Loss of Confidence: Did Lackland Trade Recruit Abuse for Toxic Leadership?

Pass In Review

An article posted by AF Times last Friday went viral.  Airmen were outraged by what seemed like a manifest injustice that was bad for the Air Force.  Is this a case of overreacting to a half-story, or are airmen peering through the veil of official action and accurately glimpsing toxic leadership?

Air Force tradition holds that good commanders know the stories and lives of their people.  Good commanders develop strong working relationships with key subordinates, and exceptional commanders find the perfect balance between professional distance and camaraderie, enforcing standards without closing down communication channels essential to sensing and reacting to the needs of people. In the wake of recent events at Lackland Air Force Base, every good commander in the Air Force has reason to be concerned that continuing to do the things that they’ve been taught to do – and recently reminded by Air Force Instruction to carry forward with even more intensity – could get them investigated and sacked.  It seems the definition of “effective leadership” is once again up for debate.

Lt. Col. Craig Perry

Lt. Col. Craig Perry was relieved of command of the 737th Training Support Squadron in late March after having been on the job for less than six months.  He was also given a career-ending reprimand and an assignment to another duty station – an expensive and non-standard change of trajectory requiring 2-star approval.  The Air Force – in the person of Perry’s Wing Commander, Colonel Mark Camerer – says this all happened because of a loss of confidence in Perry’s ability to lead his unit.

Loss of confidence.”  It’s the most critical turn of phrase in a case like this one, and yet the most ambiguous.  It begs the question: how does one commander lose confidence in the ability of another – especially one carefully groomed and hand-picked for his assignment and on the job for such a brief time that he hadn’t even had a performance report yet? Such a rapid and total loss of confidence can only arise legitimately in one of three principal ways.  

First, a commander can show himself incompetent.  By all accounts, that’s not the case here. Perry’s squadron performed well under his hand, and morale was steadily improving.  Initiatives he pursued in mending the squadron after the Basic Military Training (BMT) scandal preceding his arrival seemed to be resonating, and the squadron easily passed a command compliance inspection. In fact, the critical Military Training Instructor (MTI) School, ground zero in the healing of the service’s accession process after a rash of sexual assaults and abuses of power by instructors, received an “excellent” in that same inspection.  When Perry’s squadron learned he was to be reprimanded, subordinates crawled out of the woodwork to offer character references, joined by several of his fellow commanders.  None of this paints a picture of ineptitude.

Commanders can also lose the confidence of superiors by committing crimes, but there’s no evidence criminality is at issue here.  Had Perry’s superiors suspected he was guilty of violating the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, they’d have initiated a criminal investigation, and had the evidence borne the appropriate weight, preferred court-martial charges against him.  The fact he was instead given an administrative reprimand is a confirmation that his chain of command doesn’t believe he’s guilty of breaking the law.

But lastly, a commander can fall short of maintaining the confidence of his superiors by failing to respond to feedback.  Command is a dynamic role, and first-time command is replete with opportunities to step on unseen landmines.  Mistakes are not only bound to happen, they are inevitable.  This is expected and essential to the growth of a commander, and it’s the very reason commanders are selected in part for their ability to receive and act on feedback.  Someone who believes s/he has all the answers is unlikely to process feedback in the right way, and is a poor candidate for leadership at any level.  But in this case, Lt. Col. Perry never received unfavorable feedback from his immediate superior, Group Commander Colonel Deborah Liddick, or anyone else for that matter.  Liddick provided her expectations three weeks into Perry’s command tour and he did his best to abide faithfully by them.  His first clue that he was doing anything wrong was his placement under investigation, followed swiftly by his relief from command.  This is a telltale sign that something isn’t quite right about Perry’s firing; such an occurrence should never come as a surprise, because every leader at every level is entitled to notice s/he is falling short and the opportunity to correct.

So if Perry isn’t inept, isn’t a criminal, and wasn’t even given the chance to change his approach command, what explains his firing?  One of two things. It’s possible (though it seems quite unlikely) that Perry actually did meet one of these criteria but the Air Force refuses to express it publicly.  This does occasionally happen because the institution is loath to admit it chose the wrong person for a key role — especially given the intense scrutiny under which Lackland and its parent command have labored recently.  But alternatively, it could be simply that Perry’s boss wanted rid of him for reasons that have not been made public and wielded her authority in order to manufacture his removal.  Given the absence of a reasonable explanation for what looks like a questionable firing of a high-caliber, high-performing, well-regarded, hand picked commander, this latter explanation deserves a little more exploration. 

It is well known in the modern US military that sometimes, senior officers decide they don’t like subordinates, and figure out ways to get rid of them.  The relief of commanders without accurate explanations for doing so represents a harmful strain of corporatism that introduces instability and dishonesty into a system requiring a stable and forthright foundation.  Senior officers are powerful people. They lead insular lives surrounded by small staffs that reinforce their preferences.  This isn’t universal, but it is prevalent.  Over time, this structure creates in many senior officers a unique sense of entitlement. They come to believe their power to choose subordinates is near-absolute, and they often wield it to pick commanders who have not only the kind of service record a given senior leader finds redeemable, but whose styles, approaches, and philosophies align with their own.  This is why the command selection process in the Air Force is, in part, a game of phone calls and emails to “feel out” and “check on” the reputations of various officers before bids are made by hiring authorities to fill individual billets.  It also explains why groupthink and loss of imagination — ugly cousins of excessive intellectual conformity — have become prevalent in the modern Air Force.  The structure of the current system allows commanders to minimize dissent by exerting influence over who gets a seat at the table.

But here’s an interesting wrinkle.  After commanders have been selected and put into their positions, removing them is not something about which a superior officer has unfettered discretion.  In the absence of criminality or obvious incompetence, a commander is entitled to retain his position unless another sufficient cause can be demonstrated.  This is not always the way things work, however, and often the service tries to have it both ways by relieving a commander and destroying a career without having to ground its actions in the kind of proof that should be required.  This is the realm of the Commander-Directed Investigation. 

If someone is suspected of a crime, we typically call the police.  If someone is guilty of poor judgment or a bad decision, we typically engage them in a conversation about improving their performance.  These should be the only two options normally available for dealing with an allegedly subpar commander.  But between those two poles, a CDI is sometimes used to develop findings that can be used to destroy a career without meeting the ordinary threshold.  This appears to be the gambit of choice in the Perry case. 

The CDI conducted on Craig Perry reportedly sustained three allegations.  The first had to do with his removal of unfavorable information from the personnel file of a subordinate.  Investigators said Perry broke 2nd Air Force (2AF) policy by deciding the unfavorable information no longer needed to be retained since the subordinate in question had extensively rehabilitated and become a superior performer.  Serious questions plague this finding.  First, his local chain of command, including Liddick, had previously told Perry and his fellow commanders that they were indeed permitted to remove such documentation.  Second, Air Force instructions support Perry’s actions, and the 2AF policy letter that would have constrained him and others from the more relaxed Air Force standard was expired and thus, not valid. (For the uninitiated, it’s not uncommon for Air Force general officers to create organizations in their own image by issuing dozens of policy letters, but these letters are only good for 6 months before they must be renewed or their substance folded into an actual instruction). Moreover, several of Perry’s fellow commanders stipulated to having behaved similarly, reinforcing that his actions in this regard were in keeping with the understood policy.

The second finding held that Perry made statements undermining Liddick’s authority.  The investigating officer was reportedly ambivalent about whether to include this finding, feeling that Perry’s remarks were little more than cases of legitimate and respectful disagreement over how his squadron should be run. Some close to the situation say the two clashed over some elements of Perry’s leadership approach, that Liddick was arguably keen to micromanage Perry’s unit, and that Perry was guilty of nothing more than respectfully attempting to clarify the bounds of his authority.

The third finding detailed Perry’s allegedly inappropriate relationships with some squadron members.  As detailed in the recent Air Force Times article, these allegations are particularly problematic.  Commanders are expected to develop strong relationships with their people. This is highly situational, subjective and unscientific.

When it comes to key advisors such as First Sergeants, superintendents, operations officers, and flight commanders/chiefs, these relationships are bound to be more robust given the nature of a commander’s interactions with key players who help him orchestrate the mission and take care of people. Each squadron has its own unique character.  In a flying squadron, a commander is likely to spend more time with evaluators, flight commanders, and core members of the operations team than with others.  In a training squadron such as Perry’s, it’s to be expected that the boss will spend more time interfacing with key training instructors and those supervising their actions. Despite this broadly embraced conventional wisdom, Liddick rewarded a “sour grapes” complaint from within Perry’s squadron by ordering him to keep his distance from a couple of his subordinates.  Perry complied, and the CDI established that he did so. 

But the report held that his relationship with his own superintendent was perceived by some to exhibit favoritism, a claim that caught Perry by surprise given the ordinary nature of such a relationship.  Having never put Perry on notice about this particular relationship, Liddick nevertheless told investigators she felt it had been “cozier” than she would have liked.  Such an assessment smacks of sexism; “cozy” would not have been a plausible descriptor had Perry’s superintendent been a male SNCO.  But sexist or not, Liddick’s description contributed to the sustainment of a finding against Perry, which she then used to justify a recommendation to fire him.

This questionable chain of events stands behind the summary execution of an otherwise brilliant career.  Nothing has been proven in court.  Perry was never given notice of wrongdoing or a meaningful opportunity to address or refute allegations before he was removed from command. In announcing his firing to Perry’s fellow commanders, Camerer went so far as to stress that he hadn’t done anything illegal or immoral. No one has meaningfully explained what happened, and none of what has been established rises anywhere near a level of misconduct sufficient to fire an officer with Perry’s track record and observed performance.  Yet Perry is out of a job, disgraced, with his career in ruins.  He and his family have been punitively ordered to relocate. 

Something doesn’t add up.  Often, when things don’t add up, abuse of power lurks in the background. 

Indeed, the one explanation that resolves the inconsistencies of the Perry case is that Liddick decided, for reasons not made public, that she wanted rid of him . . . and found a way to get it done. If that’s an even remotely reasonable explanation, it should be investigated. And as it turns out, there’s ample cause to believe it’s at least as reasonable as Camerer’s abrupt “loss of confidence” based on conspicuously flimsy allegations.

Colonel Deborah Liddick
Colonel Deborah Liddick

Colonel Deborah Liddick is regarded by many as a toxic leader.  Her subordinates fear constantly for their careers.  At least two other squadron commanders have complained about her behavior to the Inspector General only to see their complaints dismissed.  Liddick, it is said, makes it clear to her subordinates that they’re either “with or against” her, encouraging a loyalty culture rather than an environment marked by healthy, open communication.  She is also said to be extremely intolerant of disagreement.  Those who offer opinions or ideas inconsistent with hers are reportedly ostracized, and complaints by First Sergeants, enlisted leaders, and MTIs about the toxic environment she is said to have fostered have not met with responsiveness from Camerer or others.  Insiders say the command climate in the training group is as bad as ever, with good people languishing and giving up on the Air Force as a result of Liddick’s leadership.  Despite these apparently broad misgivings, Liddick is scheduled to be decorated with a Legion of Merit later this month.  If much of this reporting is accurate, it seems maybe it’s easier to get fired at Lackland for being a good commander rather than a poor one.  Unsurprisingly, those who spoke to me directly or through online interactions about Liddick did so under the condition of anonymity, fearing harsh reprisal if their identities were discovered.  That, in itself, is a damning fact.  Only in a badly warped environment are otherwise confident officers and SNCOs so gripped with fear that they aren’t free to give honest, constructive feedback to a Colonel charged with leading and caring for them.

Firing commanders is not something we should shy away from, and in fact it probably doesn’t happen enough.  But if one commander is going to fire another, it can’t be based on fiat, whimsy, or preference.  The firing official better have a good reason.  A reason s/he can explain.  The Air Force is a public institution funded by the taxpayer.  Commanders are chosen deliberately and carefully for their demonstrated potential and their exceptional personal and professional qualities.  They, their subordinates, and the public they serve are entitled to understand how the system failed to select the right person or how the right person became the wrong person.  

This is especially important for young officers aspiring to command in the future.  They need to know what will get them hired and fired.  As for the arguments that privacy or ongoing investigations bar Lackland’s leadership from saying anything substantive about Perry’s relief, this is pure nonsense.  The Air Force enjoys no special immunity from public accountability.  By avoiding giving a real reason, it tries to avoid being held accountable for its reason.  This is irresponsible, and an Information Age non-starter.

Craig Perry’s record before this incident was exemplary.  He’s been stratified atop countless peer groups, graduated with distinction from virtually every program he’s ever attended, and was pushed for early promotion to his current grade.  He’s also highly decorated, having served outside the wire in combat. The Air Force educated, trained, developed, and selected Perry for his position, diverting him specifically to a squadron in need of his passion and aptitude. The Air Force put him in command. And less than six months later, that same Air Force relieved him without explaining itself to him or the public it serves.  No mentorship, no opportunity to correct course, no remediation. How is it that the fortunes of an officer change so quickly? Does such a violent change of trajectory seem like the product of effective O-6 leadership taken astray by a misguided O-5?  Perhaps.  But such pathology seems more likely to have arisen from toxicity.

It might just be that Perry’s biggest infraction was his failure to surrender his intellectual freedom when he took the reins of a squadron in dire need of his brand of demonstrative, relationship-driven leadership.  It might be that his second biggest crime was caring more about his airmen than his boss thought was appropriate.  If these are his biggest infractions, it’s fair to question whether Camerer fired the wrong commander, and whether in doing so, he raised new questions about his own judgment.

If this is a case of classic toxicity, it cannot be allowed to stand. This case should be re-looked, this time with Liddick and Camerer included within the scope of the investigation.  If they can fire an otherwise strong commander without mentoring him or demonstrating even the most basic attempt to define and help him meet their particular standards, we have created a system that has a built-in invitation to toxic behavior by O-6 leaders. Lackland and its airmen have suffered enough, and need a strong leadership cadre to guide them.  If they’ve been given something less — like a group commander who can’t abide respectful dissent and a wing commander who can’t discern good, people-focused leadership when he sees it — maybe things aren’t quite where they need to be.

Colonels Mark Camerer and Deborah Liddick
Colonels Mark Camerer and Deborah Liddick

It’s understandable that Mark Camerer and Deborah Liddick would want to cultivate the impression that all is well at Lackland these days, and that if it meant discarding a new commander in order to defuse some grumbling at the MTI school, such a casualty would be acceptable to them in the larger scheme of things.  Given the mixed reporting about MTI morale recently, the last thing Camerer needs is the perception of internal unrest.  But none of this provides a foundation for the hunting and destruction of an individual, and the firing of a good commander for the wrong reasons always does much more harm to a unit and mission than doing the right thing.

It could be that all of this necessary speculation is inaccurate, and that Lt. Col. Craig Perry’s firing was justified.  If that’s the case, Lackland’s leadership should provide a clear and complete explanation.  But it could also be that the failure to provide that explanation reflects deep ambivalence about Perry’s firing, and unease about being held accountable for the reasons behind it. No matter which of these explanations is true, Perry and the public he has served for two decades deserve a public statement consistent with the Air Force’s primary core value of integrity. 

Did Mark Camerer lose confidence in the wrong subordinate?  Did the Air Force place confidence in the right cadre of O-6s to lead Lackland through the most challenging moment in its history? It’s time for Congress to renew its interest in Lackland and exercise its oversight authority.  Toxic environments are resistant to all but the strongest of tonics.

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