November 11th, 2013.
Thank you to all who have served and sacrificed for America when called upon. Thanks most of all to my Dad, who never found a single thing to like about war and in fact always abhorred it . . . but signed his draft card, left the relative peace of his home in Ohio for the chaos and privation of Vietnam, and did his duty proudly, excellently, and honorably. His is the story of many veterans . . . the story of setting aside one’s own priorities and beliefs and doing what the nation requires.
We sometimes find that the wars we felt bound to support — and the horrific consequences they created — were not necessary, clearly justified, or their validity faithfully communicated. This can be an emotionally catastrophic realization. In our time, our country has surrendered too easily to the seductive notion that military force and logistical might can solve every problem . . . and has too often capitalized on the can-do spirit and unselfishness of its people to make war where it ought not have been made, or to extend war where it ought to have been decided and concluded. This is a concerning development for many reasons . . . not least of which the risk that people otherwise inclined to stand forward and assume the duty of defending America might be less inclined . . . and might feel well justified to question whether the cause they’re considering is just . . . whether it is in fact a duty or a matter of political convenience.
But if everyone were to have ceased in motion and energy for an endless analysis of the subjective rightness of things whenever, in our history, they felt ambivalence or doubt . . . the promise of what was bequeathed to us here would have long ago been extinguished. We should hope for less war in the future, and may we continue to be fortunate enough to have Americans always willing to find in the appeal to duty enough validity to stand forward . . . even if we have not always perfectly shepherded or even occasionally rendered misplaced the trust of those who came before.
On this day, save a thought . . . for those who saw it in their duty to endorse a check for up to and including the amount of life itself in order to defend their nation . . . and had that check cashed in the horrible fires of combat. These heroes often perished as they fought not so much to protect and preserve the high-minded ideals that led them to first put on the uniform . . . but to protect their beloved teammates who endured hardship and the darkest of human enmity along with them.
Most of all, keep the fires burning for those who are still out there doing what we have asked of them halfway around the world, in places so inhospitable as to escape the imagination of most of us. We shouldn’t rest too easy until every last one of them is out of harm’s way and home, . . . where they belong.
Posted in Air Force / Air Power, American Society, Foreign Policy, International Affairs, Leadership and Managing, Military, National Security, Organizations, Veterans
Tagged Afghanistan, Air Force, civil-military relationships, command, communications, Core Values, Culture, defense reform, DoD, generals, human resources, Integrity, leadership, national security, organization, organizations, politics, Reform, Trust, veterans
It’ll be slightly painful, but read this.
Yes, what you just digested is an actual, Air Force sponsored public affairs article. Not satire (at least not intentionally). It was produced and published using taxpayer funds. It describes activities that were also funded by the taxpayer. In this time of budgetary distress, that alone would constitute a worthy critique of this conglomeration of nonsense. Honestly, it’s not clear which is worse . . . the fact this idiocy took place, or the fact a commander at some level allowed it to be documented and reported.
So much wrong here.
First, can any model for team-building based on dishonest tactics produce a useful result? Spoiler alert: no. But let’s bracket that for a moment.
I’ve written at length about the many ways in which the Air Force gets the problems of sexual assault and sexual harassment wrong. It has been doubling down on a failed approach for a long time, and the problem has worsened on roughly the same slope. This article demonstrates a big part of why. By empowering its commanders to conduct misguided social experiments that incentivize and embolden airmen to behave hyper-sensitively, the service introduces more barriers to communication — the kind of open communication needed to actually create a healthy work environment free from sexual harassment. If a picture displayed in a work area offends one person but not another, a leader-chaired discussion is due . . . not a knee-jerk reaction and not a bunch of useless office jawboning.
Notice the other key detail. In this dumb scenario, a quasi-revealing swimsuit photo is placed on a desk as a ruse to test the assertiveness of office denizens . . . but lo and behold, the test if conducted using an officer’s desk in an enlisted-centric workplace. This is more of the failed culture of the Air Force, which corrodes the chain of command in order to make every airman a bold member of the morality police. Since strong, morally credible leadership is the way (the ONLY way) to effectively address sexual harassment, it should concern all involved that the Air Force’s unit leaders are using their authority to turn enlisted airmen against officers. Every officer is required to lead by virtue of accepting a commission. At some point, the service’s insistence on taking the egalitarian ethic too far will have hamstrung its own ability to meaningfully address anything . . . and it’ll be too late to fix it.
Call me old school . . . but I believe the folks over at the finance office ought to be focused on doing good work in their primary role. Strong, focused, successful teams tend not to have the problems this particular commander seems concerned with . . . and someone busy processing pay actions is unlikely to even take note of what is sitting on someone else’s desk.
So much more to be said about this, but then again . . . I think it was said pretty doggone well by the first person to comment on the webpage where the story first appeared. I’ll post it here before it is removed, which is inevitable:
Posted in American Society, Leadership and Managing, Military, National Security, Organizations
Tagged Air Force, change management, Honesty, human resources, Integrity, leadership, military, organization, organizational behavior, organizations, SAPR, SARC, sexual assault, sexual harassment, Trust, values, veterans
As this post goes to press, the United States has been “closed for business” for almost two weeks. To the extent they can be measured, the consequences are enormous. Services upon which many Americans depend are not being rendered. More than three quarters of a million Federal workers are furloughed. Federally backed loans can’t close. Money can’t flow. Markets can’t be lubricated. Big business has taken note, with futures tumbling as the market opened on October 13th, a reflection that Washington’s intransigence has begun to convince traders that something more than standard political chicanery is afoot. Staffs have been slashed across the range of government activities, from quality assurance of food and drugs to weather forecasting . . . from port inspections to national guard drills. National parks are closed. Promises to veterans are being broken, even as bullets fly in an active shooting war. What a mess.
Why is this happening? Well, the popular narrative holds that this is all about a fight over the Affordable Care Act. As the story goes, one side wants the law, duly passed and signed into effect three years ago, to be dutifully implemented by the country’s chief lawmakers . . . despite the narrow conditions of its passage and demonstrable evidence that it’s not ready for prime time. The other side, unfazed by 42 failed attempts to repeal it, mentally impervious to a Supreme Court ruling instructing them to essentially “shut up and color,” and apparently unworried about the potential damage to the rule of law created by flouting the law as a means of coercing change . . . has grabbed the temple of Congress and pulled down with force, determined to drag the entire institution into ruin if it can’t prevail fair and square. The two sides have conspired to run our government aground after years of playing slalom among the rocky shoals. They’ve succeeded in making us an international laughingstock while we continue to fracture, crumble, and burn internally. Or so goes the popular narrative, which essentially captures the truth at one certain level of analysis. But to see what’s really happening, back out a few levels and look at the big picture.
What’s really happening is that our government is breaking apart. Snapping under strain. Finally losing any semblance of regular order. Decades of insidious corrosion have culminated . . . we now behold the tragic, pathetic result of citizen inattentiveness. Congress is no longer capable of normal order. Crises are manufactured at regular intervals, creating a playground for posturing, overheated rhetoric, and faux brinksmanship. Pundits are raking in record profits as we look upon this scrambled heap of nonsense, often bemoaning a situation we’re peculiarly responsible for enabling, if not directly fashioning through our indifference and fomentation of mischief. For a good long while now, we’ve watched and shaken our heads with a sort of mild, smirking disapproval as our elected representatives have betrayed our interests. We’ve allowed it to continue, sometimes even encouraging it for the sake of entertainment. We’ve not demanded enough accountability. We’ve not made it clear to our elected representatives that they work for us . . . indeed, that they depend on us for their jobs. What now victimizes us is a monster of our own creation; we’ve long since taken leave of the idea that we own our government, instead choosing to set it off as some sort of entity unto itself. This is a dangerous notion, and one that cannot stand. The government is an extension of the people, not a body apart.
In reconciling political maladies, Americans love to revisit the designs of the Founding Fathers, and this is often a useless exercise given the contextual changes that render many quaint notions of the 18th century inapplicable to contemporary discussion. But the trick is to discard what no longer holds while hanging on to what will always hold — those timeless, ingenious elements of the founding vision that must never be let go. The framers were seldom more ingenious than in their creation of a government incapable of thriving without an earnest link to the people. In this, they were clear in their designs; they sought to create a system that gave each voter a direct influence over representation in Congress at the Federal level. They wanted representatives to carry always in their minds and hearts the aspirations of their constituents. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 52:
Posted in American Society, Elections, Leadership and Managing, Political Reform, Politics, Uncategorized
Tagged communication, congress, Constitution, Culture, democracy, disruptive, election reform, elections, electoral process, federalism, leadership, organization, political reform, politics, voting, voting rights
A quick note to those who follow this blog. After an active spring and summer writing and debating about subjects far and wide, it’s time for JQP to lay dormant for a while. Occasional asides may pop up to briefly discuss noteworthy things, especially those touching veterans issues, the Air Force, and airpower … but it’s unlikely this blog will again be as active as it was these past months. On the occasion of putting JQP into sleep mode, I thought it fitting to thank those who have digested and engaged the material posted here, and to reflect a little on the reasons this blog came to be and how it changed over time.
Honestly, I started this blog six months ago with a few narrow, self-serving objectives.
First, I sought to practice making and defending written arguments rooted in logic and evidence but propelled by opinion. This was a search for catharsis after spending many years in a culture of button-down, almost antiseptic communication — one that didn’t make allowances for opinionated expression or vibrant debate. The ideas expressed here have been transparently unsupported by footnotes or journalistic investigation. Instead, they’ve represented an opportunity to practice writing while getting some things off my chest. It was emboldening to be keenly aware that others shared many of the opinions I was communicating, including many still in uniform from across the rank spectrum who couldn’t speak as freely as I could. More on that in a moment.
My second objective was to get better at using the tools of social media. After a career in a hidebound military institution that applied formal and informal pressure to constrain participation in the online domain, I felt the need to improve my capacity in this area before undertaking a second career. I come away from the experience of running this blog (and its supporting twitter feed and facebook presence) with the opinion that social media interaction is an essential skill for the modern professional. This is the way businesses, consumers, thought groups, social circles, and everyday people now interact and operate. Government has not kept pace (for some good and not-so-good reasons), and this leaves veterans of long-term government service at a sharp disadvantage when undertaking follow-on employment in the private sector. I now realize how little I know (and even more alarming, how little I knew), and that in itself is a valued outcome.
As I pursued these narrow objectives, utterly convinced no one would notice beyond the few close friends and family members I could coerce into reading my rantings, something weird happened. The blog grew a readership, one mainly comprised of active duty Air Force officers and NCOs. As the readership grew and engaged the material both online and offline, I realized there was an opportunity to expand the scope of the objectives of this blog. This is why, for the second half of the summer, I devoted it almost exclusively to posts attempting to give voice to the service’s internal frustrations … with the goal of instigating broader discussion of nagging and hot-button Air Force issues.
When I left the Air Force, I realized that I was departing an institution unable to discuss its own internal issues openly and productively, and that the habit of internal muzzling was breeding deep frustration within the service’s key officer and enlisted populations. This blog showed me that the temperature of that boiling frustration was much higher than I’d thought, and pushed me from thinking the service had “problems” to seeing it in an unrecognized personnel crisis that could threaten its future capacity to keep its promises to the nation.
Posted in Air Force / Air Power, Leadership and Managing, Military, National Security, Organizations, Uncategorized, Veterans
Tagged AFPC, Air Force, budget, Centralization, change management, command, communication, Core Values, Culture, defense reform, DoD, generals, Honesty, HR, human resources, Integrity, leadership, military, national security, organization, organizational behavior, organizations, Reform, transformation, values, veterans
A friend of mine asked me recently for my insights on leading an organization. It was the first time in a while that I’d been compelled to think about it.
My first response to such a question is always to well up with internal doubt, mystified as to why anyone would want my advice. This is a manifestation of humility, a value pounded into me by the amazing leaders who taught me whatever it is that I know about this subject. They also taught me to get beyond my doubts and trust my own instincts. Moreover, they taught me by their example that a large part of leadership is taking the time and effort to share hard-earned lessons with those who will follow … to always be training your replacement. It was in that spirit that I got past my self-loathing and offered the following suggestions for successfully leading a dynamic organization peopled by superb, skilled, and intelligent employees … charged with a challenging mission in a difficult and complex operating environment. I offer them to you, for whatever they may be worth.
Set a vision, unify your people around it, resource them to achieve it, and then do your best to sink into the scenery and let them take ownership.
Vision isn’t a catchy business term. It’s fundamentally the most important task of a leader, because it binds the intellect of the organization together in pursuit of a common purpose. Without it, your people will (at best) take their best guess as to the direction their energies should be channeled, or (at worst) pursue their own pragmatic or narrow objectives, which may or may not coincide with those of the organization.
Remember, the only reason for leadership is the creation of unified action toward an objective important enough to require a team with specific skills. The leader’s task is not just to communicate a vision, but to police the rank and file to ensure movement in a unified direction. Any vision will resonate with some while proving abrasive to or even alienating others; this is the nature of anything important enough that it needs to be communicated and pursued. The good leader has an alert enough eye to watch for reflections and judge the relative emotional investment of team members. The best leader is eager to employ persuasion, reduce resistance by showing team members what’s in it for them, and to get everyone moving together in pace and direction.
Without resources, a vision is just an illusion. It’s your job to fight for them, and to use them wisely. Shut out the epoch-long debate about the relationship between efficiency and effectiveness; the relationship is simple: for an organization to be effective, it must first make efficient use of resources. This means not wasting a single training opportunity and not buying a single shred of unnecessary equipment. It also means not failing to provide every necessary training opportunity and not shorting equipment accounts. Perhaps the most overlooked resource in modern times is also the most precious: time. As Napoleon once remarked, it’s the one thing that can’t be manufactured. Your people need time to cultivate the ideas, innovations, and performance that will make your vision a reality; guard their time like a junkyard dog.
Once you’ve created a shared sense of purpose and engendered adherence to it, get out of the way. Leading from the front is necessary at times, and leaders with good instincts will correctly judge when. But most often, the leader should be concerned with empowering subordinates to run day-to-day operations; this increases the sense of ownership across the team. It also ensures the team is able to do its job without the leader’s direct guidance, a capability every leader should be eternally working to create.
Posted in Air Force / Air Power, American Society, Leadership and Managing, Military, National Security, Organizations
Tagged Air Force, business, civil-military relationships, command, communication, Culture, defense reform, DoD, HR, human resources, leadership, military, organizational behavior, organizations
Wingman. For the Air Force, this has become a loaded word. For decades, it was a term associated with the long understood criticality of mutual support in combat operations. It stood for the proposition that assertive teamwork was the key to mission success. In recent years, it’s been hijacked by sloganeers who’ve used it as a rhetorical device to saturate bomb airmen concerning their duty to take care of, safeguard, and surveil one another. It’s become a cheap theme around which to construct “down days.” The service has developed a divided opinion concerning this once revered concept, and the term itself has become divisive. As a squadron commander, I avoided it like the plague, because a mere utterance invited eye-rolling and “oh good grief” shifting in seats that made it clear to me I was one mediocre joke away from losing my audience.
Upon hearing the word “wingman,” some will straighten their spines with pride. Others will furrow their brows with disdain. It is both a powerful concept and an increasingly trite notion. When I ask airmen what the word means to them, the answers are mostly negative, with emphasis on the idea that “wingman” and “motherhood” have become too synonymous in the Air Force lexicon. Somewhere along the way, in its well-meaning attempt to encourage a climate of mutual support, the Air Force turned too many of its own people against this word and all it stands for. That mistake must be set right, because the service cannot thrive without this element of its culture.
Here’s what “wingman” means to me.
First of all, it’s not as simple as “take care of each other.” Sometimes being a wingman requires much more than that. Sometimes, it requires much less. Three qualities define a good wingman, and each has its own texture.
Mutual support is the part of being a wingman that gets the greatest emphasis these days as the Air Force struggles to hold itself together in challenging times. The best leaders expect wingmen to be on the lookout for threats to the formation and empower wingmen to intervene and keep the formation safe. If the third C-130 in a three-ship formation sees that the leader is about to fly the team through a thunderstorm, it is incumbent on that wingman to key the radio and transmit “lead, three … change heading now.” This applies across all contexts. When a group of squadron mates find itself having a good time at a foreign cantina and one is clearly headed for trouble, the effective wingman is the one who demands “change heading now” … regardless of differences in rank or qualification. This isn’t always comfortable, but it is always the right thing to do and an expectation that should be created in everyone. Of course, to intervene and provide support to a teammate, it’s necessary to first sense a problem.
The second quality in a good wingman is situational awareness – not just of one’s own situation, but that faced by teammates. From the day anyone in any walk of life joins a team, no action or inaction — positive or negative — is free of consequence for teammates. This means every team member must know where s/he is in time, space, and circumstance, but also remain aware of the situations confronted by teammates, and how individual actions might impact group dynamics.
Posted in Air Force / Air Power, Leadership and Managing, Military, Organizations
Tagged AFPC, Air Force, command, communication, Culture, defense reform, DoD, generals, HR, human resources, leadership, military, national security, organizational behavior, organizations, strategy, values, veterans
A recent commentary posted on the Air Force’s official website provides a fascinating window into an inappropriate mentality that has tightened its grip over the service in the past few years and threatens now to asphyxiate professionalism. Senior Master Sergeant Vincent Miller, undoubtedly a skilled and well-meaning senior NCO, unintentionally crystallizes the difference between careerism and self-improvement in his recent opinion article entitled “Filling [S]quares.” As a senior enlisted manager providing tutelage to thousands of impressionable airmen, he baldly showcases the nascent loss of mission focus that continues to provide shelter for the service’s mediocre performers while alienating its best and brightest.
Though they seldom receive it, the writings and rhetoric of service leaders deserve critical review and analysis. Breaking down some of what SMSgt Miller has to say in his piece will cast light on larger lessons embedded in his words and ideas. This will mean quarreling with his message at times (which I’ve previewed above) while at other points agreeing with him, even energetically. But before stepping into a critique of his work, let me disclaim two things.
First, I’ve written many stupid things over the years. More than I can count (and in fact, probably more than I recognize — communicators make poor judges of their own messages). I’ve even managed to get a few misguided writings published, and had them critiqued, sometimes savagely. This has left me aware of the ego bruising that generally accompanies writing things for public consumption … but it’s also left me deeply appreciative of the critics — no matter their petulance or snark — who helped me learn to communicate more proficiently and who often helped me find new layers of meaning in my own ideas. In other words, notwithstanding the Air Force’s allergy to any hint of internal disagreement, we benefit by analyzing and critiquing the words we share with ourselves, and we learn much more when disagreement is culturally acceptable. Second, no matter how much I might disagree with SMSgt Miller’s message, I congratulate him for demonstrating the courage to offer his ideas to a broad audience. Most of the service’s field grade officers and senior enlisted people — in other words, the spine of its squadron-level leadership corps — demonstrate no such courage. There are some very good reasons for this; the Air Force has a preference for carefully crafted propaganda rather than honest public commentary — something free-spirited Airman Hunter S. Thompson learned many decades ago. In contrast with the Army, which encourages its officers to quarrel with one another in the blogosphere and in service journals, the Air Force socializes its people to stay away from these venues for fear that intellectual battles may somehow erode public confidence, inadvertently spill sensitive information, or result in hurt feelings.
As a proxy for open discussion, debate, or — gasp – argument about its trajectory, issues, and day-to-day business, the service instead encourages its members to craft stock, crayon-drawn messages reinforcing high standards, strong values, and positive performance (those familiar with AFN commercials catch my drift). These snippets of wisdom masquerading as true commentary are rampant in base newspapers, social media streams, and command websites. The majority of these say substantively nothing and are bland enough to induce narcolepsy in a clinical insomniac. The few that say anything threatening to evoke a response are unlikely to make it through the Public Affairs approval wickets to appear on the Air Force’s official web page. But occasionally, something provocative slips through. This brings us back to SMSgt Miller’s recent piece.
Posted in Air Force / Air Power, Leadership and Managing, Military, National Security, Organizations, Uncategorized
Tagged AFPC, Air Force, command, communication, communications, Culture, defense reform, HR, human resources, leadership, military, mission focus, national security, organizational behavior, organizations, PME, Policy, priorities, productivity, Reform, values