Change Management and Combat Leadership, Al Udeid Style


 

The character archetype of the Mean Boss can indicate toxicity, but the concept is much more subtle. The hinge is self-concern. A "mean" but unselfish boss can be effective, but an outwardly "nice" yet selfish boss can be incredibly destructive.

Usually, when we witness people in leadership roles wasting energy on petty issues or obsessing over control of micro-details, it’s not because they’re inherently bad people or have naturally poor judgment. It’s usually because they have too little to keep them busy, and thus devolve into a misguided rut of micromanaged minutiae in order to feel more consequential. Alternatively, it might mean they’ve been captured by a toxic culture and internalized deviant misprioritization as a norm.

Given the tone and content of what I’m about to share with you, my intuition is that whichever theory we choose to explain why, Al Udeid could stand to lose at least one Lt. Col. from its roster without missing a beat. Hell, things might even improve.

Our story begins with a dumb policy change, in this case implicating the aircrew alert sequence. For the uninitiated, getting from alert to actually operating an aircraft in and out of Al Udeid is like participating in a live-action role-play of Dante’s Inferno. It’s a needlessly cumbersome and hassle-ridden process that changes every time a support agency decides to give someone a new innovation bullet on a monthly award package … sending a new, unimproved, happy-to-glad change rippling through every combat sortie. 

The most criminal aspect of the sequence is the Qatar-imposed requirement for every aircrew member to emigrate and re-immigrate through customs on every flight … a longstanding form of legitimized harassment left untouched by a toothless constellation of generals and diplomatics over the course of countless years. The Qataris think nothing of arbitrarily deporting a pilot without even explaining themselves, and we allow this despite their undisputed protective coverage by the blanket of American security … despite being much more wealthy than we are on a per capita basis. But I digress. Back to the story.

It seems the recent change in food contractors, along with starving the base of essentials like chicken, eggs, and milk, has imposed new restrictions on what aircrew members are allowed to “grab” when they pass through the “grab and go” on the way to their aircraft. If it seems odd at first blush that we would need to impose limits on what mostly college-educated combat aviators are permitted to grab at a place with the word “grab” in its label, trust me, you’re not the only one who feels that way. But it seems that in this case, our collective unwillingness to cede “grab limit authority” to aircraft commanders has led to friction during the alert sequence. It seems some aircrew members, being the red-blooded American fighting men and women they are and no-doubt punch drunk on the adrenally fueled delightfulness of preparing to transform America’s enemies into a fine powder, have taken to voicing their displeasure to the hapless contract laborers given the awesome task of being the ones to insult the intelligence of airmen on a constant, rolling basis.

This is where our fearless leader enters the picture. Seems he’s heard too many complaints about aircrews refusing to meekly submit to the new policy, is mad as hell about it, and isn’t going to take it anymore.

So, he did what any effective leader would do. He sought out the individuals, counseled them privately about the proper way to discuss changes with contract laborers, appealed to their patience, collected their valid concerns, and took action to repeal the dumb policy causing them a new hassle while simultaneously thanking the vast majority of his people for not complaining. 

Actually, that’s not what happened.

He actually just sat down behind his keyboard, as pissed off as the day is long, and hammered out a nastily worded screed threatening all sorts … and then had his minions post and disseminate it. He then likely returned to petting his favorite copy of AFI 1-1 while reviewing for his next Air War College exam.

Here’s the message.

379 EOG:CD

Couple of observations.

First, as a leader of men and women executing combat missions, your job is to remove obstacles, reduce hassles, streamline alert sequences, and kill dumb policies where they stand. Your job is not to amplify harassment efforts. Putting people on notice that a dumb policy exists isn’t change management. It’s hopping in the clown car and going along for the ride. If a policy change that creates a new hassle is ultimately unavoidable, your duty is to foresee and ease the strain it will introduce, not to take up the role of mattress police. Ask yourself, What Would Robin Olds Do? And then execute that response flawlessly, violently, and successfully.

But remember, you’re not actually Robin Olds, and you’ve got to work to earn and keep the respect of your people. It’s seldom a good idea to talk to people the way it was done here. I say seldom because it might work in a small team environment where the relationship you’ve built will support it. But in all other times and places, forget the internally cherished notion that you’re a contemporary Curtis LeMay or Ron Fogleman … choking stern orders through coffee-stained teeth with a cigar hanging out of your mouth and explosions going off in the background. I would take 69:1 odds your people don’t see you that way, so when you bark at them like this, you just lose them. They revert to doing the minimum necessary to avoid contact with you, and that shrinks your relevance. It also puts your squadron commanders in a tough position; they’re responsible for unit climate and you’re engaging in freelance climatology here. Delegate this kind of messaging and trust them to get the point across.

Finally, and most importantly, don’t embrace self-defeating behaviors to address self-defeating behaviors. This legitimizes the very conduct you’re trying to dissuade and lifts it higher in the organization. Removing someone from a combat sortie where they will drop bombs on ISIS or (trigger warning) support those who do because they weren’t nice enough to the guy behind the food counter is about as self-defeating as it gets. Making the threat says to your people that you care less about the mission than about non-mission-related bullshit, and there are few things more damaging to your credibility and reputation as a leader.

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For as long as anyone can remember, Al Udeid figureheads have run their chops about the base and the Grand Slam Wing being critical to combat operations. But for as long as anyone can remember, it’s also been a festering swamp of self-inflicted jackassery … a constantly unfolding chronicle of the worst approaches to the most inane issues using the clumsiest and most alienating methods. It’s a lunatic-managed asylum … a salt mine where the easy is made too difficult, the difficult is made to look easy, and rulebooks surreptitiously procreate with other rulebooks in the dingy shadows of overpopulated staff meetings … fruitfully multiplying the unnecessary frustration and anguish of people just trying to do their damn jobs and get back to their families.

The only thing that will change this is for otherwise good leaders to stop reporting for duty at Al Udeid and bending themselves to fit into its culture. The system and the airmen tirelessly toiling within it expect you to bend the culture back into shape rather than letting it warp you into a suspect leader.

Al Udeid is a base with plenty of real problems without making up new ones. The base was recently flooded, with water rising inside living quarters, knocking out power and creating a huge mess. Before that, denizens were subjected to the horror of a voluntoldary Tops-in-Blue show, leaving many wracked with recurring nightmares over the holidays.

But seriously, it’s also a base where aircrews were served a continental breakfast before holiday combat missions … so the chow hall could marshal its strength for the service of a robust feast to everyone else. Maybe I’m missing something, but unscrewing that … seems like a more valid use of leader energy than banging out another tired, totally ineffectual manifesto.

Here’s to the vain hope of a better 2016 for those marooned at the joy vacuum otherwise known as The ‘Deid. From what I hear, the new year will kick off with an airshow. Yep, that’s right … an airshow … because nothing says we have our combat priorities straight and are living within our no-egg, no-chicken, no-milk, limited grab-n-go budget … like a full-up canine-equine extravaganza in the desert. I’m sure no problems and no extra work will be created.

More on that soon. Until then, be decent to each other, and especially any contract laborers you might encounter.

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