6 Steps to Creating a Culture of Accountability from a Military Boot Camp Commander

I had the honor of serving as a commander of a U.S. Air Force basic military training squadron, more commonly known as “boot camp.”  During my tenure, over 10,000 young women and men came through this squadron for training to transition from civilian to a member of the U.S. Armed Forces. Nearly 100% of this population were from the millennial generation as were the majority of the instructors stewarding them through the process. This is not about politics or the military, but simply what I learned about leading people in an organization and increasing accountability.

At boot camp people came together as a team to overcome group and individual challenges and grew personally and professionally in the process.  What do those millennials I witnessed have in common with the ones in the workforce today? They were all volunteers. Just like those in your organization, they made the choice  everyday to show up.

At the end of each graduating class, we welcomed friends and family of the recruits to visit the squadron and meet the instructors. As the guests witnessed the spotless facilities and the sharply-dressed new members of the U.S. Air Force, invariably they would ask, often with astonished looks, how it all happened. How we were able to drive accountability and deliver personal transformation? In my opinion, it wasn’t the “break them down to build them up” mentality.  It wasn’t the legally binding paperwork, the yelling, the physical demands, or presence of the instructors. It was something much deeper that inspired these recruits to lean in to be accountable for their actions toward a common goal.

We created an environment conducive to accountability and here are 6 steps we followed:

  1. The goal and purpose should be clearly defined and inspirational. Individuals should be able to connect her/his actions to the goal being achieved. For boot camp, the goal was completion of training and entry into the US Air Force. Inspiration came from the opportunity to serve a higher purpose. However, being the best, the largest or the company with the greatest market share is not a purpose. It can be the result of it, but in and of itself, these material statements are not a purpose.Team members will be inspired by how your organization operates in the world and why it exists – make it explicit and connect each role back to it. 
  2. Personal Engagement. To whatever extent possible, provide the opportunity for people to choose how the goal is met. Early in boot camp training there is little, if any, personal choice or decision in how objectives are achieved. As recruits progressed in training, so too did their say in how it got accomplished. It’s important to note that the end objectives don’t change. But as training progressed, there was more personal choice in how they would spend their time (preparing for the next inspection, additional work on drill maneuvers, studying for academics) and how the group would work together to accomplish the goals. Give the people in your span of care the opportunity for choice, to whatever degree possible, and their commitment to completion increases. After all, it is partly their solution.
  3. System Alignment: Ensure the systems and structures the individual operates in are aligned to the objective. Boot camp excelled in this area. The daily schedule, the achievement of the learning objectives within the stated timeframe, and all the associated logistics was very thorough and refined over the years for supreme efficiency. One way to determine system alignment in your organization is to simply ask, “What is frustrating about your job?” These frustrations can lead back to system or structure misalignment. Additionally, ensure there is an opportunity for an individual to improve the system when these misalignments are identified. The “good idea suggestion box” that is, for some inexplicable reason, locked, is not a system; it’s just a locked box of Post-Its. For an organization to learn and improve, establish a path that individuals closest to the activity can share an idea to remove frustration from their work, and a system to receive, evaluate, select and implement these suggestions. All too easily leaders can focus on the behaviors of an individual without taking into account the systems influencing the actions.
  4. Feedback: People should know that who they are and what they do matter. In boot camp it was very clear when a recruit excelled and contrary to popular belief, the reward was not a lack of punishment, but the instructor informing the recruit of his/her performance. All too often in organizations people do great work and the only time they hear about their performance is when they get it wrong. Conversely, individuals should be afforded the opportunity to course-correct with actionable feedback as their guide. Feedback to recruits at boot camp was swift and specific. When providing feedback, be specific about the situation, focus on the actual behavior (not judgements which are opinions about the behavior) and the overall impact.
  5. Capability: Ensure people have the tools, resources, skills and knowledge necessary to complete the work. Boot camp is an incremental program that ensures at each step along the way recruits are given the correct training to achieve the next level of performance. Each task is demonstrated and evaluated for success before an additional layer. Ensure people have what is necessary to do the job at the expected performance level. Organizations spend time and resources trying to find the “right people” for the role. The energy you put into your recruiting program shouldn’t eclipse your people’s training; provide opportunities for growth to make the people you already have the “right people.”
  6. Measurement: Every person in the organization should know what winning looks like; boot camp was a constant scoreboard. Not solely to increase competition, but to let individuals know they were making progress, individually and as a team. All the objectives that needed to be attained – physical and mental fitness, academics, leadership – was very explicit and data was provided to show the progress. Before you can “hold people accountable” there needs to be a scoreboard to account to; define what winning looks like for each role in your organization.   

Consulting with companies around the world, I have found these steps increase accountability. And as you might have imagined, it has nothing to do with a specific generation. In boot camp, millennials survived without their smart phones and no, they weren’t socially awkward or physically unable to perform tasks. They were volunteers, highly dedicated, intelligent and passionate about making a difference. Just like those in any organization in generations that preceded them and will follow. Leadership is not just holding people accountable, it’s being accountable to the people.


As a co-founding partner of the BW Leadership Institute, Matt Whiat draws on his personal experience as a former US Air Force Officer to help organizations create cultures where people feel valued. If you would like to follow-up with Matt, you can email him at matthew.whiat@bwli.com or connect with him on LinkedIn.