Fire, Ready, Aim: The Sacking of Lt. Col. Lance Annicelli

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Lt. Col. Lance Annicelli, former commander of the 9th Physiological Support Squadron.

What is “toxic leadership?” For more than a year now, I’ve written about the phenomenon and urged the Air Force to pay more attention to it. In addition to chronicling the dubious sackings of Lt. Col. Craig Perry and Lt. Col. Blair Kaiser, I’ve suggested developing a working definition to explain the idea and placing that definition into the rulebooks governing the exercise of command authority. This would, I believe, establish a measurable standard for command accountability and give commanders a way to assess their own habits in the use of power. The Air Force has resisted this advice. The Chief of Staff, General Mark Welsh, has refused to comment on the subject or intervene in cases where power abuses have been brazenly exhibited. He hasn’t amended his insistence, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, that the service deserves “top marks” for ethics. Even when one of his 2-star subordinates violated federal law with patently toxic conduct, Welsh stood silent.

It appears that deafening silence is hearkening the toxic chickens home to roost. The case study you’re about to read highlights how the absence of a defined, measurable standard to put commanders on notice about the limits of their power leaves the service’s exercise of power occasionally unmoored from reason. This has long been the case. But as the term “toxic leadership” gains popular notoriety absent official definition, commanders are starting to wield it against one another as a powerful new weapon, perhaps assuming a strong aversion to any question of a finding of “toxic leadership” given ballooning perceptions about its pernicious impacts upon airmen and the mission.

I can’t promise this case will yield answers, but I can assure you’ll have plenty of questions when you’ve finished reading this story. Feel free to pose those questions in the comment section. -Q.

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On June 26th, 2014, Lt. Col. Lance Annicelli took command of the 9th Physiological Support Squadron (9 PSPTS) at Beale Air Force Base in California. Like all squadron commanders, he made his way to this position of special trust on the basis of a strong record of performance and an established track record of commitment. He got results, ringing up nineteen #1 stratifications in his years as a field grade officer. Like all squadron commanders, he inherited a unit with pre-existing strengths and weaknesses, and like all commanders, he committed himself to shoring up weaknesses while accentuating strengths.

But unlike most other squadron commanders, Annicelli inherited a unit with considerable morale and climate issues. There was infighting among his noncommissioned officers (NCOs). There were unprofessional relationships. There were compliance problems implicating equipment upon which the lives of aircrew members depended. As is often the case in the wake of a change of command, unit members were busy acting out pre-existing plotlines that would sometimes stubbornly refuse to tremble at the footsteps of a new boss.

But according to Annicelli, whose account is supported by hundreds of pages of documentation obtained by JQP, he persistently worked to right what was wrong in the 9 PSPTS. Just a month into his command, he made a special effort to elevate awareness among 9th Reconnaissance Wing (9 RW) and 9th Medical Group (9 MG) leaders concerning the seriousness of the morale and climate issues riddling his squadron. The wing agreed to conduct a special project to provide an objective assessment and recommendations to get things on track. After reflecting on the squadron’s existing organization climate, Annicelli developed a unique slate of diagnostic queries for a baseline climate assessment to be conducted 100 days into his tenure. When that baseline evinced a continuation of unfavorable climate indicators, he acted aggressively to address deficiencies.

There was evidence Annicelli’s inputs were having the desired effect. Some of the NCOs and junior officers thought to have been previously stoking the embers of dysfunction grew increasingly disquieted. There was friction as he exerted his authority and attempted to bring resistant teammates to heel. Most importantly, the unit excelled under his leadership – so much so that Annicelli’s commander, Col. Jody Ocker, recommended the 9 PSPTS be recognized as the 25th Air Force Outstanding Squadron of the Year. A glowing, 30-line recommendation submitted by Ocker described countless squadron achievements, improvements, and superlatives throughout the course of 2014, half of which transpired under Annicelli’s hand.

Throughout the first seven months of his tour, Annicelli says he never heard an inkling of disapproval from his boss. She gave him an initial feedback to set expectations, and according to Annicelli, never indicated he was falling short of those marks. Ocker didn’t provide Annicelli with his required midcourse feedback, but her informal feedback was all positive. In an email dated February 4th of this year, Ocker praised the squadron’s performance under Annicelli, remarking that “PSPTS is VERY deserving of recognition.” (Emphasis in original).

But by the time the sun set just eight days later, Ocker had completely reversed herself, providing neither warning nor sensible rationale. Whatever triggered her change of heart ended up costing Annicelli his job, career and reputation. To date, he still hasn’t been given enough information to understand why.

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On February 12th, 2015, Col. Ocker met with the 9 RW Commander, Col. Douglas Lee. According to her account rendered months after the fact, she sought Lee’s guidance due to:

“serious concerns about command climate issues within the 9 PSPTS and the very dangerous risk to flight safety. Based on preliminary statements I received, my concerns centered on possible acts of intimidation, bullying, and retribution against members within the unit.”

Ocker’s account later elides mention of formal statements and replacing it with the phrase “summation of descriptions.” This was Ocker’s way of saying there wasn’t a proximate trigger leading her to approach Lee about Annicelli’s performance, but a slow drip of indications. This begs the question of why Ocker never confronted Annicelli, at any point, concerning these vague allegations. At no point in the process that followed would those vagaries be meaningfully resolved. At no point would Ocker specify what she found egregious enough to do what she did next.

Col. Jody Ocker, former commander of the 9th Medical Group, now assigned to the Air Combat Command Headquarters staff. Col. Ocker declined to comment for this story.
Col. Jody Ocker, former commander of the 9th Medical Group, now assigned to the Air Combat Command Headquarters staff. Col. Ocker declined to comment for this story.

On the basis of Ocker’s expressed unease, Lee gathered his lawyer, his Inspector General (IG), his command chief, and his vice commander into a conference room. Together with Ocker, they sat, talked, and decided Annicelli’s fate.

The astute reader will note at this point a few reasons for grave process concerns. Lee’s inclusion of the IG in this irregular process built a conflict of interest into any potential follow-on complaints arising from what was about to happen. Additionally, Lee’s improvisation of a “decision workshop” at this early stage fatally hampered any chance that Lee would be able to objectively, fairly review Ocker’s decision later. As her boss, he was essentially adopting her decision, surrendering his impartiality as a supervisor.

After the meeting, Ocker informed Annicelli she was temporarily relieving him from command of the 9 PSPTS for approximately two weeks on the basis of a specific and egregious allegation. As noted above, she would later change her story, attributing his relief to a “summation of descriptions” rather than a proximate trigger. She told Annicelli she was ordering a Command Directed Investigation (CDI) to “either substantiate the statements already made, or indicate that [Annicelli] could effectively command.” According to Annicelli, Ocker told him that if the specific allegation giving rise to the allegation was unsubstantiated, he would be returned to command.

But this would not be the CDI’s only mandate. It would also “learn whether there were additional issues that may require disciplinary action, and to determine the depth of the command climate problem.” In investigative parlance, this connotes a fishing expedition, and the phrase “depth of the command climate problem” assumes there is a problem rather than determining whether one exists. This smacks of prejudgment.

Annicelli was ordered to report to the Wing Vice Commander’s office for duty the following morning, and would be immediately admonished that following day to stay away from the squadron while the investigation was conducted.

Blindsided and ostracized, he hung his hopes on Ocker’s use of the word “temporary” and her assurance that he’d be swiftly reinstated when the investigation found he hadn’t done anything wrong.

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At the point Lt. Col. Annicelli was temporarily relieved from command, the process used by Ocker, Lee, and others to decide what would happen to him was already beset by crippling flaws and conflicting rationales. But it’s Annicelli’s account of what happened next that should unsettle anyone concerned with the fundamentals of fairness, due process, and the responsible exercise of command authority.

According to Annicelli, Col. Lee visited the 9 PSPTS the morning of February 13th at 1000, while Annicelli was manning a desk at the wing Vice’s office, haplessly and obliviously whiling away what he thought was a temporary stint in professional limbo. But Lee had other plans. At the 1000 meeting, he informed the squadron that he, Col. Lee, had personally removed Annicelli from command due to “toxic leadership.” Those in attendance unambiguously inferred that Annicelli was gone for good, and that Lee had pulled the trigger.

An hour later, in his office, Lee personally informed Annicelli that while Ocker had intended to wait out the results of the investigation, Lee himself had decided to override her decision and make the relief permanent. At 1400 that afternoon, Lee gathered together all of the 9 RW’s squadron commanders and informed them of his decision to relieve Annicelli for “toxic leadership.”

The next day, Annicelli and his wife Ronda secured care for their 4-month-old infant daughter and made their final trip to the 9 PSPTS to clean out his office and vacate the unit for good.

Lt. Col. Lance Annicelli, his wife Ronda, and their daughter Hannah had their lives upended when the cross-hairs of official disapproval trained themselves on Annicelli's back. For Col. Douglas Lee, who wrote an Op-Ed last year announcing his commitment to a family-first command philosophy, tough questions linger about the impact of his decisions.
Lt. Col. Lance Annicelli, his wife Ronda, and their daughter Hannah had their lives upended when the cross-hairs of official disapproval trained themselves on Annicelli’s back. For Col. Douglas Lee, who wrote an Op-Ed last year announcing his commitment to a family-first command philosophy, tough questions linger.

Just like that, without notice of his alleged deficiencies, a chance to correct them, or an investigation to prove they were real in the first place, Lt. Col. Lance Annicelli was labeled a professional failure and a toxic leader. Just like that, an airman rated “#1 of 28 O-5s” on his three preceding performance reports became instantly disposable, a narrative crafted by his two principal mentors and bosses to explain what might have otherwise been exposed as an impulsive rush to judgment.

With his office emptied and Col. Ocker freshly departed on a two-week vacation to Morocco, Annicelli and his family retreated home, reflected on what had happened, and attempted to regroup as he awaited the results of what he assumed would be a fair investigation. But that too would prove little more than an elusive aspiration.

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Like many before it, the Annicelli case is about whether a commander was relieved for valid cause, and by extension, whether the senior officer who did the relieving acted within the appropriate ambit of his or her authority. Like many before it, the Annicelli case found itself reliant on a CDI to settle these questions. What distinguishes this case from others is just how fundamentally flawed, distorted, and compromised the investigation would turn out to be.

When she relieved Annicelli from command, Col. Ocker appointed Lt. Col. Kenneth Uhler, Deputy Commander of Beale’s Mission Support Group, to “conduct a CDI into all aspects of allegations regarding toxic leadership by the 9 PSPTC/CC.”

Standing at odds with her previous statement to Annicelli that she was taking action on the basis of a specific allegation of misconduct, this widely drawn investigative lane gave Uhler carte blanche to find anything he could that reflected negatively on Annicelli. But this inbuilt bias wasn’t the only problem. The framing was so broad, vague, and nonspecific that it forced the investigator to essentially make up the charges he was to investigate.

Not surprisingly, Uhler conducting a wide-ranging attitudinal survey rather than a limited investigation into specific charges, found confirmation for the biased assumptions embedded in the CDI’s charter, and substantiated a generic allegation of “toxic leadership” against Lt. Col. Annicelli. This solidified the decision to make his firing permanent, and supplied Ocker and Lee with the official cover necessary to justify their actions.

But there are many reasons why this CDI should be given no credence, and why it cannot serve as a legitimate foundation for any official decision or action, especially where Annicelli is concerned.

Here are a few.

Wrong Investigating Officer. Had the relief been conducted by Ocker, the choice of Uhler – deputy of a different group – would have been theoretically appropriate. But when Lee adopted the decision as his own, he made Uhler, who is in Lee’s chain of command and whose performance reports and promotion recommendations are subject to Lee’s review and approval, a completely invalid choice for this duty. The CDI was essentially about validating whether Lee had acted appropriately. To ask a subordinate to conduct such an assessment inflicts the process with a fatal conflict of interest, and nullifies the result. The fact that the CDI was also overseen by Lee’s judge advocate, who had been present when he and Ocker discussed the decision to fire Annicelli, only deepens the conflict. Any process founded on a conflict of interest this fundamental cannot be trusted and must not be relied upon.

Tainted Investigation. On March 2nd, as the CDI was still unfolding, Col. Ocker returned from vacation and met with members of the 9 PSPTS. In that meeting, she made reference to statements of witnesses who had testified in the investigation, using them to negatively characterize Annicelli’s leadership and justify “her” decision. This indicates that she had significant contact with the investigator and access to his report before it was complete, and raises questions about whether she inappropriately influenced the investigation.

The fact Ocker relayed evidence from the investigation to the squadron when any or all members might still be questioned is fatally problematic. Her statements stood to influence any future testimony. This is especially important given that Annicelli’s own testimony, in which he attempted to confront questions about his leadership, was not delivered to the investigator until the day after Ocker addressed the squadron. What if Annicelli’s statement effectively refuted witnesses, necessitating follow-up questions? What if his statement raised new questions or leads for the investigator to pursue? Ocker’s interaction with the squadron guaranteed that Annicelli could not receive a fair assessment from the process, and the investigator’s failure to invalidate the investigation after Ocker tainted it exposes that he was well out of his depth.

These flaws make the CDI moot. A new investigation is necessary, and must be accomplished by someone outside the 9 RW. But even if these process flaws hadn’t obliterated any chance of fairness as a threshold question, other issues make the CDI worthy of nothing more than an incinerator.

Overbroad Framed Allegation. The term “toxic leadership” is not defined in any Air Force publication. This strikes a rich note of irony, given that for the past year or so, I’ve continually exhorted Air Force senior officials to define and institutionalize the term as a way to clarify power relationships and curb abuse of authority. In this case, Ocker ordered an investigation into something that didn’t officially exist without providing a definition of her own. The investigator, unchained from any rulebook, improvised his own definition by essentially inverting the qualities expected of a “good leader” according to Air Force Instruction 1-2. His fabrication founded a new world within which there is a binary arrangement of leaders, with each leader defined as (a) effective, by meeting all standards in 1-2, or (b) toxic, by subjectively falling short of any duty listed in 1-2. The blunt uselessness of this approach would be humorous had it not been wielded to the ultimate ruin of an Air Force officer.

The investigator’s definition of “toxic” is overbroad. Whatever “toxic” means, it’s distinct from simply coming up short in some area or another. Leaders exist on a spectrum, with superb performers on one end and destructively toxic performers on the other. This CDI did not adequately develop its most fundamental idea to even this elementary level. The result was a predetermined outcome whereby any complaint from any squadron member that was at odds with the cookbook definition of leadership was bound to substantiate toxicity. When General Welsh “gifted” the Air Force with 1-2, he could not have expected it would be perversely wielded in this way, though arguably it was foreseeable.

Inconsistent Allegations. According to Annicelli, Ocker told him on February 12th that he was temporarily relieved on the basis of specific allegations that the CDI was chartered to either substantiate or disprove. Yet, the CDI’s framed allegation is nonspecific. This raises an important question: what changed between Ocker’s initial relief of Annicelli and her provision of a vaguely defined allegation to Uhler?

It’s reasonable to wonder whether she broadened the allegation after learning her boss had made the relief permanent. Broadening the investigator’s latitude could be seen as a way to raise the likelihood of substantiating enough misconduct to provide cover for what had already been decided. Is it possible that Lee acted impulsively to demonstrate resolve and flex his authoritative muscle, and that Ocker and Uhler adapted the investigation to support his actions? This would be something like a conspiracy to abuse authority at worst or the operation of undue influence at best. It’s only one possibility, but the very fact that it can be raised highlights a serious issue for Ocker. It is not acceptable to re-frame an allegation in-stride as was done here. In discarding the original allegation, she removed her own justification for relieving Annicelli, and he should have been reinstated that instant.

Confirmation Bias. Witnesses were cherry-picked, with fully one-third chosen not at random, but specifically to support substantiation of the claim. If the investigation had been focused on specific allegations, the discriminate selection of witnesses would be understandable. When it morphed into a wide-ranging exploration of Annicelli’s leadership approach, the selection of witnesses with known axes to grind and explicit biases against his change platform for the squadron became inappropriate.

Confrontation Issues. Annicelli was never given a chance to confront specific claims made by witnesses in the course of the investigation. Later, in his request for redress under Article 138 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, he was able to provide explanations for each of the negative statements the investigator used to substantiate the allegation of toxic leadership. This was only possible after he wrangled a copy of the CDI used to destroy his career by submitting a Freedom of Information Act request. His explanations were at least as plausible as those given by witnesses, and should have been given equal weight. The fact that the investigator received Annicelli’s written response to broad questions about his leadership style only three days before submitting his final report to Col. Ocker tends to show that Annicelli’s input was considered perfunctory to the process. This is offensive to concepts of fairness that transcend the CDI process.

Inappropriate Evidence. Stunningly, the investigator used data from a baseline Unit Climate Assessment (UCA) conducted just 100 days into Annicelli’s tenure to partially substantiate claims of toxic leadership. This is a foul in several ways. The UCA is not an evidentiary proceeding. Answers are rendered anonymously, and there is no opportunity to refutation or follow-up. The data is collected to help commanders understand the climate within units so they can improve morale, not to impeach a commander. This is especially the case in such a baseline report, which has little to say about a given commander’s approach given the limited time s/he has had to influence unit climate. Even more speciously, some of the climate data applied by Uhler referenced interactions all the way back in August of 2014, when Annicelli had been in his position for only a few weeks.

But perhaps the most outrageous aspect of this particular choice by Uhler is that the data referenced was at least four months old by the time of the CDI. In that time, Annicelli had acted on the data and the unit’s performance had improved. If Uhler’s chosen method was to assess unit climate in order to grade his fellow Lt. Col.’s command performance, he was duty-bound to gather more recent data and to consider it mutually exclusive from the older data it replaced. Otherwise, absurdity is unavoidable, with commanders fired for sour grapes whose aftertaste has long ago been washed down.

Weak Evidence. The most damning thing this report has to say about Lance Annicelli is that he was a tough leader who knew he had inherited a mess and was forcefully dealing with it, alienating some of his people along the way. A few of his people thought he was unfair. A few didn’t care for his lectures on standards or the style with which he delivered them. A few didn’t feel sufficiently trusted or that they had enough latitude. A few felt bullied or that they had seen others bullied. Because the investigator did not furnish Annicelli with witness statements, there is no way to know whether the same few witnesses universally condemned their former commander on every question, or whether the answers were dispersed across respondents, indicating a more pervasive climate issue.

There’s also no discussion by the investigator of how much weight each witness was given, or how much weight witness testimony was given relative to UCA data, mission results, and other factors that should have been considered. Annicelli concedes that he wasn’t interested in winning a popularity contest. He also understands that many in the 9 PSPTS were fearful of change and that his insistence on it created friction. But he insists that the CDI conjured an unfair caricature of his command style, and points to policies he changed in response to squadron feedback as evidence he wasn’t running roughshod over his people. The CDI supports this contention, with one witness stating that the issues in the 9 PSPTS had more to do with an NCO corps left to run amok for too long before Annicelli’s arrival and seven witnesses giving him positive marks for leadership.

It’s important to remember that none of this evidence is relevant, because the CDI’s structure and process flaws make anything in the report fruit of a poison tree. But the investigator’s amateurish performance serves to reinforce that Annicelli was at no point given a fair shot at fighting for his job. Notably, Uhler did not interview Col. Ocker. Had he been a competent investigator, he would have recognized that the grumbling about Annicelli that he was able to elicit could only matter to his assessment as a leader if he had failed to act on it. Ignoring feedback is one of the core distinctions between ineffectiveness and toxicity. Since there’s no evidence Ocker ever mentored Annicelli or gave him a chance to act on feedback, he could not have demonstrated the toxic capacity to ignore input.

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In the end, Uhler stipulated that Annicelli didn’t cause the squadron’s problems, and that leadership issues existed at all levels within the squadron rather than just the front office. Uhler further stipulated that Annicelli’s actions were perfectly intentioned – designed to restore high standards and correct pre-existing problems. At most, concluded Uhler in the same breath as he condemned Annicelli, the commander was guilty of failing to get buy-in for his hard-nosed style. This is something of a paradox, and buy-in is not always an appropriate situational objective for a commander.

The real question, and maybe the only question, should have been whether Annicelli was abusive with his power. This is what toxicity is about, yet neither the word “abuse” nor any of its cousins appears in any of the investigator’s questions or in the report’s conclusions. It is conspicuously absent from the CDI, which makes it fair to question if Uhler had enough of an idea of the concept of toxic leadership to tackle his chore effectively.

Interestingly, Uhler’s recommendations included another climate survey and a Group Commander meeting with 9 PSPTS enlisted and officer leaders to bring them in line. It was almost as if he was ambivalent about Annicelli’s culpability. If indeed he was, it’s fair to wonder whether command influence and conflict of interest pushed him toward his ultimate conclusions, overpowering his internal doubts.

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Since Annicelli’s firing, some of his colleagues have ardently supported him, while others have kept a lower profile out of fear for their own careers. Many squadron members provided character statements on his behalf, despite indications that Ocker and the Beale legal team took steps to chill interaction between 9 PSPTS airmen and Annicelli’s attorney.

At least two close colleagues of Annicelli have complained to Congress about the way he was treated, accusing Col. Douglas Lee of capricious and arbitrary conduct while raising questions about Lee’s professionalism during his time as Beale’s Wing Commander.

One officer told me:

“I have never witnessed such a dysfunctional leadership team. When I first started attending meetings, I was amazed at how tense other O-6s were around [Lee]. Everyone appeared on edge and feared getting dressed down in public.”

Another 9 RW insider wrote in a complaint submitted to a member of the US Senate that:

“soon after taking command of the 9 RW, Col. Lee made many comments during staff meetings and daily stand-up briefings suggesting he wouldn’t hesitate to fire a squadron commander if he wasn’t happy with them.”

Was Col. Douglas "Jowler" Lee spring-loaded to fire the first Beale squadron commander who stepped out of line? If so, did that lead him to pull a trigger he wasn't entitled to pull? These are fair questions on the facts of the Annicelli case.
Was Col. Douglas “Jowler” Lee spring-loaded to fire the first Beale squadron commander who stepped out of line? If so, did that lead him to pull a trigger he wasn’t entitled to pull? These are fair questions on the facts of the Annicelli case.

JQP reached out to Col. Lee for comment, and he provided the following response via email:

“Commanders have a responsibility to protect the morale, health and welfare of Airmen. The next level of command is responsible for taking appropriate action if credible evidence surfaces questioning a commander’s ability to lead or set an appropriate command climate. Command is a privilege, not a right, so when commanders fail to meet the Air Force’s high standards, it’s a senior leader’s responsibility to take action.  In most cases including this one, the Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. 552a, precludes us from releasing details linking investigations or administrative action to a specific Airman, unless that Airman has waived those rights explicitly.”

Lee’s response, unassailable in principle, does not clearly resolve the question of who permanently relieved Annicelli from command. In his response to Annicelli’s request for redress, Lee went to considerable lengths to construe the decision as having been made by Ocker, and added the following:

“At no time was it contemplated that you would be reinstated as the 9 PSPTC/CC because the 9 MDG/CC lost faith and confidence in your ability to command that squadron. Before the 9 MDG/CC made the decision to temporarily remove you from command, she seriously took into consideration that you would not be able to effectively command that squadron, once removed, even though the removal was “temporary.” The word temporary was used because while you would never be able to effectively command the 9 PSPTS, it was important to leave open the possibility that you might be able to command another unit if the currently existing allegations and statements indicated that you could effectively command another unit.”

This conflicts directly with statements from eyewitnesses who heard Lee explain on February 13th that he had been the one to make the decision. One witness, Chief Master Sergeant Jeffrey Foreman, added “at no point during Col. Lee’s brief visit was there any mention of [holding Annicelli’s] removal till completion of the investigation.” Foreman understood, as did everyone else, that Annicelli was permanently relieved, and that Lee had been the one to relieve him.

Col. Ocker was contacted and decline to comment for this story.

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As is usually the case when firings like this occur, the question is not just whether the decision could have been ultimately justifiable. The question is also whether a fair and equitable process was used to arrive at the decision. In this case, there is some support for the idea that Lance Annicelli was an imperfect leader. Whether those imperfections amounted to valid cause for relief was a question only answerable through an appropriate process. No such process was followed in this case, and that makes his removal improper.

A further question is whether a decision to fire a commander was meaningfully reviewed by objective arbiters further up the chain of command. While it’s broadly agreeable that commanders at all levels should have broad discretion to relieve their subordinates when appropriate, it’s universally agreeable that such discretion is not unlimited. When authority and power are used to effectively make discretion unlimited and shield it from meaningful review, power becomes absolute and corruption blossoms. In this case, it appears the Beale chain of command above Annicelli’s level formed a bloc and decided his fate together, obliterating the opportunity for meaningful local review. His currently pending request for redress with the Commander of 25th Air Force is the first genuine opportunity Annicelli has had for any sort of appeal. This is not how things are supposed to work.

Not long ago, I provided the Air Force with ideas for how to calibrate power relationships to preserve broad discretion while subjecting it to reasonable limits. I hope this case will stoke interest in those ideas, or the proposals offered by others. This case is a window into an unhinged system careening toward corruption. 

But beneath all of the talk about process is the fundamental reality that leadership is a human business, and thus inescapably nonlinear, messy, and imperfect. No leader can thrive in a vacuum of feedback and mentorship. When a boss fails to provide a subordinate with these organic essentials of leadership, that boss is both consigning the subordinate to failure and adopting that failure. To the extent Lance Annicelli’s approach as a commander was flawed, he wasn’t given an opportunity to correct despite his boss’s silent collection of a “summation of descriptions” over time, which she eventually used to condemn him. This, again, is not how things are supposed to work.

Whatever happened here, there are some staggering problems with it. There are many acceptable ways to respond to the perception of a commander coming up short. Disposing of that commander and his family summarily without the opportunity for correction, due process, or fair confrontation of alleged misconduct is not among those acceptable responses.

While Lt. Col. Annicelli awaits possible redress from 25th Air Force, the Air Force’s 4-star leadership needn’t and shouldn’t delay looking into this situation. At the very least, a fresh investigation by an impartial agent is in order.

At the same time, I encourage readers who care about the issue of power abuse in the Air Force to forward this story to legislators, particularly those with defense oversight roles that will allow them to get at this problem. The outline here could indicate that the problem, starved of meaningful attention from the highest levels for too long, has metastasized. Unchecked, it’ll ruin one of the world’s most consequential institutions and jeopardize the nation’s defense.


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