had felt that I already was an empathetic person, in listening to others’ stories, I discovered a new, deeper level of emotional intelligence,” said McGhee.

Another Airman who recently graduated from the course, Senior Airman Rey Santiago-Velez, 366th Logistics Readiness Squadron, felt more confident to take on a leadership role in his unit after the class. From Puerto Rico, he joined to have a sense of purpose, and felt comfortable with enlisting after his experience in the Civil Air Patrol when he was younger.

“While we want the highest standards from a person, I don't think it's always realistic to have that expectation,” said Santiago-Velez. “People will fail at times, and I felt that this course was prioritizing that human element, and how to approach it.

“It also prioritized the individual - their interests, their outside lives, their families. We're still a highly effective Air Force, and recognizing work-life balance hasn't hindered us. I think it's even made us more productive,” said Santiago-Velez.

Senior Airman James Alvarado, 233rd Security Forces Squadron, Colorado Air National Guard, also understood the value of coaching subordinates in personal development, despite having learned self-sufficiency early in life.

“Growing up in the Bronx, New York, life was tough, but it taught me to be more alert, attentive, and understanding of people’s backgrounds,” said Alvarado. “If there’s someone below me that’s struggling with a task, that’s actually the time for the supervisor to shine and teach them kindly, as it instills positive energy. People say misery loves company, but I believe positivity loves company too.

“I also don’t think subordinates should be hearing these concepts for the first time at ALS. They should already have the knowledge beforehand. If you want to be a Staff Sergeant, you should already be emulating that role. I would share that information to prepare them well ahead of the class,” said Alvarado.

While reading an instruction manual can give you the steps, in the moment of conflict, it can be difficult to recall a process or tailor it to a specific event. Understanding this, ALS built on natural learning by having Airmen simulate various scenarios, physically going through the motions of responding to an unexpected situation. Just as one practices a speech aloud before a presentation, the students were vocalizing their de-escalation methods again and again, so that when the time came, it was almost a reflex to respond effectively.

Staff Sgt. Alissa Bien, 366th Force Support Squadron, has taught ALS for a year for five classes.

“Airmen can be given the Air Force Instruction of all the rules and forms, but the people skills matter as a leader,” said Bien. “This course teaches Airmen to be personable, recognize and display empathy, and put their people first. With successful Airmen, you have a successful mission.”

Staff Sgt. Autumn Perillo, 366th Force Support Squadron, has taught 21 ALS classes and has seen the transformational effect that ALS fostered over the years.

“I remember one student began the course as an awkward character, and his peers noticed his nervous energy,” said Perillo. “He finished the course becoming the most confident version of himself. It seemed like he was shut down for who he was in the past, but with everyone’s encouragement, he flourished. He actually won an award, and when his name was called, he looked up in disbelief; he was so surprised, to the point where I had to nudge him to get on stage. His amazing personality was hidden for so long; he just needed that reassurance.”

In the five weeks of ALS, students were encouraged to participate in controversial debates, uncover their biases, and exercise composure during potentially emotionally-charged discussions. The course illustrated how employees do not always hang up their beliefs at the door when they walk into the office, and supervisors must learn to navigate through their subordinates’ ideologies and mitigate any potential incompatibilities.

“Even if we only truly change a few people from each graduating class, that does have a ripple effect,” said Perillo. “We unlock the door for them, but it is up to the individual to step through that door and keep going.”