Emails From the Edge: Toxic Leadership in Air Force Squadrons


A - SMITHERS

Below is an excerpt from an email reportedly sent by a major in an Air Force squadron to a group of aircrew members preparing for deployment.  It is recent. 

It’s tempting to leave this masterpiece alone so you, the reader, can simply let the classiness waft over you.  To that end, I’ve provided first an unbroken rendition of the email.  But in a second, annotated version, I’ve offered a series of helpful in situ remarks and clarifying additions to help surface the key subtext of this attempt at leading airmen.  Names and other details have been altered to minimize distraction to the unit involved and preserve the dignity of all. 

* * *

—–Original Message—–
From: Major Power
To: Squadron.ALL
Subject: Outlining expectations and policy

 Dear Squadron,

A couple of recent incidents are prompting this squadron advisory email so please read and heed. 

 1.  Leave beyond the local area WILL NOT be approved after BDOS.  Local area is somewhat subjective but if you can’t be recalled to the squadron within 2 hours then you will probably be denied.  This is completely subject to my discretion so please be ready to explain your leave plan to me prior to approval.  If I approve your local area leave and you have uncompleted pre-deployment prep or job related handoff then expect your leave to be cancelled at anytime. 

2.  Take charge of your deployment and major life events.  Babies generally require 9-10 months to be fully operational post merge.  There is plenty of time for you and your wife to execute the merge, deploy and return for your baby’s solo flight.  If you choose to advise me of your upcoming major life event with less than 7.5 months notice then you are failing to take charge of your deployment and are completely at my mercy.  If you can’t plan for your own future I have no pity.  Come talk to me and I will help you evaluate your options.  Bottom line, waive your dwell, deploy and return in time for your major life event and you have taken charge of your life and your wife and country will celebrate your sacrifice.  If you desire to acquire a wife/husband with which to execute the merge then you should also consider taking charge of your major life event in a similar fashion. 

 I am quickly becoming the evil and soulless field grade officer that the Air Force desires.

Power, Maj, USAF
Squadron Assistant Director of Operations
Best AFB, ‘Merica
DSN 918-1947
Comm 800-IMT-OXIC

* * *

—–Annotated Message—–
From: Major Power
To: Squadron.ALL
Subject: Outlining expectations and policy

 Dear Squadron,

 A couple of recent incidents are prompting this squadron advisory email so please read and heed (translation: a small number of you have somehow run afoul of me, so for want of the energy and time required to actually roam the squadron and engage each of you, I’m sending this email instead).

 1.  Leave beyond the local area WILL NOT be approved after [pre-deployment control date]. (Disregard what your recruiter told you and what DoD Instruction 1327.06 says – leave is being redefined as only applicable within the time and space bounds I consider consistent with the risk of not having to explain why someone is late when roll call is executed at an arbitrary date and time before deployment).  Local area is somewhat subjective but if you can’t be recalled to the squadron within 2 hours then you will probably be denied (because we live in a world with walls, and those walls are guarded by people with guns, and now the big red dog is digging in our back yard, and while I don’t have an exact scenario in mind, 2 hours just feels like a comfortable limit to me.  Also, don’t speed to make it in the two hours because safety.  Also, don’t lie to fit within the 2 hour limit because integrity).  This is completely subject to my discretion (because I’ve appointed myself Chancellor of the DoD, which is superior to Secretary and therefore allows me to ignore the policies of the Secretary) so please be ready to explain your leave plan to me prior to approval (because in a healthy unit, the bargaining power in any transaction rests completely with the person holding superior rank or position).  If I approve your local area leave and you have uncompleted pre-deployment prep or job related handoff then expect your leave to be cancelled at anytime (because despite your previous achievements and the rebuttable presumption of excellence to which you are entitled, I proceed from a presumption that you’re probably shirking your duty in some way, because only shirkers take leave to spend time with family and friends before a deployment . . . and I have no problem stripping you of an entitlement granted by the United States government based on my preliminary intuition)

 2.  Take charge of your deployment and major life events (in other words, permanently distance yourself from life events because deployment always wins, never ends, and is non-negotiable) Babies generally require 9-10 months to be fully operational post merge (editor: here, the Major makes an admirable attempt at pregnancy humor, and it works just fine if you’re on good terms with him and thus take his remarks as they might be taken from a friend. On the other hand, if you’re not on good terms, don’t know him well enough to see the humor, take the remark in the dour tone of the rest of the email, or have experienced problems of fertility or miscarriage, or if you happen to be either a man or woman unwelcoming of comments cast in tones concerning private behavior, this attempt backfires)There is plenty of time for you and your wife (because I assume the audience is all-male) to execute the merge, deploy and return for your baby’s solo flight (cute remark. It’s all fun and games until births get missed or spouses experience pregnancy complications or miscarriages. In other words, when half the marital partnership is indisposed when most needed).  If you choose to advise me of your upcoming major life event with less than 7.5 months notice then you are failing to take charge of your deployment and are completely at my mercy (so in order to gain my approval to be a part of the birth of your child, you and your spouse, and your obstetrician, need to make sure you effectuate, detect, diagnose, verify, and promptly report your family pregnancy to me.  If you’re a few days late because you chose to inform your family first, or a few weeks late because you wanted to ensure a viable pregnancy before publishing it to your chain of command, I reserve the right to deploy you past the birth of the child.  It might help if you kiss my ring) If you can’t plan for your own future I have no pity (because it is well known that love, pregnancy, childbirth, disease, death, family, and human nature in general are perfectly linear activities, meaning it’s your job to schedule your life, not my job to manage the consequences and permutations of leading human beings in a dynamic mission)Come talk to me and I will help you evaluate your options (because I’m approachable).  Bottom line, waive your dwell [time] (so you can be gone more often than SECAF envisions in departmental guidelines), deploy and return in time for your major life event (babies work around our timeline, we don’t work around theirs) and you [will] have taken charge of your life and your wife and country will celebrate your sacrifice (because nothing says “we care” like the joyous delivery of my signature brand of managerial condescension)If you desire to acquire a wife/husband with which to execute the merge then you should also consider taking charge of your major life event in a similar fashion (it’s easier if you just don’t undertake these pesky commitments to other people, but to the extent you insist, please refer to the aforementioned deployment timeline and plan to fall in love, propose, and wed accordingly) 

I am quickly becoming the evil and soulless field grade officer that the Air Force desires. (translation: I’m actually a little uncomfortable with the policies I feel obligated to execute, but my training and education have given me insufficient tools with which to accomplish the task I’ve been given . . . so I’m reacting to the toxicity of this environment by doing all I know how to do . . . transferring it to you with a little amplification).

Power, Maj, USAF
Squadron Assistant Director of Operations
Best AFB, ‘Merica
DSN 918-1947
Comm 800-IMT-OXIC

* * * 

A - STRINGSSome might celebrate this message as just the kind of hard-nosed leadership needed in a time of war.  That might be more palatable if the entire service were on war footing, but it’s not.  Parts of the Air Force are running hard while others are holding barbecue competitions.  A small number of airmen are admirably gutting out tough conditions in the hinterlands of Afghanistan, while far more have 24/7 access to ice cream and beer at uber-secure “deployed” bases outside direct combat zones.  At the strategic level, leaders are insistent that squadrons take care of airmen and their families.  This is a message distinct from the kind of fire and brimstone, LeMay-esque “total war” message promulgated by our erstwhile emailer, but maybe the emailer is onto something in expressing a message he finds more consistent with his unit’s mission.  Or maybe not. Maybe it’s never alright outside of the rarest circumstantial exigencies of combat to deal with people in this way.

Many will want to condemn this guy.  But assistant ops officers don’t send messages like this in squadrons that are functioning correctly.  So maybe the answer is to condemn the squadron commander.  That might be a more accurate measure of accountability, but squadron commanders generally don’t create or permit this kind of climate unless they’re subjected to unreasonable and irresistible pressures.  The kinds of pressures that have been continually ratcheted up in many squadrons across the Air Force over the past several years.  Toxic leaders are a problem, and must be disciplined whenever they’re discovered.  But they don’t come about by accident.  They come about because of an institutional failure to properly develop leaders before subjecting them to toxic pressures that overcome their inability to balance mission and people. 

When a toxic leader is identified, two inquiries should be undertaken.  First, what to do with this failed leader.  That’s the easy part, at least in theory.  Second, how did s/he get this way?  The Air Force tends to do an inconsistent but episodically passable job with the first inquiry and an abysmal, willfully ignorant job with the second.  This might explain why the combat seasoning of the last 12 years has not made our officer corps better.  Without deliberate development to ingrain the right habits of leadership, the pressures of that same period have prevailed, warping daily life in many squadrons.  As these squadrons go, so will go the Air Force.

A - TOXICThe effect of a dozen years of unreasonable pressure seems to be metastasizing, moving from a lurking and insidious thing to a broad and acute thing. Out of perceived necessity, some leaders have stopped caring about their subordinates having healthy families and relationships . . . instead encouraging them to not have families or relationships at all.  Some leaders have stopped demanding people take breaks to re-charge, and instead demanded that they forego breaks altogether.  Unchecked pressure seems to now be obliterating even large and sturdy protections like DoD leave policy and the stated intent of Air Force senior leaders, who rightly profess at every turn that taking care of families is a duty the service owes to the airmen who commit themselves to it.   If the Air Force genuinely seeks to address issues of suicide, resiliency, and discipline, developing stronger leaders and relieving toxic pressure on squadrons should be high on the target sort.


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