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Adapting the U.S. Air Force’s combat rescue management practices could improve organizational responses to challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic

Authors:
  • Westminster College, Salt Lake City, United States

Abstract

In this article, we argue that U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) pararescue teams offer a model of best practices that could be adapted by leaders of other organizations during the COVID-19 crisis. AFSOC teams recover and provide medical treatment to personnel in unpredictable and dangerous environments. Our research suggests that the ability of AFSOC teams to operate effectively in situations of uncertainty, complexity, and urgency depends on several critical factors: an operational tempo that includes time for reflection; effective assessment, selection, and training of team members; risk assessment and ongoing revision of the planning process; and fluid leadership with a chief executive who maintains ultimate accountability. These same management practices could be adapted by organizational leaders to help them respond more effectively to the challenges posed by the constantly changing COVID-19 pandemic.
a publication of the behavioral science & policy association 1
Adapting the U.S. Air Force’s
combat rescue management
practices could improve
organizational responses
to challenges posed by
the COVID-19 pandemic
Vicki Whiting, Brian Wierman, & Phillip Whiting
abstract*
In this article, we argue that U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command
(AFSOC) pararescue teams oer a model of best practices that could be
adapted by leaders of other organizations during the COVID-19 crisis.
AFSOC teams recover and provide medical treatment to personnel in
unpredictable and dangerous environments. Our research suggests
that the ability of AFSOC teams to operate eectively in situations
of uncertainty, complexity, and urgency depends on several critical
factors: an operational tempo that includes time for reflection; eective
assessment, selection, and training of team members; risk assessment
and ongoing revision of the planning process; and fluid leadership with
a chief executive who maintains ultimate accountability. These same
management practices could be adapted by organizational leaders to help
them respond more eectively to the challenges posed by the constantly
changing COVID-19 pandemic.
Whiting, V., Wierman, B., & Whiting, P. (2020). Adapting the U.S. Air Force’s combat
rescue management practices could improve organizational responses to challenges
posted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Behavioral Science & Policy. Retrieved from https://
behavioralpolicy.org/journal_issue/covid-19/
proposal
2 behavioral science & policy
U.S. Air Force Special Operations
Command (AFSOC) pararescue teams,
commonly referred to as PJ teams,
recover and provide medical treatment to
personnel involved in combat, natural disasters,
or humanitarian-assistance operations. They
respond to crisis situations in any environment,
even acting as the 911 force to other special
operators.1 As such, they are extreme action
teams that “complete their tasks in unconven-
tional performance environments and have
serious consequences associated with failure.”2
Such teams are a refinement of crisis action
teams, which have been defined as “highly
skilled specialist teams cooperating in brief
performance events that require improvisation
in unpredictable circumstances.”3
COVID-19 has put all organizations into
unconventional environments in which the
consequences associated with flawed perfor-
mance can be extremely serious, including the
loss of lives and livelihoods. Adopting AFSOC
management and leadership practices can
maximize organizational eectiveness during
this crisis.
Operational Tempo
In the U.S. military, PJ teams and other deploy-
able units and assets (such as naval vessels
and infantry battalions) operate at a pace that
stands apart from that of other units in that
they carefully cycle their operational tempo to
avoid constant high intensity. At any given time,
there are PJ teams training for deployment,
on deployment, or coming off deployment
and reviewing lessons learned. This deliberate
scheduling of time away from intense oper-
ations engenders opportunities to reflect on
lessons learned from high-tempo operations
or crisis responses. These lessons are then inte-
grated into training and put to use in improving
eectiveness in the field.
Organizational Takeaway
Mature and well-led organizations generally
have risk management protocols in place, but
they may lack the time and resources to grow
and nurture teams devoted to responding to
crises. Resource-constrained organizations
often prioritize short-term and immediate
needs. However, accepting long-term risk to
maximize short-term gains—dubbed managerial
short-termism—can be avoided.4
Even among organizations with well-developed
crisis-response plans and teams, the atten-
tion to planning and team design will naturally
compete with hectic day-to-day operations,
in which competition and market demands
invoke constant stress. Organizations can thus
suffer from a constant “hair-on-fire” reality
that degrades both short- and long-term
eectiveness.
To be eective in the ongoing and constantly
changing COVID-19 environment, organiza-
tions should form crisis-response leadership
teams. These teams should be organized so
that leaders periodically cycle o active crisis
duty to reflect on lessons learned and ways to
integrate new pandemic developments into the
crisis response. It can be tempting for organi-
zational leaders to take an all-hands-on-deck
approach in times of crisis, and in the case of
a single-event crisis, such as a security breach
or a product failure, this response works. The
dierence with COVID-19, however, is that the
crisis continues to evolve, and its length and
lasting impact are unknown. In this type of
highly complex, rapidly changing environment,
adopting AFSOC’s approach of creating time
for crisis-response leaders to step away from
day-to-day crisis response is critical. This break
will give leaders time both to reflect on the e-
cacy of the current organizational response
and to consider how to adapt and improve the
ongoing response. Although most organizations
do not have the structure and resources to field
redundant response teams that can relieve one
another on the front lines, they can be delib-
erate in designating a defined weekly time when
all members of the crisis-response leadership
team can gather together away from interrup-
tion to share field lessons, be briefed on recent
changes in the pandemic environment, and
review and update planned responses.
Team Selection & Training
The selection and training of PJs (that is, indi-
viduals on PJ teams) is integral to ensure their
a publication of the behavioral science & policy association 3
ability to respond to crisis under extreme condi-
tions. AFSOC takes seriously the overall process
of onboarding and training these combat
rescue troops because organizational success
is contingent on individual soldiers’ mission-
specific competencies, commitment to mission,
and acceptance of great personal risk.
AFSOC’s 12-week Assessment and Selection
course evaluates prospective PJs holistically.
Demanding physical training, swim, and run
time requirements push candidates to their
physical limits. In addition to physical tests,
Assessment and Selection also includes peer
reviews and psychological tests to identify
candidates who are team players, ethical, and
in possession of the requisite professional
character traits. Training instructors conduct
and run a carefully designed training schedule,
which has an attrition rate of over 80%, to eval-
uate whether a candidate possesses the mental
and physical capacity to do what is required
in the line of duty. The selection process that
a prospective recruit undergoes provides the
foundation for the candidate’s ability to operate
eectively during a crisis and gives the person
a sense of whether they will be able to rise to
the challenge of the mission and culture when
operating in hostile conditions. Ultimately, the
selection process allows for evaluation of phys-
ical aptitude and, more important, attitude and
toughness.
After they are selected, prospective PJs enter the
Pipeline, an extensive two-year training program
to learn the skill sets required to operate as a
member of an AFSOC team. Each step of the
selection and assessment process involves
360-degree rankings of prospective PJs, where
all candidates are ranked in numerical order
by training commanders, ocers, and fellow
candidates according to performance. PJs who
consistently rank in the lower quadrant of the
360 ranking can be removed from training.
Once PJs successfully complete the Pipeline,
they are assigned to operational units and
begin to deploy. The universal selection process
allows for community morale and cohesion,
and the shared skill set ensures that teams
maintain skill redundancy. Most important is
that the ranking ensures that all team members
trust one another and are familiar with each
team member’s capability and strengths. AFSOC
designs PJ training and culture to foster mutual
respect and capability among the PJ commu-
nity, greatly enhancing teams’ crisis response in
subsequent real-world operations.5
Organizational Takeaway
It is not realistic to expect organizations to
mirror AFSOC selection and training processes,
but some important principles can be gleaned.
Leaders must be carefully evaluated and vetted
before being selected for an organization’s
crisis-response leadership team. Selection for
this team is best done through both a histor-
ical review of the individual’s organizational
contributions as well as a 360-degree feed-
back evaluation to determine the level of
aptitude, attitude, toughness, and commitment
to mission and culture the individual will bring
to the team. Traditionally, organizations have
used 360-degree feedback and similar tools
from human resource departments to review
performance, and it may be tempting for orga-
nizations in the midst of a crisis to skip this
step; however, crisis-response leadership team
members must be highly regarded as team
members and professionals if they are to have
the influence necessary to be eective in driving
organizational response.
Once a crisis-response leadership team has
been selected, training should be provided not
only to develop the team’s capacity to conduct
business but also to build esprit de corps within
the team and establish a shared decisionmaking
framework. Because the selection process
will have identified top-caliber organizational
members, the training process need not be
extensive, although it should be deliberate so as
to get all team members on the same page and
give the team an opportunity to adopt a shared
team culture. Training should include pandemic
information; the organization’s vision, mission,
and culture; and procedures and approaches
for setting goals, planning, and operating.
Scenario training and “wargaming” (explained in
the next section) can further enhance individual
members’ capabilities and align team members
within the framework of the organization’s
mission and culture.
4 behavioral science & policy
Risk Assessment &
Operational Analysis
All branches of the military use a planning
process to develop and identify courses of
action (COAs) to respond to potential crises.
The Joint Planning process manual (JP-5)
describes COAs as “a potential way (solution,
method) to accomplish the assigned mission.”6
Developing COAs helps mitigate the risk of
a given crisis by identifying critical variables
that have the potential to significantly aect
outcomes; they also help in identifying neces-
sary responses and decisions on a particular
aspect of the crisis. Military leaders will often
use wargaming—working through various
scenarios—as a way to walk through or simulate
each COA and consider the risks to the team
and the mission. During wargaming, planners
document perceived or anticipated risks and
develop a variety of plans and heuristics to aid
their decisionmaking during a crisis. Wargaming
allows the team to identify tasks, necessary
equipment, critical events, organizational issues,
command and support relationships, the time-
line, and potentially harmful consequences of
any miscoordination.
Organizational Takeaway
Crisis-response leadership teams should
develop COAs as described in the JP-5 to plan
responses for dierent COVID-19 scenarios.
For example, a business that depends on large-
scale gatherings of people might develop
several dierent COAs to be ready for multiple
scenarios depending on the speed with which
a vaccine becomes widely available. COAs
should be articulated such that the organiza-
tion’s mission or task can be accomplished by
following the COA during an anticipated crisis.
The magnitude and variety of organizational
impacts resulting from COVID-19 make it crit-
ical that COAs are complete, feasible, consistent
with organizational doctrine, and in compliance
with guidance set out by executive authority.
Wargaming allows team members to evaluate
how well each COA would perform in the face
of potential risks and other variables. In the
case of the COVID pandemic, these variables
could include additional waves of infection, the
timing and ecacy of a vaccine, the availability
and use of testing, financial market volatility, and
consumer willingness to reengage in commerce.
Weaknesses exposed by wargaming can be
addressed and incorporated into revised COAs.
As important as the COAs are, leaders must
recognize that planning tools can oversimplify
the situation or fail to anticipate future events. As
such, crisis-response leadership teams should
regularly review and update the COVID-19 COAs
as new information becomes available.
Fluid Leadership &
Accountability
Because of the eectiveness of team selec-
tion and training as well as the process of risk
assessment and operational analysis, leader-
ship in a PJ team becomes fluid and dynamic.
Daniel Goleman, originator of the concept of
emotional intelligence, noted that “the most
eective leaders switch flexibly among the lead-
ership styles as needed. . . . Such leaders don’t
mechanically match their style to fit a checklist
of situations—they are far more fluid.”7
PJs train to understand when and how to
move between fluid and traditional leadership
structures. For example, during a crisis, the
commanding ocer often defers to PJs with
the appropriate subject-matter expertise to
lead relevant parts of the mission. Fluid lead-
ership entails using the best qualified individual
to lead based on context. Ultimately, however,
the commanding ocer is responsible for the
overall outcome of a given mission and the
overall success of the team. Within this structure
of accountability, though, leadership in the field
rests with the individual best situated to align
the team around mission success.
Organizational Takeaway
In an organization, fluid leadership capa-
bility will most likely need to be specifically
acknowledged and adopted by members of the
crisis-response leadership team, especially if
this is not a normal mode of operation for the
organization. Members should be prepared to
a publication of the behavioral science & policy association 5
step up and lead when their core competence
is most relevant to operational success. Fluid
leadership is not an abdication of accountability
for a chief executive, however. The chief exec-
utive must rely on the team to communicate
clearly and must acknowledge and incorporate
those insights in a way that serves the overall
team’s interests. Although the chief executive
can and often should fluidly delegate authority
to a member of the crisis-response team, he or
she can never relinquish overall accountability
and responsibility.
Conclusion
Organizational leaders facing the myriad threats
created by COVID-19 can learn from AFSOC’s
extreme action team planning and design.
Appointing and empowering a crisis-response
leadership team of capable and committed
subject-matter experts to gather, assess the
situation, and lead initiatives responding to the
pandemic will help those organizations survive
and thrive. Leaders should seek to adjust and
design the team’s operational tempo, allowing
time for members to step away from day-to-day
crisis management for reflection, learning, and
future crisis-response planning. Teams should
adopt risk assessment and operational analysis
management practices borrowed from AFSOC
and the U.S. military, such as those described in
the JP-5, to identify the best courses of action to
manage their response. Team leadership should
be allowed to shift fluidly as context dictates,
although ultimate responsibility lies on the
shoulders of the chief executive. As teams coor-
dinate and lead their organizational response,
team members must provide timely and thor-
ough feedback so that the chief executive can
clearly, factually, and fully manage communica-
tions as is appropriate for dierent stakeholder
groups in the rapidly evolving, extraordinarily
complex crisis created by COVID-19.
author aliations
Vicki Whiting: Westminster College of Salt Lake
City. Brian Wierman: U.S. Marine Corps Reser ve.
Phillip Whiting: Kentucky Air National Guard.
Corresponding author’s e-mail: vwhiting@west-
minstercollege.edu.
Summary Table. Practices from U.S. Air Force extreme action
teams that could be adopted by civilian companies, institutions, &
organizations facing challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic
Categor y
U.S. Air Force Special Operations
Command (AFSOC) practice Civilian organization practice
Team purpose AFSOC extreme action teams plan and carry out
missions to recover and provide medical treatment to
personnel in unpredictable environments where failure
could have serious outcomes.
Crisis-response leadership teams plan and carry
out organizational responses to crises aecting
organizational operations, including the COVID-19
pandemic.
Operational tempo Extreme action teams regularly cycle through training,
deployment, and reflection (lessons learned).
Team members should cycle on and o “active duty”
to allow time for reflection and revision of ongoing
response.
Team selection Prospective candidates undergo physical fitness tests
and 360-degree rankings based on evaluations of
aptitude, attitude, and toughness.
Selection criteria should include a review of an
individual’s historical performance and a 360-degree
performance evaluation.
Training Team members train for two years to master skills,
build group trust, and align with mission and culture.
Team members should complete shared training to
build trust and align with mission and culture.
Risk assessment and
operational analysis
Teams develop courses of action (COAs) and use
wargaming to help identify and plan for risks.
Teams should develop COAs to respond to dierent
scenarios for how COVID-19 might play out and
continually review and improve COAs as conditions
evolve.
Fluid leadership and
ultimate accountability
Functional hierarchy defers to subject-matter
experts on the extreme action team. However, the
commanding ocer is ultimately responsible for the
outcome.
Chief executives should practice and acknowledge
fluid leadership. Team members should be prepared to
step up when their core competence is most relevant.
However, the chief executive is ultimately responsible
for the outcome.
references
6 behavioral science & policy
1. St. Clair, J. (2019, December 26). The
savior elite: Inside the special operations
force tasked with rescuing Navy SEALS.
Esquire. Retrieved from https://www.
esquire.com/news-politics/a28692306/
us-air-force-pararescue-tamar-rescue-
mission/
2. Bell, S. T., Fisher, D. M., Brown, S. G.,
& Mann, K. E. (2018). An approach
for conducting actionable research
with extreme teams. Journal of
Management, 44, 2740–2765.
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D. (1990). Work teams: Applications
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org/10.1037/0003-066X.45.2. 120
4. Alexander, J. (2017). Short-termism and
corporate myopia: The values assigned
by the market to short-term and
long-term firms (CMC Senior Theses
1499). Retrieved from Scholarship @
Claremont website: https://scholarship.
claremont.edu/cmc_theses/1499
5. Whiting, V., DePillis, E., Wierman,
B., & Whiting, P. (2019). Combat is
the equalizer: Hierarchical and fluid
leadership in Air Force pararescue.
Working paper.
6. Joint Chiefs of Sta. (2017). Joint
planning (Joint Publication 5-0).
Retrieved from https://www.jcs.mil/
Portals/36/Documents/Doctrine/pubs/
jp5_0_20171606.pdf
7. Goleman, D. (2017). Leadership that
gets results. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
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2000)
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Article
Full-text available
This article uses an ecological approach to analyze factors in the effectiveness of work teams—small groups of interdependent individuals who share responsibility for outcomes for their organizations. Applications include advice and involvement, as in quality control circles and committees; production and service, as in assembly groups and sales teams; projects and development, as in engineering and research groups: and action and negotiation, as in sports teams and combat units. An analytic framework depicts team effectiveness as interdependent with organizational context, boundaries, and team development. Key context factors include (a) organizational culture, (b) technology and task design, (c) mission clarity, (d) autonomy, (e) rewards, (f) performance feedback, (g) training/consultation, and (h) physical environment. Team boundaries may mediate the impact of organizational context on team development. Current research leaves unanswered questions but suggests that effectiveness depends on organizational context and boundaries as much as on internal processes. Issues are raised for research and practice. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
Article
Extreme teams complete their tasks in unconventional performance environments and have serious consequences associated with failure. Examples include disaster relief teams, special operations teams, and astronaut crews. The unconventional performance environments within which these teams operate require researchers to carefully consider the context during the research process. These environments may also create formidable challenges to the research process, including constraining data collection and sample sizes. Given the serious consequences associated with failure, however, the challenges must be navigated so that the management of extreme teams can be evidence based. We present an approach for conducting actionable research on extreme teams. Our approach is an extension of mixed-methods research that is particularly well suited for emphasizing context. The approach guides researchers on how to integrate the local context into the research process, which allows for actionable recommendations. At the same time, our approach applies an intentionally broad framework for organizing context, which can serve as a mechanism through which the results of research on extreme teams can be meaningfully accumulated and integrated across teams. Finally, our approach and description of steps address the unique challenges common in extreme-team research. While developed with extreme teams in mind, we view our general approach as applicable to more traditional teams when the features of the context that impinge on team functioning are not adequately represented by typical descriptions of context in the literature and the goal is actionable research for the teams in question.
The savior elite: Inside the special operations force tasked with rescuing Navy SEALS
  • St
  • J Clair
St. Clair, J. (2019, December 26). The savior elite: Inside the special operations force tasked with rescuing Navy SEALS. Esquire. Retrieved from https://www. esquire.com/news-politics/a28692306/ us-air-force-pararescue-tamar-rescuemission/
Short-termism and corporate myopia: The values assigned by the market to short-term and long-term firms (CMC Senior Theses 1499)
  • J Alexander
Alexander, J. (2017). Short-termism and corporate myopia: The values assigned by the market to short-term and long-term firms (CMC Senior Theses 1499). Retrieved from Scholarship @ Claremont website: https://scholarship. claremont.edu/cmc_theses/1499
Combat is the equalizer: Hierarchical and fluid leadership in Air Force pararescue
  • V Whiting
  • E Depillis
  • B Wierman
  • P Whiting
Whiting, V., DePillis, E., Wierman, B., & Whiting, P. (2019). Combat is the equalizer: Hierarchical and fluid leadership in Air Force pararescue. Working paper.