1-v-1 With SecAF on Base Visits

MSgt Scott Foster briefs Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James during her recent visit to Hill Air Force Base.
MSgt Scott Foster briefs Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James during her recent visit to Hill Air Force Base.


I’ve been writing for a while now about the Air Force’s VIP culture, exemplified by frequent globetrotting and base visits by the service’s senior officials. I’ve argued that the frequency of these visits is too high, that they’re too disruptive and expensive, and that they’re not telling senior officials anything useful enough to remotely justify the expense. Analysis performed by a task force assessing issues with the nation’s nuclear alert force agreed, construing the constant parade of officials as a crippling limitation on the mission focus of an already over-stretched cadre of airmen.

I’ve also argued that senior officials must, given their own experiences and the intellect resident on their staffs, understand all of this, and that they therefore must have independent reasons for continuing with a practice that isn’t justifiable for the stated or assumed reasons. I’ve speculated that optics, politics, and ego might be some of the actual reasons for a seemingly endless parade of senior officials on Air Force bases during a time when airmen are already more overstretched, distracted, and task saturated than at any point in the service’s history.

These are tough critiques, but I haven’t come to the underlying opinions casually. They were shaped over the course of 23 years of seeing this phenomenon first-hand from almost every possible angle, and from reflecting critically on the inability of the junior partners in the Air Force’s hidebound hierarchy to meaningfully dissent from the practice without jeopardizing their careers, which is to say their own chances to make a difference in the lives of airmen while pursuing the Air Force’s important mission.

But those underlying opinions have also been formed by listening to today’s airmen. In the past three years, I’ve heard the same recurring lamentation time and again from airmen, sergeants, captains, and colonels alike: why do senior leaders keep showing up for dog and pony shows that wreck unit focus, and why don’t they either trust leaders at base level to give them honest assessments or replace those leaders with people they can trust?

Most of my effort in taking senior officials to task for the VIP culture has been focused on channeling this sentiment and working to have it acknowledged by senior officials – even if it doesn’t change the realities of their visit schedules. At least an open acknowledgement would make them perceptually accountable for the costs of the practice.

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, a frequent target of my criticisms on this issue, recently responded to my inputs directly and forcefully. I hope that the resulting exchange is the beginning of a new chapter that will advance this previously one-sided argument to something more closely resembling a debate, or at least a rolling discussion, about the relative merits of this particular leadership approach. Whether that happens or not, there’s much to admire about and much to learn from SecAF’s response.

SecAF visits with airmen at Hill.
SecAF visits with airmen at Hill.

Our exchange came in the context of my critiques of and questions about SecAF’s recent visits to Ellsworth and Hill. On the basis of accounts provided to me by airmen at those bases, I contended (and maintain still) that her activities – whether purposely or unwittingly – disrupted pre-deployment training at Hill and pre-deployment downtime at Ellsworth.

The Secretary’s office responded to the Ellsworth critiques last week. You can read my reporting and analysis of that response here.

Yesterday, nearly a week after I left a question on SecAF’s Facebook feed asking her whether there was “any impact to the training or downtime of deploying F-16 airmen caused” by her visit to Hill, she left the following response, which I’ve segmented to allow for interwoven commentary (you can find the native here).

Tony – I realize there is planning that takes place when a senior leader visits a base. However, I do not expect anyone to halt training, disrupt deployment preparation, cancel leave, or adversely impact our Airmen in any way for me or any other senior official. My team and I repeatedly communicate this point.

This makes SecAF’s intent damn clear. So for all you generals, wing commanders, Chiefs, and other assorted supervisors out there, here it is, in black and white, unequivocally, from the Big Boss herself: stop disrupting training, deployment prep, and downtime in order to achieve the most artful canine-equine orchestration possible … or to be more charitable … to put your best foot forward for SecAF. She doesn’t want your best foot necessarily … she wants the best foot you can put forward without adversely impacting airmen.

Of course, James must also recognize that this is a culturally ingrained habit that will die hard. She and her staff will have to affirmatively insist on the change in conduct she’s espousing here and be willing to communicate disapproval when installations behave contrary to her intent. But this pronouncement is a hell of a start. It disowns the culture I’ve been documenting, robbing the culture’s proponents of any incentive to perpetuate it.

To your question, we confirmed with the leadership at Hill Air Force base that they did not lose a single sortie or training event during or in preparation for my visit. It did not impact training or downtime for deploying F-16 Airmen, or anyone else. 

While I have no doubt that installation officials made this claim, it is disputed by airmen at Hill who claim they canceled training lines to make sure there were enough people to attend SecAF’s All Call. It’s possible that there were independent justifications for those training disruptions, and it’s fair for SecAF to question my reporting given that none of my sources felt comfortable going on-record with their claims (though the detail they provided made me confident enough in the veracity of those claims to pose the question I posed).

If the attention paid to this visit generated more chatter between her staff and Hill officials than would have otherwise occurred, it’s a great stride. Now that she’s on record denouncing adverse impact to airmen, perhaps any impacted by future visits at Hill and elsewhere will feel comfortable letting her know first-hand.

Speaking of leading, for nearly 30 years, I’ve been in leadership positions in government and business, and now as the Secretary of the Air Force. It’s been my experience that the best way to find out what’s really going on in your organization is to lead by walking around. In my case, “walking around” means through the halls of the Pentagon, to bases across our country, to remote locations overseas, and even into the AOR. 

This comment deserves its own multi-layered discussion, much of which should be an open exchange of differing philosophies. I don’t question SecAF’s experience. She is incredibly successful and didn’t get that way by happenstance. I do question whether and to what extent the prior experiences that made her successful apply in her current role. But now we’re talking preferences rather than principles, and she’s well within her prerogative to brush off such discussions.

Does the definition of “leadership” change as a person’s role in an organization evolves? Does “leadership by walking around” have the same value or even mean the same thing at different levels in a hierarchy as tall as the Air Force? Great questions, and they’re more important than the answers.

I do this as an important supplement to info I receive in briefings at the Pentagon. I believe in getting input from many sources—from general officers and chiefs right down to the most junior Airmen. This helps me to make better decisions, and to help tell the Air Force’s story and fight for our resources and key policies.

What I infer from this, and I admit I could be wrong, is that SecAF wants genuinely to advocate for what is best for airmen in the field … but that she, like many senior executives, can’t get accurate assessments delivered in actionable form through the “normal” communication methods employed by the chain of command. Having served on the Air Staff, I have no trouble believing she isn’t getting the kind of information through the staffing process that she feels is necessary for her to be effective.

Her insight here is a window into how we’ve changed over time. In the days before we had the budget, the manpower, and the connectivity that enable senior executives to travel constantly and still meet their other responsibilities, they were forced to rely much more heavily on their deputies in the field. Those deputies were consequently forced to communicate more effectively than competitors to get their desired resource flows, and to carefully safeguard the trust and confidence of their geographically distant superiors.

Did that antiquated system force us to grow better leaders? Did it force us to communicate more effectively and to demonstrate communication in order to get promoted? Did it make trust more necessary than it seems now?

There’s simply no substitute for some degree of face-to-face meeting.

“Some degree” connotes that there is an applicable spectrum of activity levels … and therefore there is also a “too much” somewhere on the grand scale of things. A debate about how much is too much seems fruitless, and yet necessary for some of the reasons discussed above.

Visits let me look Airmen and families in the eye, feel their joy in serving, hear their concerns, help solve their problems, fix what’s broken, give them updates directly, and hopefully encourage them along the way.

This is where I differ fundamentally with Secretary James. Our Air Force has more than 300 general officers, more than 3,300 colonels, and more than 2,400 Chief Master Sergeants. Span of control is more limited on average for these leaders than at any time in our history and is more constrained than in any of the services. The complaint you’ll hear from airmen on a regular basis is that each of these 6,000 people wants to be an involved problem-solver, fixer, cheerleader, back-slapping high-fiver, and basically a proxy parent or caring uncle. It sounds harmless, but there’s a fine line separating “help” from “micromanagement” and both can feed infantilization. Not to mention that in an organization running a constant time deficit, anything that isn’t constructive is destructive.

When everyone is rooted in tactical-level, granular concerns, strategic level issues meander from their moorings, giving airmen bigger problems than can ever be solved with endless pep talks. What they want is the resources to succeed and the latitude to make those resources count. They want their bosses to carry their problems up the hill, not for the denizens living on the hill to come down and mingle in an already hectic work environment. This isn’t to suggest that what airmen want is the only thing that matters…only that if helping airmen is the point, their preference is worth registering.

Our Air Force has 120,000 of the most capable and intelligent frontline NCOs in the history of the world. These are the people, by exception, who should be doing frontline supervisory things. The relationships that get built doing the frontline functions SecAF describes in this part of her note are the stuff of which successful military organizations are made, and the stuff without which they cannot succeed. NCOs can’t build those relationships on an unstable foundation of constant distraction and disruption inflicted from above.

I believe if airmen could muster a collective input, they’d make the point that everything works best when squadron life is preserved in its traditional form. That form doesn’t include a continuous stream of tours by outsiders (and I use that term of art deliberately).

Tony, if you ever get the opportunity to serve as SecAF, you can do it your way. As for me, I will continue to do it mine.

To this, I simply say “fair enough.” Personally, I’m encouraged by the forcefulness of SecAF’s words here, which are meant to remind me that she’s a leader in the arena and doesn’t need my advice to do her job. We could do a lot worse than someone who ferociously protects her latitude and prerogative to do what she thinks is best for airmen and for the country.

But what I like most is that it’s a genuine response. It sounds in authentic rather than political tones. We could use a lot more of that, and I dare say more of it would give commentators like me better and more interesting things to comment about.

James-F35

Secretary James’ willingness to weigh in on an oft-contentious issue, and to show she’s listening and considering the inputs of many voices – even those of her critics – is a huge deal. It shows the willingness to not only influence, but be influenced. This is evidence of the nearly extinguished American art of allowing oneself to be open to persuasion, even and especially when there are strong views involved. Taken in the context of things, it could be a turning point toward the more constructive intra-community conversation I and many others have long wished for.

I was impressed that SecAF would take the time to engage with me 1-v-1, and I told her as much in my response, which is included below and can be natively accessed here. For what it’s worth, I believe airmen who read this will be similarly impressed.

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