E-8 Bans Tobacco Use, Unwittingly Calls POTUS “Unprofessional”

The Air Force gives leaders authority without teaching them how to properly wield it. The result is power unmoored from reason.
The Air Force gives leaders authority without teaching them how to properly wield it. The result is power unmoored from reason.

Another day, another piece of evidence showing that when it comes to developing leaders who exercise authority responsibly, the US Air Force is getting something wrong.

In a directive memo signed late last year — apparently within the borders of communist North Korea — and furnished to JQP on the condition of anonymity, a Senior Master Sergeant (SMSgt/E-8) serving as chief controller in the tower of an Air Force base issued the following instructions to airmen (blanket sic):

“The ATC tower is such an iconic structure that it cannot be ignored by any and all passersby. So, when we have controllers smoking on the catwalk it casts a negative light on our high regard as professionals and portrays a negative military image. Also, when we have individuals who drop cigarette butts and they blow off the catwalk, it litters the surrounding areas below and does not bring credit to our facility. Lastely (sp), the fire department has brought the smoking policy to light due to the recent fire safety concerns. So, effective immediately, tobacco use of any kind, including vaping and chewing is prohibited in the ATC buildings including the tower catwalk.”

Now, to be clear, I’m not going to critique these instructions as a matter of pro-smoking advocacy. It’s understandable that many find smoking to be an unsavory habit, and the opinion of society at large has certainly turned against smokers in recent times. It does create health hazards and is not something anyone should be forced to endure against his or her will. For these reasons, a policy refraining from the encouragement of smoking would be reasonable, as would one designed to shield non-smokers from its effects.

But that’s not what this policy is doing. Here, we see a situation where tobacco users are being hounded by a boss who is imposing his or her personal worldview on them and grasping for other pretexts to justify the order. The attempt is miserably inept, but in too many Air Force workcenters, it more than exceeds the bar of low expectations set for those given the privilege of running the show.

How can we discern that this is just a brazen exercise of “because I said so” authority rather than valid military leadership? It’s all right there in the letter. Where logic, evidence, and genuine persuasion are absent, we’re left only with bare desire advanced irrationally. This is a telltale sign that the power being wielded has no basis in reason and can be seen as nothing more than a means to an individual’s desired ends.

To illustrate.

SMSgt X starts by pretending the tower is a tourist attraction, and that everyone within visual range is intently focused on not just the tower, but the catwalk. This is at best unsupported and at worst just a dumb idea. Sure, plenty of people glance at the tower. No, they’re not drawing huge conclusions about anything based on doing so. They’re probably just thinking “wow, look at that tower. It sure is tall.”

Next, our dauntless E-8 makes the leap that not only will every uber-attentive passerby unsheath a set of binoculars to intently study what’s happening on the catwalk (also employing night vision equipment much of the time), but that said tourists will somehow draw negative conclusions about the professionalism of controllers if they are seen to be smoking.

So many problems with this idea.

Air Force bases are not teeming with tourists. Most people who walk within visual range of a tower are affiliates of the Air Force mission. They know (or should know) to judge controllers not by their tobacco use, but by their results. Generally speaking, being close enough to see smoke emanating from a person increases the likelihood that the witness is someone who would think nothing of it.

There’s also the problem of assuming smoking equates to an “unprofessional” image. 

Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 10.28.15 AM
President of the United States Barack Obama smoking on the job.

So much for that idea. But just in case you prefer an Air Force example:

Gen. Curtis LeMay smoking.
Gen. Curtis LeMay smoking on the job.

Would SMSgt X call either of these men “unprofessional?” Or are they spared scrutiny altogether based on rank?

This is a micro example that illustrates a macro-level problem for the Air Force: over-reliance on the concept of “professionalism” as a yardstick for measuring performance. It’s a nebulous idea that essentially allows those temporarily in charge to stretch, shape, and mold standards of conduct and performance to fit their own images. This means airmen have to adapt to a constantly changing set of expectations. It’s a recipe for workplace distraction and endemically drain-swirling morale.

After registering the implication President Obama and Curt LeMay as dirtbags, SMSgt X continues with “also, when we have individuals who drop cigarette butts and they blow off the catwalk, it litters the surrounding areas below and does not bring credit to our facility.”

It’s a legitimate thing to expect smokers to keep control of their litter, just as we expect gum chewers, donut munchers, and coffee slurpers to do. But a blanket ban on smoking is not the only course of action available here. One might consider simply asking smokers to refrain from littering. To the extent one might worry about such an order being ignored, there would be no reason to expect other orders to have any effect, to include those immortalized in this memo.

Fire safety is a valid concern. But while some fires are lit by cigarettes, but not all cigarettes light fires. The variable determining which cigarettes light fires is human judgment. In the grand scheme of things, if you had to choose a group of people in whose judgment you were confident enough that you’d be willing to let them smoke even though doing so carried the slight risk of a fire, you could do a lot worse than people who control aircraft for a living. Don’t tell that to those who have embraced the contemporary notion that the road to effective management is the progressive infantilization of the workforce. Lost on such creatures is the timeless truism that the less you expect from people, the less they give.

The fact this E-8 lists safety so far down the laundry list of conjured rationales reflects s/he doesn’t really consider it significant. If safety were the real worry here, it would have led off and summarily closed this memo. Of course, that would have made the order very easy to refute, since the cutting edge field of moldable metals and plastics has recently (say, no more than 70 years ago) developed a series of devices capable of containing extinguished cigarette butts in such a way that they don’t present a fire hazard. They’re the ones easily spotted adjacent to any smoking area. 

But our Dear Leader saves the most entertaining belly flop for last:

So, effective immediately, tobacco use of any kind, including vaping and chewing is prohibited in the ATC buildings including the tower catwalk.”

A classic non-sequitur. Because smoke and open flames make us unprofessional and unsafe … the use of smokeless tobacco must be prohibited. This is the equivalent of saying “because deep fried food is bad for you, baked potatoes are hereby banned.”

With this sentence, we can discern we’re chronicling an unthinking leader who assumes the same of subordinates. They’d have to be dumb to buy it, so s/he should have been smart enough to refrain from selling it.

This is, of course, the most revealing sentence in our wayward memo. It shows that this E-8 is — for reasons s/he doesn’t share but probably assumes apply to the whole world just because s/he agrees with them — on an anti-tobacco mission rather than a crusade for safe and professional catwalking. The various rationales glommed together in this hacked up hairball of a memo are purely ornamental. This 114 words is 110 too many; “because I said so” is the real message here.

Is “because I said so” enough? Should it be?

Whether this is a lawful order is arguable, but given the current quasi-fascist movement unfolding in the ranks of Big Blue, it would almost certainly enjoy official endorsement if challenged. Never mind that it lacks a valid military necessity. A commander wishing to uphold the principle that “rank makes right” would simply reach into the grab bag of potential techniques clumsily previewed by SMSgt X and find a nail upon which to hang the hat of legality.

Whether this should stand is a clearer question. It shouldn’t. However anyone feels about smoking, it’s not (yet) illegal in this country and therefore shouldn’t be unreasonably limited by employers. Much like drinking, gambling, over-eating, viewing pornography, and a portfolio of other messy freedoms, it’s an arguably unhealthy choice that people are nonetheless free to make. Those who wish for an end to it would do well to consider how they might like it when the next bogeyman is named by the empowered. Might it be one they themselves enjoy? What if the majority decides golfing is inherently unhealthy? Or walking on the beach? Or eating spare ribs? 

“Live and let live” is a good rule of thumb for life, and it’s a good rule of thumb for leadership. If Airman Snuffy does his job well in the tower or RAPCON and wants to spend a few minutes chugging down a heater on the catwalk during his break, why is this a matter of official fascination? Effective leaders have known since forever that giving people as much workplace liberty as possible is a great way to engender loyalty, while exercising maximum control is a great way to build resentment.

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