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The Legacy of LDC: Leaders Thriving with Trust and Confidence v. “Just Surviving” or Getting Fired

  • Published
  • By John M. Hinck, W. Jason Watkins, Steven B. Davis, Jayson A. Altieri, and Christy Cruz-Peeler


This article situates trust and confidence as hallmarks of leaders who thrive in leading organizations. Within the military, trust exemplifies integrity over time and indicates how others feel that someone has the ability to achieve what is expected of them. Confidence indicates a belief that someone is reliable and imbues a deeper trust in their character. The U.S. Air Force (USAF) emphasizes four responsibilities of commanders: executing the mission, leading people, managing resources, and improving the unit. When military leaders are removed from command, it is primarily because of loss of trust and confidence by senior leaders regarding their commander responsibilities. Over the past five years, based on key recommendations from “Improving the Effectiveness of Air Force Squadron Commanders” and findings and recommendations in “Improving Air Force Squadrons – Recommendations for Vitality” the USAF has re-focused efforts on helping leaders thrive in command with trust and confidence while accomplishing the four commander responsibilities vs. just surviving and not getting fired.[1] Since 2018, the Leader Development Course for Squadron Command (LDC) has inspired and equipped 3518 leaders to thrive in command. LDC is an intensive eight-day experience covering human domain content, often considered “soft” skills, that helps fill a developmental gap identified in the Squadron Vitality study.[2] Based on content and thematic analysis of key literature and governmental documents, open-source data on commander firings, and pre-/post-data analysis in course evaluations, this study shows that LDC graduates exhibit greater trust and confidence in their leadership than non-LDC graduates. Thus far, out of the three and a half thousand leaders who have graduated from LDC, no one has been fired from command for situations involving human domain leadership issues[3], whereas the people who were fired never attended LDC.[4]

Our Aim

Our aim in this article is three-fold:

  1. Understand the enduring leadership problem in the U.S. Air Force (USAF) of commanders being fired and how past USAF leadership practices may have contributed to those firings by exacerbating a feeling of simply surviving vs. thriving in command, turning the focus toward technical expertise over the human domain.
  2. Understand how the USAF re-focused efforts to help leaders thrive in command with trust and confidence while improving human domain or “soft” skills.
  3. Show how the Leader Development Course is developing and sustaining a new line of leaders that contribute to thriving in command, particularly how LDC instills greater trust and confidence in leaders and why LDC graduates have not been fired from command for human domain reasons in comparison to non-LDC graduates.

Commander Responsibilities

In Air Force Instruction (AFI) 1-2, the USAF emphasizes four responsibilities of commanders: executing the mission, leading people, managing resources, and improving the unit.[5] From the online or newspaper headlines, it seems that the primary reason for the removal of military leaders from command by senior leaders is due to a loss of trust and confidence regarding their command responsibilities. Trust leadership was a primary area identified for improvement that would have a significant positive impact on squadrons.[6] Over the past five years, the USAF has re-focused efforts on helping leaders thrive in command with trust and confidence while accomplishing the four commander responsibilities vs. just surviving and not getting fired. Since 2018, LDC has been a primary effort in this area with a focus on the affective and behavioral zones of learning emphasizing trust, confidence, empathy, vulnerability, and ethical leadership practices.


The most challenging responsibility of any commander is creating an environment of trust and confidence within organizations constantly operating in the “Grey Zone” of tactical, operational, and strategic ambiguity. A Grey Zone is defined as the area where organizations experience continuous change, conditions, or scenarios so highly improbable that even the greatest leaders cannot plan or predict for them, something the USAF faces daily.[7] As then USAF Colonel David L. Goldfein wrote, “[Leaders are] not hired to tread water in command”, meaning leaders operating in Grey Zone environments are expected to improve their organization’s effectiveness using accountability, clarity of purpose, and effective leader communications that conveys a vision of trust and confidence under the most adverse conditions.[8] Through the ages, commanders have understood that even when the odds were in their favor materially an organization can still fail against an inferior force, like the 1951 Battle of Kapyong, South Korea, where 20,000 Chinese soldiers were defeated by an opposing UN force of 700 – losing the fight on the battlespace of the human domain, rather than the geographical domain.[9] The importance of commander’s building trust and confidence through accountability, clarity of purpose, and effective leader communications apply anywhere and anytime across the entire force operating in the Grey Zone.

Trust and Confidence

Within the military, trust exemplifies integrity over time and indicates how others feel that someone can achieve what is expected of them. Confidence indicates a belief that someone is reliable and imbues a deeper trust in their character.[10]Trust is a continuum that stretches from “thin” trust (assumption-based, ad hoc, and fragile) to “thick” trust (relationship based, habitual/ritualistic, and resilient), and the “thick” trust leads to more positive outcomes that further thickens trust and fosters benevolence.[11] When leaders poorly communicate priorities, misalign incentives, over-control with authority, demonstrate an aversion to failure, act in self-interest, over-focus on either mission or people, lack integrity, abuse authority, lack empathy, perform poorly, and breach their own integrity then trust is decreased and confidence is limited.[12] Leaders have learned skills to instill greater trust and confidence in classroom environments, particularly from shared authority practices and storytelling with instructor modeling of vulnerability behaviors leading to greater student participation, deeper cognitive learning, vulnerability mirroring, and leadership growth, which produces measurable attitudinal change and behavioral practices expressed by leaders in how they intend to lead with trust and confidence beyond the classroom.[13]

Despite the DoD’s ostentatious focus on trust in a leader as evidenced by the hackneyed headline for commander firing “loss of trust and confidence”, it remains somewhat enigmatic as to why some leaders succeed at building and sustaining trust where others seemingly fail.[14] What’s more, can trust ever be restored? Might there be training or leadership development which could hone in on leader behavior that strengthens one’s ability to establish, nourish and if necessary regain trust? To provide more context, the following four assumptions may be helpful. First, there are specific leader behaviors that either destroy or enhance trust. Second, the “lost” trust implies a loss in two forms of relationships, either through loss with the leader’s leaders or a loss within the leader’s unit (i.e. those under their command authority), or both. Third, certain qualities and behaviors are needed to sense the state of trust, then sustain it. Fourth, how might one re-establish trust with one’s unit, and/or with one’s chain of command. 

The questions that guide this study are linked to understanding how and why LDC graduates show more trust and confidence as leaders in command than non-LDC graduates, who were fired largely due to a loss of trust and confidence. 

  1. To what extent do LDC graduates show greater trust and confidence than non-LDC graduates?
  2. What classroom practices most contribute to increasing or sustaining trust/confidence in command situations?
  3. What systems most contribute to leaders thriving in command?

Research Approach

To answer these questions we are using a five-phase approach, of which only phases 1, 2, and 3 are currently underway as we wait for IRB approval for phase 4. Phase 1 consists of content analysis of literature, governmental documents, and studies that included trust and confidence, as well as thriving and firing of leaders. Phase 2 examines data from eight questions on end-of-course surveys from LDC students in AY20–23, as well as comparing pre-/post-data on how students felt they were ready to thrive in command. The responses were aggregated for each question, allowing individual survey participants to be anonymous. Phase 3 involves gathering of data from open sources regarding the firing of commanders and comparing their names to the list of those who have graduated from LDC. To date, we have collected data from open sources on 42 individuals who were fired from command. In phase 4, we will extend an invitation to those individuals who were fired from command to participate in an interview about their experiences. If possible, we will also interview the person who fired them. Transcripts of interviews will be provided to participants and member checking employed to ensure the honoring of participant voices. Lastly, in phase 5, we will cross-analyze the data from phases 1–4 using a cumulative coding process to move from codes to categories to themes. The initial findings have emerged from analysis of the data end-of-course surveys from ten LDCs, pre-/post-data from four LDCs, and open sources.

Initial Findings

While our study will be completed in summer of 2024, initial results reveal that:

  1. Trust, confidence, empathy, vulnerability, integrity, ethical leadership practices, risk acceptance v. failure aversion, communicating priorities, aligning incentives, values alignment, shared authority, reflection, genuine/authentic storytelling, and organizational performance were the most prominent themes related to “thick” trust and higher confidence.
  2. LDC students reported an increase in the feeling like they could thrive in command; 3.56 (out of 5) before starting LDC compared to 4.82 at course completion.
  3. LDC students often reported that their experiences in the eight-day course also improved their feelings of thriving in life or their home environment as much as it did in their work environment.
  4. Leaders who have graduated from LDC have not been fired from command for issues related to the human domain.
  5. Leaders who have graduated from LDC showed greater trust and confidence as determined by their senior leaders in comparison to the non-graduates from who were fired from command due to a loss of trust and confidence.
  6. The systems or processes that participants felt contributed most to their success and thriving in command included attending LDC, peer network, leadership training by their major commands, reflection, understanding how to have difficult conversations regarding challenging topics, professional military education, and previous leadership experiences.
  7. Participants overwhelmingly believed that LDC was one of the single most important training and “best course ever” that they received in their career that strengthened their ability to thrive in command.


Our full study is expected to have four implications, of which the first has been already achieved, while the remaining three are expected to be realized by the end of the study: 

  • Provides empirical evidence that LDC is among the most impactful training and experiences that influence a leader’s ability to thrive in command with trust and confidence. 
  • Offers key themes to build and sustain the “thick” trust needed for success.
  • Offers systems and processes, notably the Leader Development Course, that further contribute to feeling like someone can thrive in command and leadership roles.
  • Connects scholarship to practice and further supports findings and recommendations in previous literature and government reports.


This article provides compelling evidence that the LDC is an effective resource that instills greater trust and confidence in leaders. The distinctively strategic medley of courses combined with the meticulous selection and preparation of military and civilian instructors equates to the overall improvement in leadership efficacy. The investment made by the highest echelons of the USAF leadership to combat the historically problematic concern of commander dismissal 'due to the lack of trust and confidence' has paid dividends. Cultivating human domain competencies through deliberate development delivers rising leaders more likely to thrive in their command roles and personal lives.


Dr. John M. Hinck
Serving as an assistant professor at Air University with the Leadership & Innovation Institute (Air War College), Dr. Hinck teaches core courses and electives for AWC and ACSC, and teaches in the Leader Development Course (Eaker Center for Leadership Development). A former Apache Longbow pilot and Army Colonel with more than 22 years of service as a combat leader, two-time battalion commander, Dr. Hinck has several publications with recent ones on “A Three-Part Leadership Framework for the Cyber Community: A Model of Trust, Risk, and Influence” and the strategic competition involving the Indo-Pacific region.

Lt Col W. Jason Watkins
Lt Col Watkins is the current director for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s Leader Development Course (LDC) for Squadron Command. Lt Col Watkins is an experienced Air Education and Training Command instructor, a graduate of Air University’s Air War College and Air Command and Staff College, he is a joint qualified officer, and is a Senior F-15E Weapons Systems Officer with seven operational deployments.  Prior to Lt Col Watkins’ current AETC teaching assignment, he commanded the 48th Operation Support Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, United Kingdom. He also served as a liaison and strategist in a bi-national NORAD staff assignment in Canada. 

Dr. Steven B. Davis
Dr. Davis is an Assistant Professor of Leadership at the Leadership and Innovation Institute, Air War College. He is a primary instructor for the Leader Development Course, where he also serves as Director of Faculty Development and Director of Curriculum. He also teaches a variety of courses on leadership at Air War College, Air Command and Staff College, and in invited lectures and seminars around Air University and the Air Force. He has researched and published on a variety of topics related to leader development, educational course design, advanced pedagogy/andragogy, methods of teaching and learning, and faculty development.

Jayson A. Altieri
Jayson serves as an assistant professor at Air University with the Leadership & Innovation Institute (Air War College), Mr. Altieri teaches core courses and electives for ACSC, and instructs at the Leader Development Course (Eaker Center for Leadership Development).  A retired Army Colonel and former UH-60 Black Hawk pilot with more than 33 years of service as a combat leader and Brigade commander, Jayson has written over forty-five publications with recent ones on aerospace and leadership topics including “Oscar Duce and the DUCKBUTTs - The True Story of the USAF’s O-2 Skymaster Aircraft Self-deployment to South Vietnam” and “Extreme Ownership: A Commander’s Culture of Continual Compliance.”

Lt Col (Dr.) Christy Cruz-Peeler
Christy serves as an active-duty Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force. Currently, she is the Deputy Director of the Leadership & Innovation Institute at Air University. She is responsible in assisting in the development, delivery & assessment of leadership-focused education and curriculum. She is also a certified Instructor for the Leader Development Course (LDC) for Squadron Command where she prepares rising leaders to thrive in command positions and be effective maneuvering within the human domain. Additionally, Dr. Cruz-Peeler is a Board Certified Licensed Clinical Social Worker maintaining her credentialing and clinical skills by continually serving patients. 



[1.]  John Ausink, Miriam Matthews, Raymond E. Conley, and Nelson Lim, “Improving the Effectiveness of Air Force Squadron Commanders: Assessing Squadron Commander Responsibilities, Preparation, and Resources,” (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018), 45–50,; Stephen Davis and Headquarters Air Force Core Team, “Improving Air Force Squadrons – Recommendations for Vitality,” (report, Department of the Air Force, January 2018), 15–42, 70–82, (accessed April 12, 2013, CAC required).

[2.] Ausink et. al., Improving the Effectiveness of Air Force Squadrons, 2, 33.

[3.] For the purpose of this study, human domain is defined as “the totality of the human sphere of activity or knowledge” that comprises human interaction in the cultural, institutional, technological, and physical environments. For this definition, see: Joint Doctrine Publication 4,Understanding (Shrivenham, UK: Development, Concepts, and Doctrine Centre, December 2010), 3–5; for more on the case for the human domain as a joint domain, see: Michael C. Davies and Frank Hoffman, “Joint Force 2020 and the Human Domain: Time for a New Conceptual Framework?” Small Wars Journal, online, (accessed February 28, 2023).

[4.] One LDC graduate has been relieved of command, but it was for technical reasons, not shortcomings in human domain leadership.

[5.] U.S. Air Force, Air Force Instruction (AFI) 1-2, Commander’s Responsibilities, 2–5.

[6.] Davis et. al., Improving Air Force Squadrons, A–17.

[7.] Ben Brearley, “How Leaders Can Survive and Thrive ‘Working in the Grey,’” Thoughtful Leader: Developing Leaders That Make Work Better, online, March 2020, (accessed February 28, 2023).

[8.] David L. Goldfein, Sharing Success, Owning Failure: Preparing to Command in the Twenty-First Century Air Force, (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press), 23–24.

[9.] Brent Watson, “Recipe for Victory: The Fight for Hill 677 During the Battle of the Kap’yong River, 24–25 April 1951,” Canadian Military History 9, No. 2 (2000): 14, 24.

[10.] Stephen Covey, The Speed of Trust, (New York, NY: Free Press, 2006), 43–128.

[11.] Ayers et. al., “U.S. Air Force on Trust,” 8; Yu-Ting Caisy Hung, Alan R. Dennis, and Lionel P. Robert, “Trust in Virtual Teams: Towards an Integrative Model of Trust Formation,” Proceedings of the 37th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 2004, 6 and 9, doi: 10.1109/HICSS.2004.1265156; Roger C. Mayer, James H. Davis, and David Schoorman, “An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust,” The Academy of Management Review 20, No 3 (1995): 718–719.

[12.] Ayers et. al., “U.S. Air Force on Trust,” 15; John M. Hinck and Robert S. Hinck, “Strength Through Vulnerability: The Role of Trust Formation in Leader Development Programs,” Journal of Military Conflict Transformation (under review, 2023): 5–7.

[13.] Ibid.11 and 15.

[14.] Thomas J. Brennan, “‘Lost Trust and Confidence’: How the Military Covers Up Officer Misconduct and Why That’s Harmful to Democracy,” The Warhorse, April 28, 2021, online, (accessed February 20, 2023).

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