Recently, the career of an Air Force officer ended abruptly. This officer, by all accounts, was destined for upper management. He was decorated, educated, and combat proven. He’d had the right assignments, been promoted ahead of schedule, and met the challenge of command successfully. He received glowing reviews to the very end and was almost certain to be promoted early again. But, in a development that stunned and puzzled many of his colleagues and mentors, he voluntarily declined to continue his career, and in doing so killed his lifelong dream of one day running the Air Force. I know all of this because I’m describing my own decision. I was that officer.
Now, with the memory of this “general who never was” fading quickly into history, I’d like to relay three pieces of unsolicited advice from his deathbed:
#1. Fix evaluation systems. This may seem like a narrow wish, but its implications are more broad and fundamental than is commonly recognized. With 83% of enlisted members receiving a “Truly Among the Best” rating and 90% of officer reports largely indistinguishable, supervisors and hiring authorities are not able to determine who is truly the best (and truly not the best). As a result, we’re promoting some of the wrong people and putting some of the wrong people into competitively selected positions where they have the lives of fellow airmen in their hands. This not only hurts organizational performance, it creates morale-crushing inequities when the wrong people advance at the expense of the right ones. It also provides a disincentive to going the extra mile, since an individual evidently need not perform at the highest level to receive the highest rating. Beyond a certain point, senior officers and enlisted leaders are certain to place declining stock in what has been written about their subordinates, leading to diminished trust in their capabilities, which leads to a host of crippling countertactics, micromanagement perhaps chief among them. Above all, continuing to certify performance appraisals that we know can’t all be true is structurally dishonest. This injures the integrity of all involved.
#2. Reduce competition for cognitive activity. As a commander, I had a front-row seat for the declining expertise of a community of practitioners being asked to juggle too many no-fail priorities. Being an expert operator is job enough for anyone all by itself. Having the additional duty of being self-financier, administrative support specialist, training manager, and supply coordinator is enough to stretch most individuals beyond capability limits. Now consider the institutionally imposed mandates for advanced degree work and online developmental education for officers (with no time budgeted to get them done), and it’s clear the demands being placed on individual headspace are unreasonable (to say nothing of the stress this creates in families and key relationships). This dynamic leaves people continually re-shuffling mental priorities, unable to deepen knowledge, experiment with concepts, or contribute new ideas to a craft that must change to keep pace with the changing character of war. In other words, unable to engage in critical thinking. Over time, the absence of widespread critical thinking will slowly strangle the tactical excellence we depend upon for operational and strategic success.
#3. Keep senior leaders out of the weeds. The natural impulse of general officers to submerge in the details of execution is a timeless temptation, but one whose destructiveness is equally well established. During my time in a leadership role, I had the privilege of commanding a deployment during which my team performed at a very high level, ably supporting our joint partners fighting on the Afghan frontier. When the “big boss” came to visit during the latter stages of the deployment, the squadron was excited, not unreasonably expecting him to arrive with a suitcase full of accolades. What they got instead was a quick pat on the back followed by a soliloquy on the merits of centralized execution. They were regaled with stories of awesome technologies capable of placing senior generals into the tactical decision loop. His message was breathtakingly deflationary. Airmen do not relish futures as forward-deployed autobots, retransmitters, or glorified antennae. They are people who operate machines, not machine-people. They long to be given resources together with left and right limits and entrusted to apply their wit and will to defeat an adversary. They want the proper authority to match their responsibility; the proper degree of autonomy to adapt to the fluidity of the tactical fight; and for their leaders to trust in their judgment and hold them accountable for results, good or bad. Our professional studies inform us on the complexity of war. We must embrace the lessons of history in this regard and build into our front-line airmen not just the expertise, but the human judgment that can no more be removed from war than humans themselves. Today’s junior airmen know they cannot be effective as tomorrow’s senior leaders unless they learn how to make decisions, and thus they yearn for the latitude to do so. Generals would be acting in their own interest to heed this broadly-felt desire.
These ideas are my own, and therefore limited in their usefulness to the reach and pertinence of my opinion. But I submit that the organizational components represented by these three wishes — inspired people, clear thinking, and mutual trust — are foundational to the vitality of any organization, and certainly to the US Air Force. Jimmy Doolittle admonished us to fight “from the neck up.” Ron Fogelman told us to be honest with ourselves and trust one another. Decentralized execution has been a fundamental tenet of airpower since before our birth as a service. These things are important to our culture, and therefore must be transformed only with great care and calibration. That’s really the larger message lurking within these departing thoughts, if there is one — the importance of shepherding culture change carefully. I ended my career because I felt the culture of the institution had shifted beyond the point at which I could stay in step, and therefore I had no business at higher levels of command. Given the pace of change of the past several years, I’m left to wonder — with some trepidation — how many others are struggling with how to adapt … and perhaps more importantly, whether to adapt. Because an organization’s most committed members are most deeply wedded to its fundamental values, it stands to reason that they are more likely to be alienated or dislodged by large-scale or rapid cultural change. We can’t blame any institution for changing, which all must do in order to survive and thrive. We also can’t blame individuals for failing to change, which beyond a certain point is like asking a rhino to become a unicorn. But we can acknowledge that in a value-driven enterprise, the moral chaos of rapid change can place strong, committed performers on the horns of a dilemma resolvable only by leaving the institution.
The nation expects and deserves an Air Force committed to expanding and exploiting its potential, which is the only way to stay ahead of enemies who are doing the same. This means holding on to people who perform well and want desperately to be part of flying, fighting, and winning. When it comes to culture change, throttle setting and velocity must therefore be kept carefully in the cross-check. With such an approach, the Air Force has its best chance of delivering another century of superiority in air, space, and cyberspace … and fulfilling the dying wishes of its generals, both real and imagined.
Posted by Tony Carr on March 4th, 2013.