Dishonor Roll: Documenting the Air Force Problem of Toxic Leadership

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 2.41.20 PM

This blog has focused in the last couple of years on a problem Gen. Mark Welsh has refused to effectively confront during his time as Chief of Staff. It’s a problem particularly harmful to the employment of airpower and offensive to the free thinking and risk-taking that undergird innovation. It’s a problem that has, in many cases, catalyzed a fear-induced shutdown of communication in Air Force units, leaving Welsh starved of the information he needs to steer effectively at his level. It’s a problem that has too often offended the service’s stated and implicit value systems, failing to protect committed and upstanding airmen from predatory bosses and refusing to grant airmen redress when maltreatment is demonstrable.

This is the problem of toxic, absentee, and self-aggrandizing leadership.

Toxicity isn’t just about prototypical abuse by an authority figure. The popularized image of the charcoal-gargling bully humiliating followers like a bull in a china shop is part of the phenomenon, but not all of it.

Toxicity also manifests by a level of inaction, ineptitude, or self-concern that tacitly disregards the welfare of subordinates, approves abuse by others, or creates a climate within which abuse is a foreseeable consequence. In making this proposition, I rely on the definition furnished by Army Doctrine Publication 6-22:

“Toxic leadership is a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance. This leader lacks concern for others and the climate of the organization, which leads to short- and long-term negative effects. The toxic leader operates with an inflated sense of self-worth and from acute self-interest. Toxic leaders consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce, or unfairly punish others to get what they want for themselves. The negative leader completes short-term requirements by operating at the bottom of the continuum of commitment, where followers respond to the positional power of their leader to fulfill requests. This may achieve results in the short term, but ignores the other leader competency categories of leads and develops. Prolonged use of negative leadership to influence followers undermines the followers’ will, initiative, and potential and destroys unit morale.”

Notably, the Air Force doesn’t define the concept in its own doctrine, which is a way of denying the phenomenon exists. The exclusion speaks volumes about why the problem persists.

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.
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 excessively selfish boss can be incredibly destructive.

But the problem does persist, and this is not mysterious. Even in healthy organizations, it stands to reason that a small number of candidates with hidden or unnoticed character flaws will rise to leadership positions. Whether an organization has a healthy overall climate hinges largely on how it responds when these flaws are crystallized through leader performance and conduct. Healthy organizations note and deal swiftly with toxic conduct, while unhealthy ones resist doing so.

But to even notice when such flaws emerge, the Air Force would have to acknowledge that its leader development processes can never achieve perfection, that bad colonels and even – gasp! – bad generals do indeed happen, and that grievance and Inspector General (IG) processes are important to policing its own senior leadership corps.

Unfortunately, the service has adopted roughly the opposite perspective. Senior officials pretend a problem-free and infallible senior cadre.

But their denial cannot change reality.

From time to time, Air Force officers in leadership positions misuse, abuse, or fail to adequately apply their authority. When it happens, they must be called to account and held to the same rules and expectations exacted of those they lead.

When this doesn’t happen, the rules are exposed as toothless and selectively applicable. Airmen conclude that rank is an entitlement to set aside the rules and re-make them to suit the leader’s preferences. This not only offends the concept of “service before self,” it is the textbook definition of corruption. Authority, properly calibrated, is more about discretion and less about power-wielding.

The Air Force too often closes ranks around corrupt leaders, failing to hold them accountable when they wield power to marginalize or destroy subordinates – often because juniors dared to question or suggest limits upon their power. When this happens too often, it is both a manifestation of and an invitation to fascism in the ranks. The less energetically it is policed, the more it occurs, especially as pragmatic junior officers take note of how abusing investigative and administrative processes aids in the survival and rise of the empowered. This is one of the ways in which a culture begins to brew toxicity.

The current iteration of the Air Force does too little to rein in destructive leaders, and in the wake of official timidity lies the human wreckage of destroyed careers, forgotten families, and airmen disillusioned by bearing witness to capricious or arbitrary conduct. Coupled with its reticence to control unhinged leaders is a stubborn penchant for stonewalling that gives toxic commanders unlimited cover. They can cashier or hound a disfavored subordinate based on an unacknowledged pretext, safe in the knowledge that they’ll never be forced to render a rationale beyond the vague and vacuous notion of “loss of confidence.”

Through excess tolerance and opacity, the Air Force risks entrenching an unaccountable environment that cannot carry out the nation’s air and space defense requirements.

What follows is an incomplete but representative run-down of some of the more notable cases of toxicity among senior Air Force officers over the past few years, along with what the Air Force did about it, if anything.

★       ★       ★       ★       ★

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 3.15.27 PMCol. Patrick Rhatigan relieved Lt. Col. Blair Kaiser from command of an airlift squadron in mid-2014 without showing cause, hiding from Kaiser the reality that his job had been in jeopardy for a while based on events and perceptions beyond his control. The firing came as Kaiser returned from a superbly-rendered five-month deployment to Afghanistan, and seemed to be based on misconduct within the unit that had manifested while Kaiser was away – misconduct that nevertheless gained the disapproving attention of Rhatigan’s 3-star boss.

The pretext for Kaiser’s firing was a report that he’d behaved improperly as a crewmember during his return from Afghanistan. That report turned out to be inaccurate. The tipster who rendered that report was the officer who stood in for Kaiser while he was away, and who stood to gain a permanent command role if Kaiser got relieved (which is precisely what happened). That stand-in was also a known protégé of Rhatigan’s boss, providing an additional political incentive for Rhatigan to act as he did. Investigations into Kaiser failed to substantiate a shred of misconduct, and he was never counseled or reprimanded. Despite this, he was relegated to an inconsequential desk job for months while he and his family awaited an unfavorable performance report and a quasi-punitive reassignment. His career was destroyed, and Kaiser has since filed for retirement.

Rhatigan fired a total of five squadron leaders during his two-year wing command tour, including Kaiser’s replacement and an operations officer preemptively sacked before he even had a shot at command. In no case was a rationale beyond “loss of confidence” supplied, leaving the rumor mill to churn plausible stories about disconnects between the wing’s technically respected squadron commanders and the efficiency-minded Rhatigan, who came to his position with virtually zero tactical airlift experience and didn’t believe in some of the mission’s training requirements.

Several of the impacted officers filed a service-level IG complaint alleging abuse of power. This group included Kaiser, who withdrew a Congressional complaint based on personal assurances from Gen. Welsh that he would get a fair IG process, and Lt. Col. Jim Burgess, a widely respected operator and leader who’d had his reputation publicly maligned by Rhatigan both before and after his sacking. After seven months of waiting, during which the complainants were assured that their cases were being investigated, the IG informed them that it had found insufficient cause to investigate. It’s an absurd outcome that took unacceptably long to culminate, leaving those involved no opportunity for meaningful redress. Rhatigan retired on May 31st, decorated with the Legion of Merit.  

The case study briefly recounted here is an egregious example of organizational politics that should be taught at service schools to illustrate the dangers of unaccountable leadership. Click here for the original story and analysis. 

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 3.37.47 PMEarlier in 2014, Colonel Deborah Liddick sacked Lt. Col Craig Perry from squadron command based on differences of style, using a Command Directed Investigation (CDI) riddled with conflicts of interest and investigative deficiencies to trump up official allegations that could be used to justify her decision ex post. By her own admission, Liddick decided at some point that she didn’t trust Perry, but gave him no opportunity to address her concerns. Instead, she found cover for an interim decision to set Perry aside until she could manufacture sufficient rationale to safely make her decision permanent. While there never emerged any foundation for her to judge Perry untrustworthy, Liddick fed her misgivings to investigators, leading to findings upon which she could officially base the personal choice to rid herself of a commander whose style she didn’t prefer.

Nothing ever emerged in the Perry debacle to demonstrate he’d been anything other than an excellent commander of the unit for which he’d been hand-picked. What did emerge was a pattern of favoritism by Liddick, who commandeered some of Perry’s key subordinates for her own staff and “took sides” with others when they chafed against his leadership style.

None of Perry’s multiple attempts for redress got anywhere, despite constant reassurances that senior officials were listening to his pleas. He was reassigned, removed from the Senior Developmental Education list, blackballed from promotion, reprimanded, and given an unfavorable performance assessment – all for daring to exercise the exact brand of creative, people-focused leadership for which he’d been hired, but which cut against Liddick’s autocratic management style. Liddick retired in the middle of the scandal she created, her decisions having sown division that continues within the Lackland NCO community to the present day. She was decorated with the Legion of Merit. The original case study of the Perry sacking can be found here. The role of self-absorbed leadership in the creation and sustainment of the Lackland crisis is an unsettling but important subject.

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 3.49.38 PMCol. Mark Camerer, Liddick’s boss at the time, refused to step in and police her conduct. He closed ranks and stood behind her decisions, opening an Unfavorable Information File on Perry and ordering him on a short-notice assignment despite a desperately ill family member. Camerer did this despite having evidence Liddick had pre-determined to fire Perry and abused the CDI process to cover herself – a clear abuse of authority for which she should have been disciplined. The Perry saga unfolded against the backdrop of a notably caustic work environment at Lackland, a product of Liddick’s policies, within which training instructors grew risk-averse and intellectually pliant to the point of paranoia, fearing that even the smallest of errors would be career-ending and reputation tarnishing. Notwithstanding so many problems blossoming on his watch, Camerer was promoted to Brigadier General and reassigned to a staff billet in Europe.

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 3.52.33 PMBrig. Gen. Mark Brown later publicly disparaged Perry, according to multiple reports from a Second Air Force commander’s call. Speaking of the case, he remarked that “[y]ou have to ask yourself, why was he fired? Officers selected for command must be smart, or else they wouldn’t have been given the job. So, his failure must be one of character.” Brown made these remarks just two weeks after ruling against Perry’s appeal for redress, raising questions about objectivity and fairness. Even without those questions, publicly disparaging a fellow officer as Brown reportedly did is a violation of both rule and custom, and a poor example for his airmen. Brown was later promoted to Major General.

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 3.55.55 PMMaj. Gen. Margaret “Peggy” Poore, commander of the Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC), presided over a horribly botched 2014 drawdown characterized by ineffective communication, bait-and-switch tactics, revoked offers, serially broken deadlines, unexplained delays, deceptive conduct, and midstream rule changes. The trust hemorrhaged and human toll exacted by AFPC’s gross ineptitude will plague the service for years to come. Throughout this turbulent period, Poore did not make a single public statement to manage the situation, inform airmen, or take accountability. She remains in her position.

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 4.06.30 PMMaj. Gen. Michael Keltz publicly berated a junior officer during a non-judicial punishment hearing, remarking that the officer looked “drunker than 10,000 Indians” in a photo. After complaints were lodged by attendees, Keltz apologized and requested retirement, which was granted by Gen. Robin Rand, the commander of Air Education and Training Command (AETC). The hearing was part of what many term an unfolding witch hunt, which started with a legitimate investigation into allegations of an unprofessional relationship by a Laughlin instructor pilot but has since widened to include, reportedly, career-ending punishments for others based on nothing more than inappropriate text messages between professional colleagues. While Rand is said to have ordered new investigations into some of the cases at issue, he has thus far not commented publicly on the unfolding scandal at Lackland. Remarkable in the Keltz matter is that the disciplinary hunting of officers raised no eyebrows, but an off-hand remark ended his career. Reeks of politics.

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 4.13.08 PMBrig. Gen. Kathleen Cook – or some force or being purporting to act on her behalf – re-tweeted from her official account a Fox News message opining dourly on the political efficacy of the President of the United States. The tweet stood for 15 hours before being erased, and Cook later claimed that she hadn’t sent it. Through a spokesman, she promised to perform an internal investigation and take corrective measures. Some time later, she certified that all was well in a brief commentary, but without ever providing an explanation as to how the errant message had been transmitted from her account. Cook remains in her position as Director of Air Force Public Affairs (PA), her tenure having stirred controversy about the use of taxpayer-funded resources to carry out and report disproportionately on relative frivolities such as musical, ceremonial, and executive support activities rather than maintaining focus on the Air Force’s core mission.

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 4.16.30 PMAs commander of Twentieth Air Force, which oversees Air Force nuclear missile operations at three northern-tier bases, Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein presided over an early 2014 scandal implicating nearly 100 officers in a cheating ring that falsified performance on certification exams. He responded by firing nine subordinate commanders – some of whom had been in their positions so briefly that they’d had no opportunity to contribute to or address the underlying issues – and oversaw career-ending punishments for many of the junior officers involved. While the bloodletting made for good political theater, it didn’t drive to the root of problems plaguing the missile community since at least 2008 and acutely evident as organizational rot in 2013. The pretense of Weinstein’s response was an isolated cultural issue at one base, but missile insiders attest to a known and unfolding community-wide decline over the course of years, supporting indications of which appear in a report charged to get to the bottom of things.

Some believe Weinstein – and the zero-defect, harshly exacting, autocratic leadership approach he exemplifies – contributed to the toxic climate that led to systemic cheating and other issues, an assertion not without merit given that he’s held four different general officer positions in the community since 2008, as conditions have worsened.

Officers unfortunate enough to find themselves in the missile community in recent years have taken to regarding themselves not as proud servants of national defense, but as “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” If indeed Weinstein played a role in creating the culture this connotes, his use of command authority to tie off accountability just below his own level would make sense, and would be particularly craven. Clearly seeing him as a part of the solution, senior officials forwarded Weinstein’s nomination for a third star and a senior nuclear post on the Air Staff. 

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 4.31.53 PMLast but not least, Maj. Gen. James Post warned an auditorium full of airmen that if they registered personal opinions with Congress that didn’t jibe with the service’s position on the A-10, they’d be committing treason. His actions broke federal law by seeking to restrict protected communications. An IG investigation found Post culpable, and he was reprimanded and removed from his job. This seems at first blush like a reasonably accountable outcome, but a few facts raise questions.

First, the evidence substantiating Post’s conduct in the IG investigation was available to Gen. Welsh all along, having been furnished to the Chief of Staff by none other than Post himself right after it happened. Yet Welsh waited nearly three months for the official report to be published before taking any action. During this time, the political process theoretically warped by Post continued to unfold, casting doubt on the fidelity of Congress’ understanding of the A-10 debate. 

Second, Post’s career has not been derailed. In fact, he’s reportedly been selected for a role as a senior deputy to the Air Staff’s Director of Operations, where he will wield much more direct influence over A-10 deliberations than in his former role. (Curiously, his official bio still lists him as Vice Commander of Air Combat Command).

By not punishing Post until compelled and elevating him higher in the organization, the service risks sending the message that it didn’t truly disapprove of his conduct.

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 4.35.16 PMThe lone white knight galloping to Post’s defense was retired Gen. Roger Brady, who recklessly proposed that airmen talking to Congress were insubordinate. While Brady’s words earned him quick repudiation, we shouldn’t be surprised he’d resist accountability for senior officer missteps. After all, Brady’s tenure in the driver’s seat of Air Force personnel policy saw the fielding of the worst utility uniform in service history, the myopic trading of 30,000+ manpower positions for F-22 money that never materialized, the loss of support staffs from Air Force squadrons, and the establishment of an unsustainable personnel tempo for airmen and families. Brady was held accountable for none of this, and went on to a fourth star despite being officially admonished for failing to conduct the service’s assignment process within established budget authority.

★       ★       ★       ★       ★

Note the pattern. In the current Air Force system, someone at the level of squadron command or below who steps out of line is dealt with swiftly and severely, assumed to be both culpable and ill intentioned. By contrast, a colonel or general who creates systemic or climatic pathologies is given a weighty presumption of honorability and handled with kid gloves.

This is exactly the reverse of what should be happening. Expectations should be higher the further up the chain of command someone ascends. That this concept has been systemically reversed indicates the Air Force has lost its way on accountability.

Congress should take note, as should the Secretary of Defense. Consistent excellence cannot be expected from an organization with this problem, and the internal decay masked by stonewalling and opacity could prevent recognition of more serious maladies until far past the point where national defense is compromised.

This inventory represents a few years of unaccountable leadership, and it’s the tip of a dysfunctional iceberg. A few years more is not something the service can or should countenance.

The Air Force’s culture is clearly brewing toxicity. Gen. Welsh could get every other policy solution right and still fail if those he charges to carry out policy are too self-concerned or narrow to lead morally and ethically, with fairness never in doubt and the rank and file sufficiently inspired to carry out the mission.

Without a course correction, the Air Force risks a repeat of the catastrophic moral meltdown that occurred after Vietnam, with teamwork torn asunder and everyone placing self-interest before service. Given these stakes, it’s time for the service to reform in this most critical area. That reform should start at the top, with Welsh acknowledging there is a problem.

Comments are closed.