For most Air Force officers, command is a coveted opportunity to exercise leadership — to build combat-focused teams conquering nationally important mission objectives. For Lt. Col. Britt Warren, whose LinkedIn profile exclaims “[a]s a junior Captain, he was #1 of 5 flight commanders,” it appears to be primarily a pathway to fitness jihad, with unbelievers paying a heavy penance for failing to adopt his personal brand of fitness fanaticism.
Warren, whose listed hobbies include weightlifting and running, issued a memo to the airmen of Laughlin’s 47th Operations Support Squadron in April of this year. Therein, he single-handedly redefined Air Force fitness standards.
So, if you’re a strong-performing airman … a technical wizard who works hard and pushes the mission of the squadron forward every day … you’re still targeted for punishment if you score merely satisfactorily on your annual fitness exam. The punishment exacted is restriction of your time, removal of your autonomy, and additional testing requirements. This all has the effect of negatively highlighting you, offsetting or nullifying your positive contributions.
Every commander has a favorite issue or cluster of issues. One of the tricks of command is keeping these issues in perspective. To the extent your personal priorities don’t align perfectly with the actual priorities of the squadron, it’s on you to find a way to pursue your pet issues without distorting the collective value proposition for everyone else.
Here we see Warren — and he is far from alone in doing so — taking the lazy road of authority rather than the more difficult road of genuine leadership. If you want people to care about fitness, get them excited about it with incentive, persuasion, and education. Explain to them why you think it’s so important rather than offering flimsy or jokeworthy rationales like “ensuring Rattlers are fit to fight.” Not even the manifestly idiotic Air Staff runs that argument anymore, because no one believes the Air Force’s fighting strength derives from individual physical prowess.
When you fall back on coercion — or in Warren’s case, play it as your lead card — you lose before you’ve even given yourself a chance. Best case, people respond by doing something to make you happy rather than for better reasons — the types of reasons that foster lifelong wellness habits. Worst case, they resent you, snicker behind your back at how clueless you are, and spend their time around the water cooler wondering aloud how you made it this far without a more refined sense of what matters.
There’s something else here. Discipline, which is for commanders and not just their airmen. Anywhere in the Air Force portfolio we see wasted resources, this reflects a lack of command discipline. In this case, we have a squadron commander expending resources to conduct mock fitness exams and conduct increased monitoring of a subset of his airmen. The Air Force has not contemplated nor allocated the time and labor for these activities, but he’s expending them nonetheless … not because he can justify it in terms of his unit’s mission, but because he lacks the discipline to distinguish his personal hobbies from legitimate command priorities. The smart money says this same commander argues that his organization needs more people. The smart money also says this squadron has considerable problems, because the focus is obviously not right.
The fitness assessment is designed to be a streamlined, resource neutral program that should be minimally invasive of airmens’ time and minimally onerous for commanders. For this vision to translate in reality, squadron commanders like this one need to be mentored by their bosses.
Of course, this assumes those bosses are any different. And here we end on a somber note.