Comment: Time to End the Inappropriate Deference to E-9s


Three years ago, a good friend of mine was fired from command for sending out a newsletter to his squadron that discussed being “chiefed.” The newsletter poked fun at being “chiefed”, and rightly did so at the expense of those doing the “chiefing.”

For the uninitiated … to be “chiefed” is to be confronted in public on a useless triviality — like failing to wear a reflective belt during the daytime, wearing the wrong color socks, growing an unruly mustache, or pushing one’s sleeves too far up toward one’s elbow. This behavior reached epidemic proportions around a decade ago when the Air Force deployed too many people, gave them too little to do, and put too many senior enlisted people on deployed rosters to lord over them. Chiefings became the source of open ridicule and contempt from all, but were never a more bitter source of disunity than when E-9s and their toadies employed dumbass rules as pretexts to publicly challenge officers. It wasn’t about correcting legitimate violations of good order and discipline. It was about relishing the opportunity to “pull rank” on those damned college-education aristocrats running the show.

Inexplicably, the service not only tolerated this but actively encouraged it. Generals and colonels too aloof to know better listened and deferred to E-9s instead of trusting the officers legally endowed with the authority to lead the service. This was a massive error that emboldened the dim-witted while cowing and neutering those charged with keeping the service combat ready.

Why my friend’s email about idiotic chiefings would shock anyone’s conscience, I’m not sure … the very subject of people running around correcting one another for untucked T-shirts and shoelace color has become an open joke to all but those who are doing it. They need to be made fun of … desperately. I made fun of them openly and relentlessly when I commanded, branding them the “mattress police.” When one of them moaned in a staff meeting about rogue cartoon drawings of penises in the dust blanketing the windows on deployed trailers, my response was as earnest as I could make it: “bet this isn’t what you had in mind when you set your sights on being in the top 1%.”

This firing in 2013 was a horrible thing. The officer in question was one of the best leaders I encountered in 23 years of service, and was at or near the competitive top of his uber competitive career field. The Air Force had invested heavily in him. He’d been promoted ahead of schedule and competitively selected for elite opportunities. He was combat experienced, highly educated, and by all accounts a superb commander. His one mistake — the grand offense of poking fun at those who are screaming out to be ridiculed by their actions — got him permanently sidelined. Not because it amounted to anything, but because some whining jackass convinced an oxygen-thieving 2-star that his actions had been “disrespectful.” Even less respectful: aiding our enemies by replacing excellent commanders based on the wilting, paper-thin skin of stripe-laden delicate daisies.

The officer in question has thrived outside the service, which is unsurprising because winners always find a way to win. But there’s a larger point.

Want to understand how large organizations tend toward mediocrity? This is how. It’s a vivid example. Good leaders have moral courage, and that moral courage leads them to “call it like they see it” instead of being politically correct. In the current hyper-sensitive paradigm, this leads to them being fired for conducting themselves honestly and transparently. If it were possible to recover from being fired, that would be one thing … but it’s not; being relieved of command is effectively a delay-fuzed career bomb that kills promotion and subsequent command opportunity.

With the good leaders tripped up over stuff like this, the pragmatic, meek, meager, back-benchers … the uncourageous types who play along and never develop the spine necessary to lead … are able to rise higher than they otherwise should … and we end up with subpar leaders who exceed the Peter principle too often and by too much.

I’ve seen a lot of dumb stuff over the years, but this decision belongs in the stupidity pantheon. Stuff like this makes it impossible to say the service is functioning properly. One of its major malfunctions is that it cares entirely too much what senior enlisted people think. They’re not on staff to share the mantle of command or to operationalize their respective styles, pet theories, or opinions. They are the honchos by which commanding officers get things done. They are there to organize and execute the will of others, to relay technical expertise up and down the chain, and to warn commanders when their decisions are likely to exceed key limitations. Not to play at actually being in charge and get butt-hurt when the actual command structure reminds them of their role.

Chiefs do not exist to harass airmen or officers by locating and enforcing arcane, obscure, and useless rules. We can get anyone to do that. It is within their gift to do much more, and therefore reasonable that we should expect much more.

The culture of the senior enlisted force under CMSAF James Cody has declined sharply. His chiefs are more narrow, political, and over-controlling as a cohort than at any other point since the rank was invented. They talk endlessly but their actions are milquetoast at best. Most seem unwilling to risk anything. Most happily pursue an enlisted force modeled on careerism and square-checking rather than mission-hacking grit and common-sense work ethic. 

It’s going to take some time for this culture to be turned around, which will assuredly happen as Gen. Dave Goldfein continues turning over rocks and scrubbing away the organizational rot lurking beneath. But in the meantime, we ought to stop fetishizing these “one percenters” and bending to their emotional whimsy. When they behave stupidly, we should expect and even celebrate the fact someone calls them on it. That’s what “right” looks like in a healthy and unmuzzled organization.

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