Good Commander, Bad Leadership

I respect Jerry Martinez. When I worked for him a decade ago, I found his orientation as a leader to be spot-on. His concern in all things was taking care of people, enabling them to nail the mission. This view of leadership led to countless solid decisions — many requiring the moral courage to resist political pressures and the conventional wisdom. I’ve got a high opinion of this officer, and wrote in glowing support of his promotion and appointment to his current role as Commander of US Forces Japan.

But I bitterly disagree, joining many thousands of others, with a recent decision taken by Martinez. In response to the tragic death of an Okinawan man in a traffic accident involving one US Marine reportedly driving while impaired, Martinez has imposed draconian restrictions upon all 54,000 military members assigned to US Forces Japan.

Here’s the official press release detailing the restrictions.

Now it’s obvious that Martinez is making a political gesture here — one designed to demonstrate to our Japanese hosts that we understand the solemnity with which they view unnecessary loss of life and that we support their cultural commitment to public safety. As commander, Martinez also has the high duty of shepherding our strategic position in Japan, which is critical to the reach and effectiveness of American combat power in the event of conflict anywhere in the region (North Korea, anyone?).

Judged on their own logic, these are sound arguments.

But leadership is about more than logic. It’s also about a moral duty to validate the trust and loyalty conferred by those who raise their hand to serve. This means never imposing excessive restrictions upon them because it’s politically convenient to do so. It means never taking liberties with or from them just because you can. It means recognizing individual worth and insisting on individual fairness.

Collective punishment isn’t just lazy leadership. It’s wrong. It results in individuals being punished without having done anything to deserve it. This doesn’t merely annoy or inconvenience individuals. It alienates them. It doesn’t inspire respect for leaders, but resentment or indeed hatred for them. It undermines confidence in leadership, diminishing loyalty but also reducing the effectiveness of other policies which rely on faithfulness to principle rather than mere adherence to written words.

I doubt Martinez has forgotten that we win wars because of discretionary effort by those who serve. We win because they make efforts that are not explicitly part of their contract. I doubt he’s forgotten that the quickest way to dissolve the commitment of a group of people is to make them feel like pawns in a bigger game … commodities traded by uniform-wearing politicians in service to an unseen and unspoken objective or the mere maintenance of a status quo.

But he may have forgotten how to balance his core beliefs with the pressures of politics. In this case, he’s used the authority granted him by the willing loyalty of his subordinates to punish 53,999 of them for the actions of 1. He’s done this to stay onside with political masters, and in doing so betrayed and abused his own people. If they had to go to war for Martinez tomorrow, how inspired would they be?

My challenge to my old boss is this: if you believe the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who serve in Japan have a collective problem with alcohol and/or off-duty conduct, then say so. Support yourself with facts and data. Then implement a policy to address it.

If you don’t think they have a collective problem, immediately rescind your policy and implement a more discriminate one that addresses the actual issues you believe are live and legitimate.

If you simply must impose un-American restrictions as a “gomen” gesture to appease our hosts, you owe it to your people to be transparent about this fact. Drop the politically palatable jargon and can the unnecessary alcohol awareness training. Take an honest stand and admit what you’re doing is a perceptual gesture, and that you’re using the liberty of the men and women in your charge as currency. At least this will permit your people to challenge you and hold you accountable. At least then they’ll feel less like they’re being punished and more like they’re contributing to something imperative and well-meaning.

When it comes to the Air Force specifically, this is precisely the sort of thing that has driven many of our best and brightest from the ranks and into civilian life. Treating accomplished military professionals like children is a recipe for an endemic shortage of superior airmen, which in turn will leave the nation with a degraded defense. This is why leaders like Jerry Martinez owe it to all of us to find a better balance between the momentary pressures of politics and the long-term morale and viability of their organizations.

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