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After The Flag: Supporting Graduated Squadron Commanders

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Stephanie Wilson

“I am relieved.” The last words spoken by military commanders at multiple levels of leadership before they pass the guidon to their boss and step to the right, leaving space for the new commander to step forward and assume command. Upon completion of the ceremony, the now graduated commander collects their things and exits quickly to allow the new command team to be welcomed, driving away to start a move. Within seven days, most graduated commanders have a new position, a new base, and assignment. They are no longer the person in which decision-making rests, they do not receive updates on programs and people that were their focus over the past two, three, or four years, and many do not have the time to reflect on their leadership before being handed another flag to lead again.

The Department of the Air Force has enacted a variety of programs and education to aid in the resiliency of its members. Websites, unit ‘down days’ in which mission time is ceded for human development time, and programs to train leaders on how to oversee individuals before and after a crisis or stressful event are commonplace. Recognizing the stress of being away from home, the Air Force instituted policies to allow for reconstitution of members to their unit and family when they return from a deployment.[1] Yet, as senior military leaders complete, what is described by many as the “marathon” of command, no rest or reconstitution time is given to these individuals between assignments. Time to reconnect, think, and learn is ceded for moving and beginning a new position as swiftly as possible. The de-briefing culture that makes up so much of operational, logistics, personnel, and medical professionals, is not utilized in a manner to promote reflection and reconstitution of graduated commanders which can later exhibit itself in many ways. Research from this paper indicated graduated squadron commanders are not given organizational time to “let go” of their command and become more effective and resilient future leaders, leading to feelings of abandonment of a mission and causing undue stress on themselves and their families. [2]

This article responded to two primary research questions: (1) How do graduated commanders reflect on their departure from command and (2) what could help a graduated squadron commander’s resiliency? The results were analyzed through the lens of what factors may aid in the process of departing a successful command and demonstrated the needs of the field in the areas of coaching, targeted post-command feedback, rest and reconstitution as primary mechanisms to aid in returning more resilient leaders to the force, ready and able to take on greater challenges for our nation.

There are 3,426 squadrons within the Department of the Air Force.[3] Their commanders leave their squadron command roles after having spent one to four years caring, developing, strategizing, laughing (or sometimes crying), and leading personnel and a specific mission set. A squadron commander’s departure is swift, according to organizational norms, because the change of command ceremony is about handing over the guidon and formally welcoming a new commander into the unit. Therefore, the departing graduated commander is socially required to depart quickly to allow a new leadership regime to take hold.

The Air Force has governance that determines the legality and process to determine who is eligible for command, defines the levels of commands and leadership, and how to assume command of a unit.[4] Documents abound on how to inspect, maintain, and build a culture within a squadron, even how to manage the first 90 days of a squadron command tour.[5] Yet, there is nothing within Air Force organizational doctrine on how to successfully depart command and prepare for the next assignment.

Entering “succession planning” or “leadership transfer” in most library resources results in articles relating to taxes, family business succession, and vignettes on corporate leaders who have stepped down from a position. When examining leadership journals, a lot of the articles on leadership are speaking to a new leader on how to establish themselves and manage their new position, while any articles found on the departure of a leader are usually about unsuitable terms of firing and not on scheduled rotations of leaders, which is normally found in military and government service workers. The lack of Air Force organizational doctrine to establish rules for successfully caring for leaders as they depart stressful positions like command and the lack of civilian research in succession and planned leadership rotations demonstrated a gap in the knowledge base of how to properly care for graduated squadron commanders and the impact departing these positions could have on their continued resiliency in the Air Force.

Research Design

An inquisitive questionnaire was developed to determine the respondents’ feelings on the resiliency and emotion of post-command Air Force Squadron or Detachment Commanders. The inquisitive questionnaire was open to individuals who have completed command over a specific 4-year timeframe (2018-2021) deployed or in garrison. These years were selected so data from pre-pandemic commands could be included in the results. Participants were not asked demographic data, nor were they asked to identify the type of unit they led as neither data was germane to the research.

Research Question Results

There were two primary research questions: (1) How do graduated commanders reflect on their departure from command and (2) what could help graduated squadron commander’s resiliency? The answer to the first question is variable as reflection space was not always granted, with most respondents indicating that time with their families and talking to someone else, even a peer, helped a great deal in them letting go of their command roles and prepping for the next job. The responses also showed that for several out-going commanders, resiliency issues remained longer than expected because they had not had the opportunity to reflect.

Research has shown that when individuals are faced with life stressors or any other types of adversity, which many find in command, their resiliency is improved once able to reflect and develop insights into what they have done well, wrong, or could do better.[6] The ability of some of the graduated commanders to reflect on what had transpired over their command was evident due to the number of written comments in which synonyms for words presented were offered, paragraphs of neutral, positive, and negative feelings were shared and so were the struggles of not being able to get those feelings out earlier post-command.

For the second research question, what could help graduated commander's resiliency, according to them is time with their families, space to reflect, being provided an update on how the unit was responding to new leadership, the status of programs implemented, but most of all, how the people they have cared for are doing. All these items are things the Air Force as an organization can assist with to aid in helping graduated commander resiliency.


From this study, there are three recommendations for the Air Force to aid in post- squadron command resiliency. These recommendations are to first, provide a 5-day reconstitution period that must be taken within 30 days of exit from command and can be combined with personal leave. Second, mandatory executive coaching sessions from certified coaches for ten sessions post command. Third, post- command update sent to the graduated commander four months after the change of command on program status and the final status of personnel who were a part of the transition briefing (discipline, family, promotion), including any Defense Organizational Climate Survey (DEOCS) comments relating directly to their leadership tenure.

After a deployment, military members are provided a certain number of days as reconstitution time. Regulations have individuals complete their initial medical exam and then are released to go on non-chargeable leave to allow the support system and the military member time to be together and the member to rest mentally and physically from an arduous experience. A command is described as one of the hardest jobs an individual will love, but leaders leaving a one, two, or three-year "marathon" of command are not offered by the Air Force organizational time to rest, reconstitute, or reflect. A significant number of respondents did not take any post-command leave, yet respondents rated “stable family time” as their number one choice for resiliency.

Fatigue, and its synonym “burn-out," were mentioned the most by respondents when answering questions of emotion during post-command departure. Burn-out has multiple stages as individuals deal with stress over a long period of time, but when linked to “compassion fatigue,” which is when those who are charged with the care and aid of others are traumatized by that care, it can lead to a less resilient and less productive leader much quicker. [7] Through the ability to reconstitute and rest, burn-out due to physical and mental fatigue, as well as compassion fatigue, can be combatted before the signs of continued irritability, removal of care for others, and even possible personal harm to self, becomes an option.[8] Providing a method to provide a ‘center’ of stability from a support network, such as family, without the stress of the position can also allow for space for reflection which aids in the next recommendation, coaching.

Researchers have examined the best way to maintain and increase leader learning is by having them gain a coach, executive coaches specifically, to enhance leadership skill development.[9] As this option can be expensive, peer coaching has been helpful as the individual understands the operational environment and can provide targeted follow-up to discussions and training events.[10] One of the most missed opportunities for continued leadership development is in the follow-up, which a set coach, or peer-to-peer leader can provide.[11] Respondents were very open to the idea of a coach, one stated “it has taken me a long time to process what I did well and didn’t do well in command. I went through a prolonged period of introspection and kind of clammed up, almost depressed…coaching could get folks through that period more quickly.”

This also harkens back to the de-briefing culture that has made the Air Force a leader in building operational knowledge from the beginning.[12] The establishment of peer-coaching circles provides a safe space for acknowledgment of the changing roles, how to best use the knowledge gained in command for future positions, and even how to let go of previous command decisions, good and bad. Allowing for ten sessions following a command tour, leaders can unload, reflect, and allow all participants within the circle to grow due to sharing experiences and knowledge. As many graduated commanders go directly into staff positions, the Air Force could hire and/or train executive coaches, to work with multiple coaching circles or develop peer coaching training, as a cost-effective mechanism to prevent faulty leadership habits being developed and carried forward, as well as halt the continuation of burn-out and fatigue mentioned above, into new positions.

Finally, respondents repeatedly mentioned wanting to know what happened after they left. Many reported feeling as if they abandoned their unit and received limited knowledge on if programs and people, they had invested in were successful or if the data they left behind allowed for a smooth continuity for the new commander.[13] A post-command update sent from the sitting commander four months after the change of command on program status and the final status of personnel who were a part of the transition briefing (discipline, family, promotion), and any DEOCS comments that related directly to their leadership tenure would provide fodder for the coaching circle to reflect on and provide opportunities for leadership growth. This document would go from one commander to the next and be a mandatory turn-in but would not be shared with the sitting commander or graduated commander’s leadership chain. This document would go over the items that were left open in the continuity, both people and programs, and can aid in focusing the first 90 days of a new commander, while providing the graduated commander with leadership lessons that may not have been available while they were in the seat.

By providing DEOCS results to the graduated commander, anonymous comments may provide some insight into how their second year of leadership was received and if any of the changes made in the first year took root within the organization or were personality dependent. This type of information can help to inform the graduated commander on some of their strengths and weaknesses in leadership, providing the Air Force with a more emotionally intelligent and resilient leaders as they move on to different positions and ranks.

As the service fills higher leadership positions from a pool of successfully graduated commanders, failure to prevent reflection and reconstitution for leadership and personal growth will only place fatigued and stressed leaders in roles of more responsibility and pressure. Their support systems and their mental health could suffer, leading to even greater suicide numbers in the senior ranks. The Air Force must work as diligently in taking care of commanders after the flag, as they do in preparation to take the flag and lead airmen.

If done well, handing over the flag after squadron command is an emotional event. A graduated commander should walk away feeling as if a part of their legacy will remain in the unit, maybe even be sad that the chapter of their tenure is closed, but move forward with a welcomed reminder of the chapters to come. All Airmen deserve leaders ready to receive and hand over the guidon of leadership, and through deliberate care after command, the words “I am relieved” can be true.

Lt. Col. Stephanie Wilson
Col (s) Wilson, PsyD, is a Missile Maintenance and Munitions Officer in the United States Air Force.  She has previously served as a squadron commander twice, at the 90th Missile Maintenance Squadron and the 90th Munitions Squadron, Francis E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming.  Lt Col Wilson has been an instructor at the Leader Development Course for Squadron Command at Air University, was a two-time staff officer at the Pentagon, and currently serves as the Director of Staff, Air University.  She completed a Master of Strategic Studies while attending Air War College where she also served as the AY22 Class President, where she researched the topic of post-command coaching.


[1.] Air Force Instruction 36-3003.

[2.] The term “graduated squadron commander” means an individual who has successfully completed an assignment as a “C-prefix” commander at the squadron level. No distinction is made in this manuscript on deployed or garrison (home station) commanders, as they are all commanders at this organizational level.

[3.] DAF Unit Counts, Aug 21 Slide Show, HAF/A1.

[4.] AF/JAA, “Air Force Instruction 51-509, Appointment to and Assumption of Command,” January 15, 2019,

[5.] SAF/IG, “Air Force Instruction 1-2, Commander’s Responsibilities,” May 8, 2014,

[6.] M. F. Crane et al., “How Resilience Is Strengthened by Exposure to Stressors: The Systematic Self-Reflection Model of Resilience Strengthening,” Anxiety, Stress, & Coping 32, no. 1 (January 2, 2019): 1–17,

[7.] Patricia Potter et al., “Compassion Fatigue and Burnout" Prevalence among Oncology Nurses,” Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing 14, no. 5 (October 2010): E56–62.

[8.] Potter et al., 2010

[9.] Meredith Bell, “Leaders Coaching Leaders: A Cost-Effective Solution for Skill Development,” Leader & Leader, 2021, no. 101 (July 14, 2021): 46–51.

[10.] Bell, 2021.

[11.] Bell, 2021.

[12.] Hinck, J.M. (2022). Leadership coaching as a transformative process in the military, International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 20(1), pp.20-34. DOI: 10.24384/6cf9-v073.

[13.] Inquisitive Questionnaire Respondents, 2021.


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