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DAF leaders speak at National Character and Leadership Symposium

  • Published
  • By Katherine Spessa
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Strategic Communications

U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force senior leaders participated in a senior leader panel during the National Character and Leadership Symposium held at the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Arnold Hall, Feb. 23.

The cadet-moderated panel welcomed Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin, Vice Chief of Space Operations Michael A. Guetlein, the Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Joanne S. Bass and the Chief Master Sgt. of the Space Force John Bentivegna to the stage to answer a series of questions sent in by NCLS attendees.

Academy Cadet 1st Class Ruben Banks posed the questions to each panel member in turn, with queries spanning the spectrum of their responsibility.

U.S. prepares for the Great Power Competition
Following Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall’s debut of upcoming changes to better posture the Air Force and Space Force in an era of Great Power Competition during a conference held in Denver on Feb. 12, 2024, it is no surprise it remained a prominent theme of the discussion.

“There has been more change in the past 24 months than I have seen in my whole career,” said Guetlein, whose 34-year-long career has spanned two services and several conflicts. “We are in the midst of pivoting the entire Department of the Air Force 180 degrees.”

According to Bass, Airmen and Guardians can expect even more change in the next four to six years as the Defense Department shifts from the military she joined in the early 1990’s, which focused on the warfighting domains of air, land and sea, to now maintain dominance in the additional warfighting domains of space, cyberspace and information.

“We’re really just accelerating to meet the environment where it is,” Allvin said.

Recruiting and keeping talented Airmen and Guardians are key to helping reshape, refocus and reoptimize the Air Force and Space Force.

Mission command and leveraging diversity
In preparation for the Great Power Conflict, the Department of the Air Force announced in August 2023 its shift toward mission command, the practice of conducting military operations through decentralized execution.

The shift to mission command is now being incorporated into the Academy’s curriculum and trained at all levels of the Department of the Air Force.

“I grew up in the waning days of the Cold War, and I remember; I was in Germany when the [Berlin] wall came down,” said Allvin, a 1986 Academy graduate. “That is not the future conflict. Your communications will likely be disrupted; you’ll move around in a small team.

“You have to understand the overall concept of the mission because there may be times you have to deviate from what you were told because the situation has changed.”

The key to this, all agreed, is to develop team dynamics, problem-solving and mental agility.

“I don’t need the Academy and ROTC detachments to build me robots,” said Guetlein. “I need you guys to be thinking adversaries. I need you to be agile, I need you to be risk takers, I need you to know how to operate as a team. I need you to operate with unity of effort because you may not have unity of command.

“Each person must bring value to the fight,” Guetlein continued. “I need you to figure out how to leverage the diversity of your team: diversity of thought, diversity of education, diversity of background, diversity of opinion.”


Bass, who credits her uniquely diverse background to growing up a military child in Department of Defense Schools, encouraged audience members to consider the high-performing teams they had been on.

A highlight of the discussion for Nunez was the response from Allvin and Bass following a question from a fellow attendee about the challenges of mental health care in the military. Both leaders highlighted the spectrum of resilience and posit that it is the answer to alleviating mental health struggles in both the military and the nation.

“When I talk to our mental health providers, they tell me that out of every 10 Airmen that come to mental health, only two need clinical mental health support; the other eight just need to know someone cares,” Bass said. “There is a shortage of mental health providers, but there is not a shortage of leaders and wingmen. We have to embrace community and talk to one another.”

“It's not just a military crisis; it’s a national mental health crisis,” Allvin continued. “But the military has a history of leading the way on social change and I think we can on this as well. Between the two people who need clinical care and the eight people who need someone to care, we need to bridge that gap.”

NCLS is the Academy’s flagship event and is open to the public. Each year, the forum welcomes speakers and participants from all walks of life. The three-day conference features presenters that include international scholars, military leaders, corporate executives and world-class athletes. The senior leader panel offered perspectives on leadership to all those in attendance: local and visiting students, business and community leaders and current and former cadets alike.