25 AF Command Chief Wrestles With “Whole Person Concept”

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Chief Master Sergeant Roger Towberman gets generally high marks from peers and juniors alike. He’s known for his sense of humor and allergy to nonsense.

He did something earlier this month worthy of that admiration. He got up in front of his airmen, invoked a controversial subject, and did his best to grapple with it in a common sense way.

This is in contrast with the prevailing leadership style employed during the slow-motion rollout of the new Enlisted Evaluation System (EES) and associated policies, which has been characterized by tight information control, careful scripting, and a molasses-paced roadshow that is dribbling information into the force as airmen drool for knowledge that will fundamentally shape their careers.

That rollout campaign is being orchestrated by CMSAF James Cody, who recently defended it against a hail of tough questions on his facebook page. Undaunted, Cody is maintaining a lockdown approach, going so far as to prohibit cellphones and tasking an operational communications team at one base to record and beam a roadshow brief to geographically displaced units rather than permit public affairs personnel to record and share it. It’s a deeply chauvinist approach rooted in unduly low expectations, and it is alienating airmen from the new EES before the program even hits the streets.

A better approach is exemplified by Chief Towberman in this video:

Admittedly, the Chief’s message is conflicted in a few places.

At one point he remarks that being a solid performer in your primary duty might not get you promoted. That seems to contradict the philosophy behind the new EES, which purports to be all about performance-based advancement. 

There’s also an unspoken assumption in what he preaches that may or may not be valid across the board. By championing the idea of having airmen expand their use of time and “will power” into community and self-improvement activities only after they’ve fulfilled their role in core duties, Towberman assumes that there is a defined point at which airmen can say they’ve done everything expected of them on the job. In today’s Air Force, many if not most airmen are so serially overtasked, and their calendar white space so limited, that this point never arrives. They are always underwater, so the trick is knowing how to prioritize, and when to place family, community, and self above a workcenter to-do list that is never completed.

But to the extent Towberman is somewhat conflicted in places and ambivalent in others, it’s because he’s describing a conflicted concept about which he and most other Chiefs are rightly ambivalent. The service has become so afflicted with the whole person disease … with it’s endless eyewash, perverse incentives, and inverted priorities … that many Chiefs (and probably most airmen) simply want to denounce the whole idea and burn its effigy as a message to future generations.

But that, too, is a dangerous idea. There is goodness in encouraging a focus on teamwork outside the duty section. There is goodness in fostering an environment where education and other forms of self-improvement are valued by the chain of command. The fact we’ve sent the whole person pendulum on such a wild swing that it has started gnawing at the fabric of the enlisted corps is dangerous, because we don’t want to react by sending it sailing too far in the other direction. The difficult trick is determining how to encourage a properly calibrated focus on all of the things we know are essential to development.

Even tougher, arguably, is deciding how to measure those things. Most agree that a performance appraisal should be almost entirely about performance, with other activities entering the equation only to the extent that undertaking them enhances performance. But built-in limitations on supervisory observation and involvement — exacerbated by the current operational tempo and churn level — mean that failing to formally capture some of what airmen do beyond the walls of their workspace could result in promoting the wrong people and cultivating the wrong leaders for a challenging future.

No easy answers. But it’s refreshing to see a senior leader essentially admit that this isn’t a cut-and-dried idea, even as he does his best to spur a dialogue about it.

The Air Force could do a lot worse than at least making an attempt to grapple with complex ideas by talking them through with airmen openly, and sharing those conversations to catalyze more chatter. Unfortunately, it is doing a lot worse right now by having this example be the exception rather than the rule.

Here’s to hoping that changes soon. We only have so long before the enemy votes again.

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