Flashback: Welsh Talks About Toxic Leaders

Photo: Scott Ash / US Air Force.
Photo: Scott Ash / US Air Force.

Last July, Gen. Mark Welsh gave an interview to Joint Force Quarterly (“An Interview With Mark A. Welsh III“). One of the questions he was asked was:

“Recently, all the Services seem to be dealing with a constant drumbeat of negative events, from toxic leaders to cheating on nuclear testing to sexual assaults. Would you talk about your efforts to deal with these behavior-related issues in the Air Force?”

Part of Welsh’s response — the part that dealt with toxic leadership — contained this excerpted set of remarks:

“When it comes to general officer behavior including toxic leadership and ethics, last year we instituted a new 360-degree assessment for these commissioned officers. The Army has a good working model for assessing general officers, which we adopted with some adjustments . . . [t]he idea is to find some of these toxic leader indicators before someone becomes a senior leader in the Air Force.”

The most important part of this answer is not what it says, but what it doesn’t say. Welsh doesn’t make an unequivocal statement that he will rid the service of toxic generals. He doesn’t take the opportunity to encourage airmen to report corrosive senior officer conduct. He doesn’t encourage his fellow leaders to police this kind of behavior. It’s as though Welsh doesn’t want to concede that there is a problem, yet he points to the adoption of 360-degree evaluations in a tacit admission that the problem exists at some level.

The problem with this response is that when it comes to toxic leaders, there is no middle ground, especially for the big boss who sets the tone for the entire organization. You’re either intolerant of toxic leaders, or you’re tolerant. Right now, perhaps following Welsh’s cues, the Air Force is tolerant.

Take the curious case of Craig Perry. Not long after being hand-picked for his job and without a shred of documented subpar performance, a squadron commander was booted out of his job and had his career scorched by a boss who seemed manifestly caustic. The problem gained considerable public attention and reached Welsh’s level. Yet Perry got no redress, even after his character was openly savaged by a general officer. Meanwhile, every leader above Perry in the chain of command from the wing to the major command level has been promoted.

Take also the sacking of Blair Kaiser, one of a slew of leaders cashiered by the wing commander at Little Rock AFB. Kaiser was fired after returning for a superbly rendered five-month leadership tour in Afghanistan — not because of anything he’d done wrong, but because climate issues in his squadron had caught the disapproving attention of senior officials in his absence. His firing was a political sacrifice that destroyed his individual agency and utterly obliterated the relationship between performance and professional consequences.

While Kaiser’s public image was largely restored by a social media campaign that exposed his firing as questionable at best and abusive at worst, he got no remedy from his chain of command or the Inspector General (IG). After agreeing to back off a Congressional inquiry into his firing (in-part because he believed Gen. Welsh’s assurances that he would receive a fair review), Kaiser and other officers who joined him in lodging a complaint of senior leader abuse with the IG waited seven months only to be told their complaint didn’t qualify for an investigation. Freedom of Information Act requests are now pending for whatever investigative records exist in the case (Kaiser and his colleagues know various parties were interviewed). Colonel Patrick Rhatigan, the subject of the complaint, remains the wing commander at Little Rock.

More recently, Welsh decided to leave Maj. Gen. James Post emplaced as Vice Commander of Air Combat Command even after learning Post had intimidated his juniors by telling them they were traitors if they spoke to Congress about the A-10 in ways inconsistent with the service’s budget position. That’s as toxic as it gets. Post has since been reprimanded, but not by Welsh, who has made no public comment on the issue since the IG’s findings were disclosed.

Welsh and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James’ emphasis on systemic approaches, such as 360-degree evaluations, is admirable. But if implemented within an organizational climate that tolerates toxicity, it won’t be worth much. Abusive officers who find their way into leadership roles need to live in fear that they will be hunted, discovered, exposed, and upended. They need to believe the big bosses at the very top are leading and sponsoring the effort to demand moral leadership and reject abuse, and that the chain of command is emboldened and enabled by support from senior management.

When toxic officials are permitted to escape accountability time and again with no explanation, the effect is just the opposite. From rot in the nuclear community to basic training abuses at Lackland, the Air Force clearly has a problem with the calibration of power in supervisory relationships. That problem won’t be remedied by occasional prosecutions of low-level personnel or periodic political sacrifices.

Most importantly, the problem won’t be remedied until it is acknowledged and denounced by top officials like Gen. Welsh.

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