Part 1. Anatomy of a Mistake.
Leaders have many tools at their disposal to rally teams and create unified action. Candor is one of the most important. But like any instrument wielded by a leader, candor can become a liability if wielded indiscriminately or without regard for circumstances. Brigadier General Mark Brown, Commander of Second Air Force (2AF/CC), recently provided an object lesson on this concept. In doing so, he unwittingly reinforced a cultural tendency with grave implications for the US Air Force.
Brown, a career finance officer without a post-9/11 deployment whose last overseas tour concluded during the first Clinton Administration, assumed his post in July after spending roughly half of the previous dozen years in various posts in Washington. Having gathered sparing leadership experience in either expeditionary or training environments, Brown finds himself at the controls of one of the Air Force’s most consequential and heavily scrutinized numbered air forces, endowed with the awesome responsibility for
“[T]he development, oversight, and direction of all operational aspects of basic military training, initial skills training, and advanced technical training for the U.S. Air Force enlisted force and support officers . . . [providing] training in more than 390 Air Force specialties through 1,900 courses graduating 150,000 Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and international students annually in diverse areas including aircraft maintenance, civil engineering, medical, cyber, avionics, security forces, space and missile operations/maintenance, and multiple intelligence disciplines . . . also [overseeing] all U.S. Air Force Airmen throughout the Joint Expeditionary Tasking pipeline.”
Given his résumé, onlookers might have reason to harbor healthy skepticism as to whether he would be prepared for this awesome task, especially given the recency of Lackland’s sexual assault scandal and the base’s well-chronicled leadership struggles. Brown set out to prove his mettle by engaging his airmen directly. What happened next left many a jaw on the ground.
During an introductory visit to Lackland, Brown conducted a commander’s call to share his vision and leadership perspectives. The meeting was reportedly attended by hundreds of airmen, NCOs, and officers, to include the key leaders of every major organization on the base. Among Brown’s leadership lessons was this curious aphorism (paraphrasing):
“Your intellect can take you to positions your character can’t sustain.”
Brown’s insinuation was that smart people don’t always have the right character for leadership. Nothing to disagree with, at least at face value. Thinking deeper, his words conjure up the image of an organizational pragmatist intelligent enough to work the system but not moral enough to lead. One might quarrel that in concentrating on the individual rather than the system s/he exploits, the general misses the larger meaning of his own principle, but it’s equally reasonable to presume he’s just trying to relay the wisdom he picked up in the four or so years of command he’s logged since earning his commission 28 years ago. It’s not exactly an uplifting message, but still a seemingly harmless one at first blush. The remark took on a darker significance when Brown moved it from the realm of abstract principle into the real world.
To do this, he embarked on a discussion of the case of Craig Perry, who was fired from his job as a squadron commander at Lackland earlier this year. Brown’s choice of subject matter was odd for several reasons. First, the crowd was comprised largely of members of the Basic Military Training (BMT) community, including former colleagues and subordinates of Perry’s. Second, the Perry case, which involves allegations of toxic leadership, reprisal, and abuse of power, remains under review by the Secretary of the Air Force, which makes public comment by a general officer inappropriate. But most importantly, Brown himself is a party to the Perry matter, having recently rejected Perry’s appeal for redress under Article 138 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). For Brown to reveal his thoughts about a case he adjudicated in such an open forum is a prospect riddled with privacy and process concerns. But the way Brown used the information went to a level beyond troubling. If the reports are accurate, it was obnoxious and ultimately unacceptable.
Without mentioning Perry by name, Brown reckoned to the crowd that many of them had probably read about the relief of a commander in the Air Force Times. Continuing, he noted, rhetorically, that:
“You have to ask yourself, why was he fired? Officers selected for command must be smart, or else they wouldn’t have been given the job. So, his failure must be one of character.”
As the crowd sat pensively, working to absorb the ramifications of what they were witnessing, Brown wrapped up his tutoring session. His words left many wondering whether what they’d heard was the purposeful public disparagement of one officer by another, or merely a wobbly attempt at a teachable moment. In any case, there are several aspects of this incident worthy of further discussion and review by Brown’s superiors.
First of all, Brown’s analysis can be seen as a subtle but potent undermining of the Woodward Report, which recommended changes in the selection of BMT squadron commanders. Perry was chosen on the basis of those recommendations, his name culled from the top of a command selection list. Brown’s suggestion that choosing the best qualified candidates for command risks selecting officers of low character can be seen as urging a return to the previous system, which gave local colonels expansive latitude in selecting squadron commanders. This previous system created a corrupt and immoral environment. For Brown to wish for its return is cause for curiosity if not concern.
Second, Brown’s words were untethered from the facts of the Perry case. Perry’s firing and the administrative actions taken against him never questioned his character. If they had, he could not have remained an active duty Lieutenant Colonel. His former wing commander went so far as to publicly exclaim that Perry hadn’t broken any rules or laws, and was guilty of no crimes. Perry was relieved because his boss believed he had created unfavorable perceptions based on a few mistaken actions. Even that benign rationale has been exposed as factually unsupported, the product of a compromised and amateurish investigation. But even if Brown chose to believe in the rationale used to fire Perry, he had no basis to believe Perry’s character was in question.
When one officer publicly disparages another without credible evidence, it should be seen as professional misconduct. Without such a standard, officers are free to denigrate one another until confidence in the chain of command is damaged, undermining good order and discipline. If indeed General Brown suggested low character in an actively serving Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, and did it publicly, it makes both he and Perry look foolish. It diminishes them both, as both work to unify their teams and get the job done. But given Brown’s position, it also calls into question his judgment as a leader.
It’s one thing to speak frankly about an disfavored subordinate when talking privately with trusted advisors or engaging academically in a small-group setting. It’s another to do it in a very public and far-reaching way. The damage done by getting this wrong can be severe, which is why “praise in public, chastise in private” has always been the by-exception watchword for effective leaders. But beyond the practical implications, there may even be legal ones.
Article 133 of the UCMJ cites “using insulting or defamatory language . . . about [another] officer to other military persons” as an example of “Conduct Unbecoming an Officer and a Gentleman.” If the reports about this commander’s call are accurate, it’s fair to ask how close the general came to violating the spirit, if not the letter, of this article. Had his insinuations been based on credible evidence, he’d simply be relaying facts, or at least sufficiently blending fact and opinion in a manner sufficient to insulate himself from the perception of disparaging a fellow officer. But his remarks having achieved escape velocity from the planet of fact, it’s not clear what moral or legal space those remarks now inhabit. This is a inadvisable place for a leader to put himself, and one experienced commanders avoid with great success.
In his opening speech as the new boss of Space Command, General John Hyten demanded that his people treat one another with respect. It will be interesting to see if General Robin Rand, commander of Air Education and Training Command (AETC), holds the same view, and whether he follows up on this reported incident. At the very least, this could raise questions about Brown’s ability to judge other officers accused of publicly disparaging colleagues.
Beyond the concerns outlined so far lies the realm of individual justice, which is no less important than the systemic ills signaled by a general verbally beating up on one of his own subordinates in a public venue. Given General Brown’s expressed feelings about Perry, it’s obvious Perry could not have receive an objective review of his recent appeal for administrative redress, upon which Brown ruled just two weeks ago. In the rejection letter, obtained by JQP, Brown tells Perry that the reprimand, Unfavorable Information File, and unfavorable performance appraisal given to Perry by Brig. Gen. Mark Camerer will stand. Not because Brown reviewed the entire file and considered the merits, but because he found simply that Camerer hadn’t, in his view, acted capriciously, arbitrarily, or otherwise unfairly. This is procedural legalese designed to mask what probably occurred in the review process: Brown likely didn’t review the entire case, he just checked to make sure Camerer hadn’t made a clear mistake that could undermine the legal supportability of his actions.
This is a typical response from the contemporary Air Force chain of command, which often employs an intricate scheme of burden placement to avoid difficult questions, especially when they might embarrass a general officer or those who sponsored him. People in Perry’s situation have the burden of proving that those who allegedly abused them broke the law, but the investigative tools necessary to make that determination are in the hands of the same chain of command that made the original decision. There is little incentive, in the absence of public or legislative clamoring, for one general to open an investigation into another in order to give a complaining subordinate a chance at proving abuse. The admirable faith teammates place in one another in a military organization solidifies this tendency, especially given that senior commanders are seen as part of the institution, and view institutional loyalty as paramount.
The only way such a system avoids pure corruption is through the objective and honest determinations of individual generals. It’s obvious that didn’t happen in this case because General Brown said it himself. In talking to the crowd about “the firing of a commander in the Air Force Times,” he revealed that he himself had been exposed to the coverage of Perry’s firing before taking his new job. Combined with the tenor of his remarks, this shows he was negatively influenced by the media coverage of the Perry debacle. This in turn means that Perry’s Article 138 appeal should not have been adjudicated by Brown. He should have admitted his bias and removed himself from the process. Having not done so, he invites questions about his ability to judge conduct objectively, a role he will play often as 2AF/CC. As a reviewing official, he is only as effective as his objectivity allows, which is why commenting on active cases is seldom a good idea.
But his response is not atypical of a chain of command that wields tremendous authority without sometimes understanding the nature of it. Impartiality and justice are key pillars in the foundation of a strong fighting force, and affirming them means pushing aside organizational politics and face-saving in favor of doing the right thing. It’s not clear Air Force generals get that, given the favoring of procedural avoidance tactics over substantive reviews on the merits.
Craig Perry has yet to get an impartial review of his case. From the beginning, it’s been evident that his firing was “bought” at the AETC level, and that turning back on that decision is not something anyone is prepared to do. In order to solidify the decision, the command has worked to ruin Perry’s reputation and marginalize his complaints. Brown’s remarks are the latest evidence.
Given this most recent snafu, it’s clear that the Secretary of the Air Force needs to take a personal interest in the Perry case. She alone has the emotional distance and freedom from loyalty-driven entanglement to review the whole situation and decide it fairly. Commanders are watching, optimistic she’ll step in and fix the mess created by a crop of toxic Lackland leaders who have since moved on to bigger and better things. Perry, meanwhile, awaits justice as the last shreds of a career that was headed for the stars just a year ago continue to dissolve.
Part 2. The Meaning of Mistakes.
General Brown’s mistake ironically reinforced the rise of a mistake-free culture in the United States Air Force. Unchecked, this culture will compromise national defense.
Craig Perry, if the most damning version of his conduct is to be believed, made a couple of very minor mistakes. He was a participative and involved leader, and his genuineness triggered a few negative perceptions. He may have misunderstood the intent of his immediate supervisor in a few areas, which was not surprising given that she was known to be a poor communicator. But even if this version is accurate, it didn’t need to be the end of the line for Perry. Nothing was unfixable. All he needed was a little feedback and the time to act upon it.
Brown urged the opposite. He said, essentially, that Perry’s mistakes should be considered character flaws. Unfortunately, he’s not alone in his view.
The Air Force increasingly shows systemic ignorance of the concept of character. We’re not born with it. We build it. By living our lives, getting into the arena, and working hard, which includes taking personal and professional chances. In a military context, we build it by making mistakes, learning from them, and overcoming adversity as individuals and in teams. Brown and his fellow senior leaders are confused, believing that character is a function of having never made a mistake. “Character” doesn’t mean what they think it means. Unfortunately, they’re in charge, and convincing everyone to think as they do or risk getting fired and disgraced.
Cultural malfunctions like this one, and the policies they spawn, have something in common. They all start with a simple idea that seems innocent and sensible. In this case, the idea that those who get into some kind of trouble should not be retained or promoted at the expense of those who stay out of trouble. Troublemakers should be banished to purify the realm for good citizens. Or so the idea goes.
This idea animates many stupid things, and not just in the Air Force. Take the recent online dust-up concerning MAJ Charles Slider, who was pushed out of the Army over an old DUI conviction, notwithstanding eight intervening years of superior combat performance and demonstrable recovery from the incident. But in the Air Force, which has embraced modernist notions of zero-defect business management with great zeal, the idea is rampant and extreme.
Failing a PT test, for example, doesn’t just disrupt a career. It condemns an individual. It impacts performance reports, kills decorations earned for unrelated performance, blocks award nominations, ends command consideration, impacts assignments, and disqualifies airmen from special duties. It does this not for a year or two, but officially for five years, meaning one PT failure closes nearly every favorable career door long enough to put an airman permanently behind the power curve. The Air Force says none of this is punishment. They’re right. It’s condemnation.
Examples abound. Colonel Tim Bush was fired from command last year because of a waist measurement. His career was ended. Thousands of airmen have suffered the same fate since the zero-mistake culture began its rapid ascent a few years ago. A dozen years of excellence can be erased by a few uncounted sit-ups or a half inch too much around the belly. Craig Perry and Blair Kaiser had their careers upended on mere suspicion of minor errors that later proved unfounded. Masses of airmen are eliminated annually with the application of a “roll-back” policy that moves up separation dates for those with disciplinary infractions, often over the objections of commanders. Promotion and Reduction boards focus not on promoting those who perform best, but on eliminating or shunning those who have made mistakes. Even families are not immune. A spouse was recently barred from accessing Laughlin Air Force Base, where her husband works, over a minor disagreement with staff members at the clinic.
Inside the bounds of the paradigm, this all seems normal. It’s defensible by that simple principle of purity. But objectively, it produces absurd and counterproductive results for individuals and for the mission. In the world beyond the paradigm, it’s well known that the only people who never make mistakes are those not doing anything.
Systemically, the damage will be catastrophic if this culture continues to prevail. When any human system does not allow people to make minor mistakes and recover from them, a number of pathologies manifest.
First, units are starved of people with character. Nothing builds character like recovering from a mistake. By this logic, General Brown’s lack of mistakes can be seen as a detractor rather than a virtue. His intelligence may have lifted him to great heights, but he may or may not have built the character necessary to sustain altitude.
People will stop working to recover from mistakes, and this is particularly damaging to organizations. They’ll still make mistakes, because that’s what human beings do, at least those doing anything of consequence. They’ll just stop recovering. This means more organizational trash to take out and degraded morale. It also means reduced productivity. No one works harder than an airman with something to prove . . . an airman trying to rebuild his career. No one is more of a slacker than an airman with no prospects . . . an airman just running out the clock on a failed career.
But the next stage of pathology is much worse. When word gets out that any mistake equals career fatality, people will actively avoid mistakes at all costs. They will work hard to avoid any situation that might ensnare them, even indirectly, in a trap of career jeopardy. This creates all sorts of issues, crystallized by the difference between trying to win and trying not to lose. The former involves offensive thinking, which is about seizing and exploiting opportunities, adapting to a fluid situation, and overcoming obstacles to achieve an objective. The latter is about simply avoiding defeat, which means avoiding opportunities and obstacles altogether. It’s about avoiding risk rather than carefully measuring and taking risk when the payoff is tactically promising. The greatest human potential is achieved when operating close to the edge of capability, just shy of overextension. People will never do that if it might mean one slip-up ends their ability to provide for a family or build a professional foundation.
Defensive thinking robs military organizations of the ability to innovate. When it becomes institutionally entrenched, it leads to defeat on the battlefield. The Air Force seems bent on making itself a factory for defensive thinking by structuring itself to be intolerant of mistakes, and therefore intolerant of human variance. Intolerant of human learning. Indeed, intolerant of the primary seed of character, and therefore, intolerant of character itself. On this flight path, the service will lose its character at the systemic level.
This is how institutions fail. General Mark Brown’s performance at Lackland is a vivid exhibit in what seems like a determined flight path . . . one that is championing systems, policies, and processes on the philosophy of human perfection. And if these efforts are not halted, the service is destined to fly a stable, predictable approach into an awaiting mountain of failure.
General Welsh has often spoken about his own fallibility and what he has learned by recovering from missteps. He has also consistently encouraged his subordinate leaders to know the stories of their airmen. He seems to want mutual respect and empathy to be the guidewords of his service. But while helpful, his words are insufficient. His airmen also need policies that recognize their humanity and leaders who are held accountable. Absent the follow-through to put his principles into action, he could be unwittingly fiddling as Rome burns.