Last Wishes of a Dying General: Parting Thoughts on Air Force Culture

Recently, the career of an Air Force officer ended abruptly.  This officer was, by all accounts, destined for upper management.  He was decorated, educated, and experienced. He’d had the right assignments, been promoted ahead of schedule, and succeeded in an operational command role.  He received strong performance reviews to the very end and was almost certain to be promoted early again. But, in a development that stunned colleagues and mentors, he decided to retire rather than continue his career. It wasn’t an easy decision.  This guy had dreamt of one day holding a senior position in the Air Force. I know all of this because I’m describing my own decision.  I was that officer.

With the memory of this “general who never was” fading rapidly, I’d like to relay three pieces of unsolicited advice from his deathbed:

#1. Evaluate People Accurately.  This may seem like a narrow wish, but its implications are pervasive and fundamental.  With 83% of enlisted members receiving a “Truly Among the Best” rating and 90% of officer reports indistinguishable, supervisors and hiring authorities are not able to determine who is truly the best.  As a result, the service is promoting and putting into key leadership roles many of the wrong people.  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 caliber 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.  This leads to rampant micromanagement.  Lurking in the background behind this critique is a disturbing notion: continuing to certify performance appraisals that it is known can’t all be true is structurally dishonest.  This injures the integrity of the entire Air Force.

#2. Give People Time to Think.  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.  Having the additional duty of being self-financier, administrative self- supporter, 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 set of circumstances 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 strangle the tactical excellence upon which the Air Force’s depends for operational and strategic success.

#3. Stop Micromanaging People.  The natural impulse of generals to submerge in the details of execution is a timeless temptation, but one with destructiveness 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 praise for all they’d achieved. 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 4-star generals into the tactical decision process. His message knocked the wind out everyone who heard it. Airmen do not relish futures as forward-deployed re-transmitters or glorified antennae.  They are people who operate machines, but not machines themselves.  They long to be given resources along with left/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 fluid circumstances of the tactical fight; and for their leaders to trust in their judgment and hold them accountable for results, good and 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 technical expertise, but the judgment that can no more be removed from war than humans themselves.  Today’s junior airmen know they cannot be effective as tomorrow’s 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” and 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.

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  1. Hobo says:

    TC, simply said, well put. I am amazed at how much decentralized execution is still preached, when from my perspective this is the first principle which is thrown aside by AF senior leaders. The AF spends valuable resources on developing doctrine, only to flush it down the toilet in practice. Instead we send combat tested CGOs with multiple deployments of experience, and ask them to line up in reverse order, by birthdate, without talking at PME, and call it leadership school.

    The AF is loosing remarkably qualified and exceptionally performing personnel everyday, because senior leaders can’t lead their way out of a paper bag. This is an AF wide epidemic, but I feel it is much more concentrated in the MAF, where leaders have such little mission focus. Unfortunately this plague trickles down to a community that, as you stated, struggles with critical thinking. I struggle to find people in the C-17 community that have given any thought to tomorrow’s conflicts.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Tony Carr says:

      I struggled to strip the negativity from this post, especially the part of it that addresses what I find to be an increasingly alarming deficit of critical thinking at a time when we need it most. It’s frustrating. One thing I didn’t mention is the chilling effect of the ORI/UCI system on creative problem-solving. Can’t tell you how many times I sat through a process improvement and watched a team of ingenious problem-solvers come up with a great idea … which was then cast aside the minute someone asked “what the IG team say to this?” One of the more trenchant examples is the centralized aviation resource management system we adopted in the MAF a few years ago … which the command swiftly embraced and which became the ORI/UCI standard by which wing commanders were graded. This formed a permanent block of any attempt to move the personnel back to the flying squadrons where they belong by doctrine and by manning directive. As a result, squadrons became their own training and currency monitors — one more barrier to getting into the Dash One.

      In my experience, people abhor stupidity … but the one thing they truly won’t tolerate is a system built for mediocrity. The longer we resist a complete tear-down and rebuild of our ops engine, the worse I fear these problems will get.

      Glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Retired says:

    As someone that spent 4 years in the AOR over 13 deployments, I can’t agree more with you. The focus is on things that DON’T relate to combat operations, and in fact if you choose to focus on your primary job (flying), you are quickly shuffled off to be passed-over and pushed out the door. You’d think the AF would actually WANT folks with almost 2,000 hrs of combat time, but if you’d rather be at the mission end rather than the staff, you’re not welcome.

    • Tony Carr says:

      I think the mistake we make is taking mission excellence for granted. There seems to be a huge unspoken assumption that we can just keep casting out strong operators and we’ll somehow keep enough of the great ones around to maintain our advantage. Honestly, I don’t think it’s deliberate … I think it’s a function of wandering, episodic personnel policies that have no coherent strategy driving them. The RIF that chopped a bunch of pilots is a great example … it was previewed as an across-the-board quality cut, but disproportionately cut pilots because that’s what the personnel gonkulator said at the time. The problem with shifting policy to meet short-term goals is that it can hamper long-term goals … and can do so in ways that don’t allow us to see the damage we’ve done until it’s too late. Now … someone out there will say “wait a minute, man … how do you know there isn’t some long-term objective being serviced by the way we manage people?” To that, I say if there is a personnel strategy, the people of the Air Force deserve to see it and process it so they can (a) make sound career and family decisions and (b) hold their own institution accountable for its policies.

  3. Pat says:

    TC–I agree with everything you said…except one. If you were earmarked for higher leadership, why didn’t you stay in and fight the good fight? Try to fix what’s broken? Why leave? Was it too hard to try? I am as cynical as the next guy but what you say isn’t new. The Af has been “mistaken” for decades–can you tell me a golden era in your career that the AF “had it right”? Bottom Line is that our talented leaders do what you did…run a 9 yd route when you needed 10 yds for the first…you get out at the very moment you begin to make a difference. The reason the AF stays the same is because none of the cool kids are willing to stay on and work hard enough/long enough to affect realchange. Just my $0.02

    • Tony Carr says:

      Pat, you ask a fair question and I’ll do my best to answer it. Fact is, I can’t ever truly satisfy the impetus of the question because I made my decision to leave and going back in time to “prove it’s not too hard” is not possible … without a specially modified DeLorean. Accordingly, you’ll have to trust me when I tell you that it wasn’t a lack of courage or toughness that drove me to retire. I spent 3.5 cumulative years deployed and worked in my share of salt mines on both the enlisted and officer sides of the house. They never managed to invent a hard time I couldn’t handle.

      The reason I ran a 9-yard route is pretty simple. I took a look at what my boss was doing and realized I had zero desire to do it. Then I looked at what his boss was doing and realized I had even less than zero. The problems outlined in this post (and many more not in this post) were so intractable, and the authority to address them at my level and 1-2 echelons above so limited, that I could see very little prospect for “difference making” in the next 5-10 years. My career was always driven by making a difference, which most successful careers are. Thus, it was simple to me … if I can’t make a difference for the next decade in this system, it’s too broken to ask my family to endure what that decade would mean. Most people willing to stay under such conditions are the type who don’t think they can do anything else with their lives … hence the dynamic you describe.

      The notion of unfinished business will always haunt me. But I concluded I could probably make a bigger difference from the outside than from within. Many others have felt the same and acted accordingly. I’ll tell you what might make me different … had I been free to write an article this vocal (or speak these words in a boardroom this clearly) without being either professionally ostracized or cast aside as a malcontent … I would have been much more likely to stay. Behind all of this dysfunction is a drive for mental conformity that prevents us from talking openly about, let alone solving, our problems.

    • Pat, I agree with you 100%

  4. Anonymous says:

    T, I truly respect your opinion on what is and has been a serious problem for years. None of us are truly indespensable, you knew this. A great Officer from the previously longest war called these Generals; Perfumed Princes. I would definitely put the Chiefs in this group. Politics have infected all levels, I for one could no longer aspire to be the exact thing you have described. They no longer look upon those who aspire to make that next rank as worthy; if a primary focus is to be a weapons system expert. Some of us old brown shoes were not meant for the New Air Force. I myself did not leave due to lack of promotion, mostly as you have deftly written was the lack of time with those who matter most. My time had run its course and I no longer had the will to do what it took to become someone who had a chance at making an institutional difference. One major problem you hit upon that I totally agree with was and is PME, I detested the likes of people whom never deployed telling me through canned curriculum what was the real AF. You have clearly captured, I’m sure many sentiments of those who know you. Thank you.

    • Anonymous says:

      From JD

    • Tony Carr says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post JD, and appreciate you adding your thoughts to this conversation. “Some of us old brown shoes were not meant for the New Air Force.” That’s a great way of putting it, and in a way, it’s just that simple … once the culture changes beyond a certain point, there is no way for the “old guard” to thrive in the new conditions. It would be like slapping legs on a fish and asking it to thrive on land. Circling back to my response to Pat above … this is really why I felt I had to leave. Who wants a group/wing commander — or worse, a GO — who’s actively resisting the culture of the organization?

      Tim Kane (author of “Bleeding Talent”) has been writing about talent retention for a few years now … he published an article The Atlantic a while back that really captured it. He talked about how our personnel policies do a great job of weeding out the weak and a great job of frustrating the best performers until they electively depart. This leaves the middle-ground performers to carry the organization forward … creating a tendency toward mediocrity (paraphrasing). I see some truth in this. What I didn’t include in the article is my anecdotal insight that *many* SNCOs and FGOs out there are similarly frustrated and unlikely to continue in the current conditions. If things don’t turn around enough that they can feel good about the direction of the service and its culture, they’ll leave at first opportunity. Some of these are superb performers upon whom we’re counting for our future. Hopefully the pendulum is starting to swing back … I am encouraged by the things I hear from CSAF and CMSAF.

      Thanks for the post, JD. Great to hear from you.

  5. Door Greeter says:

    Disruptive Thinking is a four letter word to our over-regulated, over-managed Force. Being a door greeter at Walmart is figuratively more exciting to some than continuing to swim against the spawn of ‘company’ men and woman crashing through the next career hurdle. You can tie an elephant with a shoe string as long as you beat it into submission with a log chain when it’s a baby. Some of the best critical thinkers are beat into submission and compliance in their formative years and end their Air Force careers just as they mature into the leaders the Air Force needs.

    • Tony Carr says:

      Over-regulated and over-managed indeed. And this is something the truly entrepreneurial and creative types will not tolerate. They’d rather shake a pan for bus fare than be stifled. The concerning thing is not that we scare away all of these types of people (which is frightening enough) … it’s that we scare off some who are just a little further left on the compliance spectrum — able to balance creativity and “disruptive thinking” with the hidebound regulatory culture of a military institution. When rules become too plentiful, needless, and stupid … and when confidence in developmental and assessment programs drops to a level that invites rampant micromanagement … we’ll start chasing off these “balancers” … and these are indeed the leaders we need to retain. I think the economy has done a great job of masking this so far (along with personnel policies that pull people out to the 13-16 year point where they feel tremendous pressure to make it to 20). When/if the economy recovers, it could be a disproportionate draining if we haven’t addressed these issues.

      McPeak takes a lot of grief, but he got some things right. One of those reducing the number of regulations and making them less exacting where possible. This created space for people to creatively solve problems where appropriate … and left room for more informal authority (which is the best kind). Since then — and especially the last 5-6 years — we’ve moved back toward that “AFR” culture.

  6. MCARTY says:

    Sir, first of all, my respect to you and your service to our country. As a former Marine Corps officer, I can say with high confidence that this very issue influenced my decision to leave as a young captain in the ’90s. I have reflected on this issue of culture change and performance for many years since, and can only conclude that this is the way it has always been. Why? I believe it is an issue of personality. Let me explain: The officers and NCOs I observed leaving for the reasons you state also have a higher probability of becoming successful “entreprenuers” in their careers that followed (careers that require a high degree of autonomy, fast decision-making capabilities, and personal responsibility). The folks that stayed tend to thrive in an institutional culture with boundaries, rules, and corporate metrics that rely on a shared responsibility. This is neither good nor bad. It just is. The folks like you and me that got out thrive on chaos and high rewards, the folks that stay in thrive on heirarchy, order, and institutional progress. These two personality types will ultimately NOT reach the top of the pack in the wrong environment. Many of the folks I knew that stayed in cannot imagine my career in sales and ultimately in starting a non-profit with all of my own money and risking my career once again. And yet they are the new leadership in the USMC, a position I could never have aspired to hold because of my very nature of risk and reward. I remember once reading a book on the famous Marine “Chesty” Puller, the kind of Marine that you put in a box with sign that says “Break in case of war”. This is an example of this very issue – it doesn’t matter what rules you change or what leadership classes you receive. One personality is seldom compatible in the long run in the opposite environment. In conclusion, I can only say that this culture will exist long after we are gone because it existed long before we were here. I wish you the best and thank you for your long and honorable service to our country. Keep the faith whether in uniform or not, and always remember our fellow service members when they reach out for help. Semper Fi.

    • Tony Carr says:

      Absolutely fantastic input. Insightful analysis that comes from a place of obvious perspective and reflection … I can only hope that with more time and distance, I’ll find new ways of understanding this subject matter. I think you make a marvelous point that some folks flat-out don’t belong in the senior management group in a military institution that will always be hidebound and conservative by definition. The way I understand my decision to retire at this moment (an understanding sure to change/deepen over time), I glimpsed my future and recognized how ill-suited I was to senior leadership — at least at this point in time and the institutional life of the AF. There might not be a useful conclusion for the AF in this discussion … because if I’m right and I’m just a bad fit above the O-5 level, they should breathe a sigh of relief I didn’t mask my discomfort and continue, thereby inflicting misery on the company and my people. But … modestly … I think AF should ask itself if the problem is more systemic. How many of those who’ve been developed for leadership roles don’t see a viable path forward because of cultural mismatch? I hope genuinely to be wrong, but my feeling is that there are many more like me, and like you. Another interesting question with no answer: what good might you have done for the USMC had you stayed in uniform? What rank and role might you have assumed by the time of OIF (a conflict placing a particular premium on creativity and risk taking)? Might you have replaced someone less suited to the role, resulting in saved lives? Counterfactuals are generally useless, other than as food for thought … that’s my sole intent with this one. Great input my friend — I will always keep the faith as you have obviously done. Semper Fi.

  7. S says:

    Thank you for the insightful article. After 13 deployments myself I can draw a direct line connecting careerism and mission fail. I have seen people who could not get a weapon off the rail expeditiously or could not keep laser on target allow known terrorists to escape….. Only to receive early upgrades to IP so they could have the box checked by PRF time & compete for school; all because they had been chosen for an IDE push by some metric other than mission success. The presence of a single episode like this has disproportionately larger second and third order effects on our culture than any of the good guys who are also selected.

    I don’t know what the root cause of our mediocre culture is, and I don’t have any proposals to fix it as specific as your three. I wish I could have this conversation with my wing leadership, but as you said, we on AD cannot speak about this subject without repercussions.

    • Tony Carr says:

      Appreciate your post my friend. I’ll tell you what … if there is anything close to a “root cause” of existing cultural problems within the AF (which would require we first stipulate problems exist) … it’s the inability of educated adults to sit together and have a conversation about this stuff. One of the things that kept me in the USAF after my initial term of enlistment was the open communication I observed. Folks were not afraid to critique one another — respectfully — and grow from the experience. Because we didn’t have a “one mistake” culture or quite the level of risk aversion we have now, it was more acceptable for an NCO or officer to walk into the boss’ office and make an observation about how the squadron was screwing something up. Basically, we had an old-style CAF debrief mentality across the institution, or at least more pervasively than we do now. In the weeding out of some of the unacceptable pieces of that old fighter culture — which I will concede needed to be reigned in — we have discarded some of the things that made us healthy as a team. Today, candor is difficult to come by. He who stands out tends to get beat down … in part because the service is so damn busy that people who bring up problems or make inconvenient observations/suggestions are an intolerable annoyance with the calendar already choked full. Senior leaders today need to actively work at drawing out the ideas of their frontline supervisors — provided they want to hear the sometimes thorny truth data lurking in the organization.

  8. This is a particularly powerful piece, in large part because it comes from the top rather than the bottom.

    • Tony Carr says:

      Thanks for adding to this conversation, Matthew. I think the ultimate in organizational health comes about when those at the top communicate openly with and among those at the bottom and all along the hierarchy in between. Industrial-era management practices, with leaders insulating themselves in agreeable company and losing contact (and empathy) with those generating the results … will not work in a fight against an adaptable adversary. This is a lesson I think we would all agree needs to better woven into our culture. Glad you enjoyed this post!

  9. Greg Lococo says:

    TC, interesting….I’d like to hear the backstory.

    Chef

  10. Erik Burney says:

    TC, Thank you for your essay. It summed up the same angst I felt as I debated the moral implications of competing for Senior and Chief. I was a Life Support troop and l, like you, spent my career in fighter squadrons. I loved the dynamic of fighter shops–professional intimacy with my “customers”, immediate feedback, and the trust of decision makers. By doing a good job and earning the trust of the CC and DO they granted me the autonomy to uphold my end of the mission. And then I became a wing superintendent and it sucked the joy right out of me.

    Again, like you, I felt the sea change within the AF and found myself at odds with the shifting culture. I watched the names of people I knew to be less than excellent appear on promotion lists–people who had failed major inspections or had reputations for leaving shops in shambles but who escaped accountability with a good performance report because they were “good guys” and the officers they worked for didn’t want to “hurt their career”.

    I found that the Air Force’s mantra of Change is Inevitable became a thinly veiled excuse for imposing grandiose, superfluous, and IMO largely masturbatory policy changes. (TQM anyone?) I was not, and am not a stick in the mud. Change that addresses need is called progress whereas change for it’s own sake is called careerism.

    I’m rambling….Thanks for your salient analysis. It’s spot on. I had a few commanders like you over the years and I miss them dearly.

    Cheers

    • Tony Carr says:

      The frustration you express ref “change management” is a big deal. The #1 source of stress for individuals is uncertainty … which means that while change is indeed inevitable, it cannot be carelessly undertaken. In a system that doesn’t provide the time or incentive for leaders to be genuinely involved in the organization, the need for “innovation” becomes a cover for all sorts of time-wasting, focus-sapping activity. Some of this is a well-meaning attempt to foster progress and create a climate where ingenuity is welcome. Most of it, though … ends up being someone’s demonstration rather than substance of any kind. The worst situation is one where the basics are falling apart inside the store, but we’re still screwing around with the window dressing.

  11. Lucky says:

    TC… excellent insight. My fear with this leadership/management trend is that it will get worse before it gets better and this is for one very unfortunate reason… the litany of “yes men” who most enthusiastically promoted the PME, Masters Degree, Christmas Party planning, modern day box checking method of career advancement are those who are currently being selected to positions as Wing Commanders up to the 1 and 2 Star level. Most seem to be carbon copies of each other (with a few exceptions), but they will eventually become our 3-4 Stars in the next few years bringing that mentality with them. Not only do we all fall victim to leadership “promoting in their own image”, we are actually to the point where it they are advertising this path. Those of us in the Air Force as officers in the past few years have sat through the annual Air Force Personnel Center brief where the Wing Commander will relay the promotion/career progression stats… which unfortunately (in my experience) turns into a “if you want to have my job, you need to do this” briefing.

    I’m sure if you go back 20, 30, 40 years you will hear the same complaints from the masses which means that we continue to reinvent the wheel of losing our most talented officers/leaders. It seems that what may have been well intended ideas on both progression and efficiency may have led to what I consider a loss of identity in our beloved service. They removed below the zone promotions to Major partly because of too much “box checking”… but replaced it with the Intern Program. They developed PME by correspondence… but made that simply a prerequisite for future consideration. They offered the opportunity for Advanced Academic Degrees… but then made it a de facto mandate; eventually leading to the question of not just if you have the degree, but when did you get it? The biggest well intentioned blow to our Service identity may have been the leadership cry of “We are all Warriors!” Our biggest asset that we bring to the fight as a Service is our Pilots (aircrew), yet in the spirit of “equality” and political correctness it is to the point where they make aviators feel that we need to apologize for actually wanting to do our jobs and even minimized the importance of being an expert in your aviation career field.

    Over the years as aviators we have been taught the extremely important lesson through CRM that in order to avert the disaster we need to break the error chain. I love our Air Force and have proudly served under the command of some outstanding leaders as well as under some horrible “managers”. Patton, Mitchell, LeMay… none would have made O-4 in today’s military let alone become Generals. We need to break the error chain!

    • Tony Carr says:

      Lots of great inputs, Lucky. It’s interesting how these three pressure points (how we assess people, how we manage their intellect, and the degree of autonomy and trust) impact the blood flow to the entire organization. What you mention about the O-4 piece is part of how we got here because it compressed the time available to deepen and broaden before being considered for FGO promotion. Stripping out BPZ was ostensibly done to discourage careerists from trying to squeeze into the top few % of the year groups … and to ensure a Mk1 Major, USAF had the right experience to lead squadron ops. But then, AF yanked the timeline 2 years to the left for IPZ, essentially decreasing everyone’s experience level and broadening the base of careerism. Hell, it sorta took what we used to consider “careerism” … chasing degrees and accolades early in a career while your peers were focused on their jobs … and made it the required book solution for promotion. Agree with many of your other points. I find myself mentioning McPeak and Fogelman quite a bit lately … and I don’t say this to injure the reputations of the fine leaders we’ve had in the interim, but those two were leaders in the truest sense in that they helped us make sure we knew what we were about and the service we were providing as a duty to the nation. That has a way of keeping priorities in order. McPeak was fond of reminding people that it wasn’t the goal of the AF to provide equitable career tracks for all of its officers. Fogelman used to point out that excellence wasn’t possible without excellent support. Combine those two perspectives, and you start to scratch your head and ask how we got to a point where squadrons feel broken. To be fair, though, AF still does a pretty good job of elevating great talent when they find it, and not all get frustrated or decide to disengage. Some of the best leaders I’ve known remain in uniform and are at wing level and above right now. For me to put them in that category means they met my standard as superb operators who knew how to take care of people, and they also understood how to get things done in a bureaucracy while giving people an inspirational sense of the mission. Gen Mark Welsh strikes me as perhaps the ultimate example of this kind of leader. There are many of them out there — let’s hope they prevail in the AF of the future. Cheers lucky.

  12. GGinNC says:

    TC,
    Thank you for your valuable insight into culture, management, and leadership practices. The conclusions you’ve drawn are valid beyond the Air Force and could, with only superficial edits, apply to just about any large, complex organization. Leadership, a trait much more difficult to teach than management, is sorely lacking in all levels of our society.
    I work as a Senior IT Project Manager for a large U.S. company. In my career, I’ve observed that my peers fall into two distinct camps: those who are good at execution and those who are good at designing and filling out forms. The former are valued by project sponsors and the teams actually doing the work. The latter get promoted.
    As you consider your next mission and broaden your scope, I would encourage you to continue to observe, write, and influence. We need you and those like you more than ever.

    • Tony Carr says:

      GG: I deeply appreciate your comments, in both tone and substance. I’m especially thankful to grab a perspective from someone currently working outside the military paradigm, and your insight about the “two types” aligns with other anecdotes mentors have shared with me recently. I’m sure there’s a name for this human tendency we have, seemingly in all walks of life, to separate what we actually value from what we consider celebratory, inspirational, or glamorous … in other words, what we consider promotable. It does sometimes leave potential leaders either un-developed or languishing in the mid-levels or shadows of an organization. It is rare to find someone with technical skill who also has time to cultivate the political ability to “impress” others. Air Force actually does a nice job of promoting those who demonstrate both … but is not as skilled (and getting less skilled) at finding them in the first place.

      I’ll certainly heed your encouragement to continue wrestling with ideas and reaching out to others. Glad you enjoyed this piece, and thanks for the response.

  13. Pat says:

    I have a daughter who flys c130s and just returned from afganahstan and she is running into what you are talking about. Lack of leadership in her squadron is to say the least dismal. She was to get an assignment to the wing command but because of political and favoritism factors. It looks as though she will be past over even though she is more qualified than the other person. Her present commander at the squadron is total against her and gave her a poor review and this has a very negative impact on her at this time I can see that the Air Force needs to revamp or loss out altogether.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I didn’t see it mentioned, but for those not familiar, Thomas Rick’s book “The Generals” covers these aspects of the US Army.

    (not an affiliate link): http://www.amazon.com/The-Generals-American-Military-Command/dp/1594204047

    • Tony Carr says:

      Perhaps not a surprise: I recently worked my way through this book and agree with many of its conclusions. It’s an important piece of work with particular relevance to a military headed for an unavoidable period of transformation due to a changing mission and budgetary pressures. Mr. Ricks’ epilogue is full of valuable ideas for reforming how we develop and select key leaders.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Hi TC, Thank you for the informative post, I’ve learned more about military leadership here than anywhere else. I am currently a graduate student(phd) in biomedical sciences, and I can tell you the situation is quite different. Although there is a pretty clear chain of positions one must take in order to someday join faculty, the specifics of what needs to be accomplished and how are almost entirely left to the individual.

    • Tony Carr says:

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the ideas presented here — and appreciate you responding to them. I’m transitioning back to student life … this blog is, in part, a way of reflecting and sifting through all I’ve seen during two decades serving in interesting times. It’s always fascinating to hear examples of how other industries compare/contrast with the military. Some would say the USAF, for large parts of its history, was the service most identified with civilian industry … because of the peculiar link between airpower and rapid scientific/technological developments. A dozen years of playing a supporting role in counterinsurgency have given the service more of a “ground force orientation” … and pulled the service more toward a martial culture. At least that’s how I see it.

      But your input catalyzes another thought, and that’s the role of authority in a given organization. What are the different “types” or “modes” of authority we confer to humans over one another? What conventions do we use to bound that authority? What is the effect created in an organization by creating authority structures? Very interesting how the answers to these questions vary wildly across fields of endeavor…and I wonder if this is always by deliberate design or sometimes by happenstance or leader preference. Thanks for the input!

  16. AFCHIC says:

    To say that this blog was timely would be an understatement. You very effectively stated what I have been thinking and feeling for a very long time. I was born and raised in the AF, did 4 years in ROTC and have been on Active Duty for almost 19 years. My dad always told me I would know when it was time to get out. I never really believed I would ever be at that point. I love the people who work with me, and I love what the Air Force used to stand for. But about 6 months ago I reached that point

    I wish I could say that I had enough courage of conviction to resign my commission at 19 years of service, but I have chosen to convince myself that if my family has had to endure the many many deployments, and the current third PCS without them, the least I could provide was holding my tongue for another year so my daughter gets my GI Bill, and they have the security of my retirement.

    I have travelled a path that I tell my young officers not to follow. I have beem blessed to be in the right place at the right time, and have gotten some “choice” assignments because of it, not because it had anything to do with my talents as a loggie. That meant I saw behind the curtain of the Wizard of Oz as a young captain. Having spent so much time with GOs has taught me a lot of things, mostly the kind of leader I do not want to be. I once had a conversation over the fence with a former AMC/CC exec in which I stated it was becoming blaringly obvious, that unless it was on a power point slide, GOs are incapable of absorbing information, which is why some of the daily brefings are over 200 slides long. He laughed and said that had nothing to do with it. It was based in the fact that when they were up and coming, their boss’ made them do it, so they were doing it to the people that work for them, and if that person didn’t like it, there were 20 people standing behind him/her that would gladly put the needs of their family aside, and subject themselves to that treatment. All in the hope of getting that covetted DP on the next PRF when they are below the zone.

    Listening to the 18 AF/CC sit in a meeting and say that AAD and PME in residence is one of the only ways he has of distinguishing between his officers, tells me all I ever needed to know about OPRs and their relevance. So when asked how he balances that to the folks he has working for him that are constantly deployed,(at the time my career field was at about a .75 dwell time) and how they balance PME/AAD with family time, he said if they wanted to get promoted, they would play the game.

    I have seen leadership determined by how well you push paper as someones exec, and not how well you lead people.

    I have tried to reassure my loggies before the RIF of 05-07 they would be fine. They did what was asked of them, deployed time after time after time. They spent their time at home, not being husbands, wives, fathers and mothers, but working on ACSC, or getting their Masters, and working late nights at the office to cover for the folks that were currently deployed. I personally had to tell several of them that the AF appreciated their service to the country, but they were no longer needed, al the while the AF increased the number of GO bnillets. One such officer had recently arrinved in Afghanistan, to work on a PRT. We told him he would have to serve his year in country, but when he got home he would be transistioned to civilian life. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out Captain!

    I am not saying anything you, or many others here don’t already know. But unless, and until commanders are willing to take the statements many of us put on the ever efficient and routine Unit Climate Assessments to heart, we are going to continue to lose the great folks. And as my husband is fond of saying, we will be left with those that were picked last on the kickball team, and now have had a taste of power, and will lord it over everyone else to rid themselves of their childhood insecurities.

    I have a son who served in the USMC for 8 years, and has been out for a year. He recently came to his father and I and asked how we felt about him re-enlisting, in the AF this time. We both told him the last place we wanted to see him was in the AF. He has done his time, now he needs to use his GI Bill and get on with his life, a life that has nothing to do with the AF. That says all that needs to be said about how I feel about the AF and its leadershp right now.

    • Tony Carr says:

      Your post is tough to digest. It hits close to home in places … and I’m certain is more broadly felt than you might think. This has been a frustrating few years. Your post makes me think of a mentorship point I used to share with officers & SNCOs that I thought had futures in senior leadership. I’d talk about the human temptation to micromanage operations while remaining detached from the much tougher work of involvement with the people of an organization. This tendency — unfortunately very common, and not just in the USAF — is exactly backwards from what should be. Leaders should know their people … the stories, motivations, fears, and aspirations of people have to be understood for the leader to have created relationships capable of sustaining mutual empathy, open communication, and trust. Leaders should not be down in the weeds of operations, which is what we pay our people to do. Overcoming this temptation is difficult for a whole host of reasons, but failing to do so leads to many of the frustrations you’re talking about. Judgement of readiness for promotion according to the binary “yes or no” of AAD & PME is the laziest kind of policy. It’s not even trying to cull out the right people, it’s just testing someone’s commitment to pragmatism, which is recipe for promoting huge numbers of pragmatists.

      I wish you the best in deciding how to proceed (though it sounds like you’ve kinda done that) and transitioning into what will come next for you. As much as it pains me to think that leaving allows others to do a job I/we might have done, in the great scale of things, leaving is the only responsible move for someone who can no longer square individual and institutional values. This is especially true when remaining in uniform will mean more leadership roles. Thanks for your heartfelt and poignant input, and for serving.

    • retrophoebia says:

      Whenever someone wants to talk to me about maybe going into the Army or USMA, I do my damnedest to convince them not to. It may be institutionally disloyal, but at least I can rest easy at night because they’ve heard a side that they won’t get from many people.

  17. nanu says:

    Have you read Starship Troopers? Reading your post I’m reminded of this excerpt: http://waynesword.wordpress.com/2008/09/13/a-management-lesson-from-starship-troopers/

    • Tony Carr says:

      Fantastic! I love that book … it is replete with this kind of insight. Thanks for sharing this link — I would encourage anyone who hasn’t read Starship Troopers to move it to the top of the stack.

  18. Brian says:

    This piece and the comments below hit disturbingly close to home, as I sit at 13 years time in service (both in the USAF and the Army) and realize that I’ve been promoted beyond the level where I can make a difference to Soldiers and still go home at the end of the day feeling personally and professionally fulfilled. I was a great flight commander–twice. I was an even better company commander–twice. However, I too see what my boss does. I see what his boss does. I see the rungs in the ladder necessary to get there. All three carry a reward-to-BS ratio that is disturbingly out of whack, and none seem to be particularly influenced by performance.

    And so it is that I find myself wondering if, for the good of my family, I should be that guy who struggles to show up to work for the next 7 years, punches the clock, and then goes home and day closer to retirement? Or is it time to take another huge risk–one bigger than a “simple” Blue to Green transfer–and leave the service altogether, in search of fulfillment and sanity at a fraction of the pay?

    • Tony Carr says:

      The calculus of staying or leaving when you’re more than halfway to vesting in lifetime health care and a guaranteed paycheck is incredible difficult. Family introduces both a deeply emotional component into it and a rational component concerned with “doing your duty.” Most of us feel we have several duties in this life … country, team, family, God, and the list goes on. I nearly left at the 16-year point because I was concerned with what frequent moves and separations were doing to the development of my children. In the end, the duty to provide overcame the duty to nurture … rationality beat emotion … and I put aside my misgiving and stayed. I think it’s OK to struggle with this, and even healthy to do so. If you carry with you an enduring ambivalence about indefinite service, you’ll be (a) more likely to consider and take steps toward preparing for “the afterlife” … which is highly advisable since service is a privilege revocable at any time … and (b) more likely to hold your chain of command to appropriate account for how things are done. Sure, military service is about following orders in a hierarchy … but leaders know they can’t get by on formal authority alone. They need buy-in. Folks willing to leave service are valuable voices of candor in an organization because they don’t reflexively conform to every idea as a means of safeguarding their livelihoods. If leaders recognize who these people are and listen to them, buy-in becomes much more achievable. At least as I see it. Best wishes with your tough decision, and thanks for serving your country at a tough time. We are lucky to have you!

      • Brian says:

        And then a day like today comes by and comes close to emotionally tipping the scales, regardless of any logic or rational consideration. We’ve decided to sacrifice tuition assistance.

        TA may technically be nice-to-have, but it has been used time and again by recruiters and by leaders counseling Soldiers on whether to stay or go. I’ve absolutely brought it up when talking with guys about why to stay in the Army. A college degree also makes a difference for promotion. So, while it’s technically a perk instead of a contract, we’re really breaking faith with our people.

        Worst of all? TA and DODDS schools aren’t being cut because we must. They’re being cut as a publicity stunt to make the sequester as politically painful as possible. That’s absolutely despicable coming from our uniformed and civilian leadership, and I’m ashamed to be associated with an organization this short-sighted and flat-out stupid.

  19. Sharky says:

    TC, Thanks for the post. Very insightful. I share fellow subscribers (“Publicans”? I just coined it.) frustrations with the current state of leadership in the AF. Let me add that it seems that there is a fundamental paradox in enacting change in an organization–opportunities for advancement are skewed to favor those who share similar values to the prevailing organizational culture (i.e. leaders choosing like-minded followers for leadership positions). But, in order to get promoted to enact the change one desires, doesn’t one need to adhere to the same rules (“playing the game”)?

    A few years ago, we asked a visiting two-star (an ACC “locker room” general…great guy) his thoughts on how to enact change within the C-17/AMC community. His response? “Get your PME done.” His statement really stuck with me. He went on to say that you won’t have a chance to enact change if you’re not promoted. As abrasive as that thought is to me (PME by correspondence to attend PME in residence, and all the other nonsense)…I think he’s right.

    But…as thousands of young mid-career officers, hungry for change, navigate our way through the organization to rise in rank and responsibility, the conformal pressure headwinds become stronger and stronger. While many of the good ones (like you, TC) become fed up, change course and leave the service, many will press on and instead choose to conform. I believe that unless you’re armed with a strong, secure sense of who you are as a person and what you believe in, I think the temptation to conform overcomes you. You become The AF Establishment. I imagine the conformal pressures only get stronger the higher up you go. But, I’m glad to see that there are those who do choose the truly selfless path and try to enact change despite the obstacles placed in front of them by the dominant culture. For them, it must take plenty of courage, character and TALENT to maintain the delicate balance in an organization that preserves BOTH upward career mobility and the ability to enact the desired organizational change. I really think that’s the only way to do it—gut it out and get to a position to enact your organizational change, hoping you don’t forget what change you wanted to accomplish along the way. I’ve had a honor to work for and with several of the stellar wing commanders who are representative of this ideal. I know they are both having a positive impact at their respective wings. So…I’m optimistic we’ll see some large-scale AMC microculture change in the coming years. What can I say?…I’m a glass half-full guy…

    As a post-script…if anyone needs a (relatively) modern example of AF organizational change…check out the story of General Bill Creech, TAC Commander in the late 1970s. He was faced with some abysmal post-Vietnam problems– lack of flying hours, poor morale and a broken advancement system (sound familiar?). But, he managed to turn the culture around in a few short years through some fundamental and inspiring reforms. It’s possible. We are just a few good senior leaders shy of enacting this change (I’m still hopeful with Gen Welch). Just a few high level sparks required to start a fire…

    Thanks again Tony for another thought-provoking post!

    • Tony Carr says:

      Your input highlights how nettlesome these issues are. In a sense, there’s no way to gain progress in an organization–especially a large and hidebound one–unless you’re willing to first absorb some frustration and build enough credibility and influence to make a difference. I think what is bothering some folks now (and I will say to a lesser degree as a new leadership team takes over at the top and communicates) is the unwillingness to confront that there are deep-seated problems that have crept in over time and need to be addressed. This is where your Creech invocation (which I absolutely LOVE) really hits home. One of his hallmarks was a demand for the unvarnished truth in assessments from subordinate commanders. He pushed and prodded until he thought he was getting the whole story–good, bad, and ugly–because he knew the first step in addressing anything was understanding the nature of it. He was also trying to build and restore trust. The pressure of hollowing was causing the service to mask its problems. There’s the famous anecdote of him firing a wing commander when he learned pilots were crediting themselves wrongly for a certain type of bombing practice (pencil-whipping their currency) … he needed to set the example that he didn’t want problems hidden from view, and that accountability for dishonest behavior was the handmaiden of trust. This, rather than encouraging problems be masked, is an approach that will resonate with people.

      Your input about needing to play along in order to instill change is spot-on, and valid. The trick is to maintain intellectual independence, which you correctly state becomes more difficult the higher you go in the organization. Everyone plays the game to some degree … if they weren’t willing to subjugate individual preferences in order to be part of something bigger, they would not be in uniform in the first place. But the danger for the institution is when this willingness to go along without complaint is exploited to tamp down things that should be lifted up and dealt with. I think you’re getting it right: the selfless thing to do is to absorb misgivings and both navigate the culture and work to change it. However, I think this is based on the assumption that an individual believes s/he is cut out for duty at the next level. The point I want to make is that when culture is shifted rapidly or is lurching violently from one barber pole to another, a comparatively larger number of people–many of them high performers–will not be able to answer “yes” when they ask themselves that suitability question.

      Thanks for the thought-provoking input. I had decided not to write about the AF in my next post … but your post makes me want to dust off some Bill Creech.

  20. Clayton White says:

    Definitely some resonating sentiments for many. I think you highlighted something I’ve been feeling yet haven’t been able to express in words – the experience in the “real Air Force” doesn’t match the indoctrination we receive in basic training. It would be hard to get new recruits to bite off on joining an institution that behaves the way we do, especially if we preached what we actually practice. We all know it needs to be fixed, but what can we do to fix it? Thanks for this post!

  21. DC says:

    TC, thanks for putting this out there. I just left the MAF after 12 years on active duty for the exact reasons you mentioned. As a newly assigned FTU IP I rushed through transition and upgrade training in my new MWS while working as the SQ/CC’s director of staff. I accepted this workload to have a chance at getting to work at the Wing in order to be competitive to go to PME in res and this have a chance to progress. I struggled to balance the compromises and resulting mediocrity in the plane and in my family life with the priorities of compliance in everything from electronic file management to personnel issues until everyday felt like an exercise in managing failure. I blamed myself for not being able to keep up until I realized that the #1 strat types were getting there not by doing it all but by handling the CCs emergency priorities 24/7. Because that priority was seldom if ever the mission. I knew it was time to go. The assumption that the mission will always go and there will always be qualified excellent operators to carry it out is the fatal flaw. I’m happily serving as a citizen airman in the ANG now where I hope I can help prevent the same mentality from destroying this wing too.

  22. R2 says:

    Excellent article Tony and congratulations again on your service and retirement. As a young Airman I too committed to the “Aim High” vision of our Air Force, but as the years past and the higher I got on the ladder the more disappointed I became with what I perceived as a lack of courageous leadership at the senior levels. I also decided to hang up the uniform before the Air Force told me it was time, but despite my premature self-ejection I will always be grateful for the journey and the lessons, as I am confident you are.

    The Air Force and indeed the DoD has long known that we are not retaining the best leaders in our military ranks. I recall as young captains we were both counseled by a DoD senior leader. When asked, what was the one piece of advice he would give to young captains, he eloquently stated, take risk, not physical risk but career risk. He, a decade ago, was concerned that our promotion system was not producing courageous leaders—he was right then and is still correct today. Were you and I, and others like us, to continue to serve at the senior leader levels we would have been forced to compromise our leadership values.

    I will challenge one aspect of the follow-up comments/conversation. We did make a difference. I have no doubt that your leadership had a strong impact on those you led and encountered throughout your career. I have no doubt that each unit you served in benefitted immensely from your efforts while you served, and it is likely those that you positively influenced will carry the torch onward. We did not get out at a time when our ability to influence the organization was growing. Without getting neck deep in an organizational behavior discussion regarding the challenge of successfully engaging top-down culture changes in large institutions, I suggest that we hung up our uniforms at precisely the time when our ability to positively influence our organization was maximized, and about to diminish. I suggest that you as a squadron commander were at the pinnacle of your ability to positively influence Airmen, and I’m positive that is what you did.

    I am thankful for those courageous leaders who do gut it out and continue to try to make a difference, but for me continuing to accept promotions that demanded I adjust my leadership style to conform to organizational norms that further limited my ability to influence was not an acceptable course.I’m a few years retired from active duty now but continue to advise senior leaders; some genuinely appreciate the blunt advice, while others appear to become strangely uncomfortable with straight talk, and thankfully I usually don’t get invited back. As a parent I am raising two kiddos that I hope will be independent thinkers willing to disrupt the status quo for the betterment of all. While I dearly appreciate my USAF service, I worry about the day that my kids may decide to follow in their parents’ footsteps and serve in the USAF. My concern is not focused on physical risk; I’d just rather they not expend their talents in an organization that is uncomfortable with ripples in the water, and prizes conformity, particularly at the senior level.

  23. EPRfix says:

    I have often struggled with performace report inflation. I am not a fan of criticizing without proposing a solution so I put my thoughts to text at the following. http://eprfix.blogspot.com/
    All that is missing is to document and differentiate between supervisors who can make the tough calls and those that cannot. From there you can “weight” the scores given to individuals by a “reality factor” of the competence of the supervisor. Other services keep track of ratings given (Army has “above center mass” and I believe that Navy tracks the ratings given SR officials. What I have intrepreted by the resistance to this concept is that we prefer to minimize the subjective (the EPR) and amplify the objective (test scores). What we get is an increasingly technical SNCO corps with decreasing amounts of leadership.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Tony- Good for you! Seriously I enjoy your blog and love how thought provoking your articles are. I don’t question you one bit rather I agree with you. After being at our current location for some time I have seen what a true leader is and unfortunately I have also seen the other side of the stick. There are too many problems in my personnel opinion and yes… I agree with the above comment about EPR’s. How’s a sharp Airman to compete against another if one Supervisor is feels they should go by the PRF and another follows tradition and over inflates the performance and future abilities? And what with the Airman that has been inflated? Is he really more qualified, more deserving and with greater skills? Timing and who you know is everything. This is the same for officers. Can change ever come? I honestly don’t think it will.

  25. RO says:

    I am personally honored to know TC and have the benefit of his council because, although I see things very similarly, I am currently offering to run the long pattern. What I see slightly differently is that my intent (continuing the analogy) is not to score a TD or even get a first down. In fact, the idea that this is a competition limited by a clock or the potential that an opposing side will defeat my team by moving the ball in the opposite direction fundamentally illustrates what might be wrong with how we think. The global security environment will always be extremely complex, beyond our comprehension. We simplify it by limiting the variables in order to make sense of the world and do something to change it. This game has no clock. The idea that we might somehow lose the game is even more problematic…because I think there are much worse things than losing the game…like losing the ability to have an impact. So, I choose to push against the artificial deadlines we impose upon ourselves…if not only because change is difficult and attempts to force it through an artificial timeline rather than taking a long view are, I say, the very reason we find ourselves in many of the problematic situations we are today. And I look for cooperative opportunity rather than zero-sum outcomes…losing would be easy because the difficult part–change–would no longer be required. Things will never be easy…and if they seem so, look closer…you’re missing something.
    TC didn’t quit the game, and he didn’t lose. He’s changing positions on the team for, in my opinion, excellent reasons…an example of life balance of which we should all take note. TC…keep the armor on and in your best British accent, repeat after me: “I’m not dead yet!”

    • Tony Carr says:

      Your post works on many levels, some of which only you and I could understand … as two warriors who have gone high aspect but also played fighting wing for one another. You’re one of the (few) people I’ll never cease trying to impress.

      And yes … I am still very much in the fight, finding new ways to attack and new ways to defend … and “I’m not dead yet.”

      Cheers, RO

  26. wingspar says:

    Perhaps the Air Force Association can heed this and shift emphasis from being an advocate for the military industrial complex to providing a forum for the exchange of ideas.

  27. Maj Blaisdell says:

    Sorry, but I’m of the crowd that says if someone assumes they are destined for a command or a promotion, they’re the wrong person to get it. Excellent stickmanship and public efforts to “help the downtrodden” can be dangerous when combined with hubris and believing your own PR. I think it’s also overly simplistic, but exceedingly popular, to imply the good ones leave and those who stay are not as good, but I wish you well in your transition to service in another venue.

    • Tony Carr says:

      Your input would be more entertaining if you’d just go with straight insults rather than veiled ones. Thing is, your “crowd” is part of the problem. In the paradigm you advocate, anyone who speaks up to offer a critique is dismissed as either lacking the success/stature to be credible or too arrogant to be taken seriously. In other words, your crowd’s most fervent wish is for everyone to shut up, conform, and trust the general officer deification process. That, my friend, is a recipe for institutional failure … and I believe we’re already well on our way to just that, largely because we’ve refused for the better part of two decades and energetically resisted for the past 7 years to engage in a robust internal discussion/debate/argument about the nature of our own corporation and how best to operate it.

      As for your assertion that anyone who believes s/he is destined for promotion is the wrong person for it, here’s the flip side: I don’t want to be led, and nor do most critical thinking employees, by people who don’t believe they belong in a leadership role. We’re not breeding kittens here. It’s not only OK but essential that some of our high performers possess the desire to advance and the belief that they should advance.

      It’s not so much that I “believe my own PR” which is a really oversimplified cheap shot given that I had the balls to lay myself out there….but since I did lay myself out there, I suppose it’s fair for you to take your shot. I would invite you to talk to people who worked for me and ask them if I was sufficiently selfless and humble. I believe the answers will acquit me well. Keep in mind that had I titled the essay “last wishes of a retired mid-level officer” … you probably wouldn’t have ever seen or digested it.

      But at the same time, I think we could all use a little less bullshit. My record was as good as any officer’s record in my year group, and that feedback came from an O-9. What should concern you and concerns me is that even with a record that solid, no one in my chain of command made an earnest effort to retain me or even understand my reasons for departing. So either I’m every bit the asshole you construe me to be — meaning that you’re right and many others are wrong, a proposition you advance with your own special breed of hubris — or there is some validity to the ideas I’m putting forward because they’re coming from a place of success and credibility in the very system I’m critiquing. Ego really isn’t the point here, though. Had I kept my mouth shut and stayed on active duty, I’d be a colonel in the next year or so and headed to a very prestigious SDE program. It was precisely because my ego didn’t require those things that I was able to walk away from what I saw as a failing enterprise.

      I appreciate your input and wish you the best. Glad the post provoked you enough to respond and hope you will do so again in the future.

  28. Tanker Toad says:

    While I violently agree with much of what you say, I have trouble seeing how we’re going to build great leaders when the pickin’s are going to be so slim going forward. Bottom line, there are so few pilots in the mid-90s year groups that the Air Force is going to choose its Colonels more on the basis of ability to fog a mirror than leadership qualities. As a fellow pilot, I figure you’ll find this interesting (numbers below are all for the ’95 year group):

    Facts:
    - According to the Air Force Personnel Center’s Personnel Statistics page, there are 319 total Lt Col pilots in the whole year group
    - Over the last 4 years, the USAF has on average promoted 127 pilots per year to Colonel
    - Per Audries Aircraft Analysis, the major airlines are going to need 2500+ pilots in 2015 (1200+ due to retirements, rest due to fleet growth)–The same year that the ’95 year group both reaches 20-year retirement eligibility and meets the Colonel promo board
    - The Air Force typically only selects about 46% for Colonel in the normal promotion zone, with about 10% more having been promoted “below the zone”

    Assumptions:
    - For pilots as a whole: From the initial batch of 319–After taking 10% off the top through below the zone promotions, and losing 50% more to retirement (the airlines/others offering greener pastures) . . . only about 127 pilots will be left to fill the approx 127 annual pilot Colonel requirements that’ll come open

    The only way the AF will be able to deal with this is to 1) Promote at a significantly higher rate than historically (quality control problem), 2) Keep the promotion rates the same, but hold even earlier promotion boards than before (experience problem), or 3) Put non-pilots into Colonel billets that were previously held by pilots (knowledge problem–assuming many of those jobs required pilots)–or some combination of the three. None of the above solutions lend themselves to competent, transformative leaders that will lead the Air Force toward a newer, brighter future. The one bright point is that you might get solution #3–Keep senior leaders out of the weeds–simply by virtue of the senior leaders being too overwhelmed to bother with minutiae.

    • Tony Carr says:

      With a serious twinge of pain, I agree wholeheartedly. There is a special management problem associated with those small year groups. The right way to address would have been to lead-turn by spreading O-6s from other years — both ahead and behind these — across the gaps that will be created by these shortages. Having not done that, we’ll be left with the best the system can produce. I suspect you’ll see O-5s commanding groups and O-6s getting wings who would not have gotten them before. DOPMA prevents us from accelerating anyone too much.

      I’m convinced the only way to kill micromanagement is to reduce the number of generals. If we build them, they will micromanage … and because of the culture of compliance we’ve engendered, Colonels will not push back … especially some of the types we’ll promote with a near-100% opportunity.

      The airlines are about to gut this entire enterprise. Some of those pilot haters out there will get their wish … an Air Force with non-rated officers doing jobs traditionally filled by pilots is all but inevitable. It’ll be a rude awakening when many realize it wasn’t the ascot-emblazoned cake walk they envisioned.

  29. retrophoebia says:

    Tony, have you read JTR on the journey to general: http://www.johntreed.com/tournament.html . Pertinent here.

    From your piece:
    “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).”

    I’d be really curious to see stats from the Army on how many officers are actually top-blocked on OERs as a percentage of the officer population. That would be revealing.

    From the rest of the paragraph, it looks like you assume that the evals are in fact the criterion that promotions are based on. But if they can’t work, then they don’t work. I submit that they’re window dressing for other less transparent mechanisms, probably relationship or politically based, but certainly not performance based. Not what we want them to be.

    • Tony Carr says:

      Politics has a hard time boring into board proceedings below the general officer level. It works on an indirect basis by explaining how certain officers get the coveted jobs that tend to open the door to promotion, but OPRs actually do a play a large role in how a board comes to its decisions. Board members typically scan the bottom lines to look for stratification. Most raters will stratify the top 10% of their people (I always stratified 20% and took a fair amount of castigation for it, but wanted boards to have more information rather than less). That means 90% of folks (or 80% in my model) lack useful data on the bottom line for a board to utilize in decision making.

      So how are they deciding? They’re making maximum use of the information they do have, which is why things like off-duty education and correspondence PME completion become such ready discriminators. They help cull the herd so the board can reduce how much effort it spends trying to pick gnat shit out of pepper. But some picking is inevitable, which is why they sometimes get it wrong.

      Evaluations are not providing enough meaningful data for HR processes to operate with fidelity.

  30. Reggae says:

    Tony…we have created a system that rewards conformity over creativity….status quo over innovation. As I exit this summer, I share your concerns, applaud your voice, and salute your sacrifice. I too will share the mantel in hope of reform.

    • Tony Carr says:

      Reggae, I’m troubled by how quickly things tumbled. From a Renaissance that was still quite golden in the late 90s to a period of unrelenting degradation today … it only took us 15 years to strangle a golden goose. But I’m convinced, as I know you are, that it doesn’t have to be a long period of dark. With enough energy, pressure, and leadership … it can be turned around. I salute you for your service and look forward to more decades of working together to advance issues that matter.

  31. Thank God! I’m not alone!!

  32. I honestly don’t get you. If running and fixing the Air Force is what you wanted to do, why not be quiet, work the system a little bit further, turn on it, and then implement what you mentioned here in this very good and very gutsy article.

    I think this paraphrased quote comes from Kissinger:

    “The skills needed on the path to eminence are not the same skills required once eminence is achieved.”

    Your ideas are solid and you seem like a smart guy. Smart enough to realize the paradox of a guy who worked the system with enough fidelity to be noticed as a possible GO, while recognizing that the system that put you in that position is completely jacked.

    Perhaps it is the fight that scared you off? And who wouldn’t be scared? You would have had to fight every sociopath who played the same game and would take you to the mat to preserve the system that promoted them, and their buddies, and in many cases – their kids as well. They would have the knives out for you until the end of time, and your probability of success is very near 0%.

    So, the question is that if you are not willing to do what it takes despite being lucky enough, aware enough and in position to do it. Who is?

    If not you, who?

    • Ashley says:

      I loved your piece and agree with the principles. They could also be said for the Fortune 500 for which I work, and I don’t enjoy their management structure at all. It is top-down and old fashioned. The only way to fix it is to get forward thinkers into those top spots and create change. While I respect your reasons for finally leaving, I do have the echo the previous comment. Why not stay and take advantage of your position to create change? If it is true as you say that the right people don’t get the top spots, then how much time do you think everyone needs to wait before the right one, as you likely were, gets through to the top again? I don’t think change will come from outside opinion – only from inside influence. And it is certainly a change that needs to happen.

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