Jammed Controls: the Systemic Reasons Why Bad Firings Usually Stick

Occasionally, it feels like the chosen heading is taking the aircraft to the wrong destination.  Why is it so hard for some to correct course?
Occasionally, it feels like the chosen heading is taking the aircraft to the wrong destination. Why is it so hard for some to correct course?

Many have wondered aloud recently, with respect to manifestly questionable calls made within the US Air Force’s leadership cohort, why we so seldom see corrections to what appear to be poor decisions.  Given that the service’s cultural roots are so faithfully associated with the ability to rapidly and flexibly change course when the situation dictates, why do we sometimes see bad decisions getting ridden into the ground?

The answer lies in the unholy union between an overly political senior officer corps and the unhealthy degree of centralized authority that has gripped the service as so many exceedingly pragmatic generals have risen to power.

In a context where things are functioning normally, it might happen that a wing commander could decide, for example, to relieve a squadron commander and make that decision without consultation or notice given to headquarters until after the decision is final.  This model is consistent with the kind of latitude we intuitively want wing commanders to have, because we can envision war scenarios that don’t practically permit deliberate notice and consult without hampering the ability of a field commander to keep the mission on-track. 

This model does have weaknesses, especially when the wing commander we’re talking about is himself given to questionable judgment, arbitrariness, or the untethered exercise of authority.  But the strength of this model is that the wing commander “owns” the decision, and it is sealed off at that level.  This in turn means that higher headquarters officers (and their investigators, attorneys, and advisors) retain objectivity and can make independent judgments concerning what subordinates have done.  This is the way the system is supposed to work. 

But it’s not the way the system is working at the moment, at least not to the extent publicly observable. Instead, the model currently embraced involves considerable notice and consultation between commanders in the field and their general officer bosses at higher echelons. 

When, for example, a squadron commander is relieved, the wing commander making the decision can be assumed to have conferred with someone at the 2/3-star level for guidance and a “blessing” before making the decision . . . and probably has informed everyone up to the 4-star level before or as the decision is finalized.  This cultural tendency has a couple of great strengths. 

First, it places the authority to fire a commander closer to where hiring authority is vested.  Squadron commanders are carefully selected and their hiring usually finalized at Numbered Air Force level, so it makes basic sense that the decision to remove one should involve the same level of authority. 

Second, this system forces wing commanders to seek mentorship before making a monumental decision.  This also makes sense, especially given the nascent institutional habit of conferring wing command authority upon “fast-burners” who have not commanded at group level and are thus newcomers to the prospect of supervising other commanders.  They’re given the solemn and monumental authority to lead other leaders coincident with what is, for most, their first broad-scope leadership job, and the first of their career with the responsibility of being the face of the Air Force within a local community. 

This is an awesome task that can warp and politicize the sensibilities of even the strongest candidates, reducing focus and confidence across the board.  This can make colonels more likely to depend on higher headquarters counsel rather than making and owning big decisions within the ambit of their own authority.

So which system is better? 

In an environment free from political influence and perception management, a robust system of notice and consult would seem to be best.  But in the actual environment that exists, it just doesn’t work, and here’s why: when headquarters level general officers “buy” the decision of a wing commander, there’s no real chance for a course correction if it turns out to have been a bad call. 

Take the examples of Lt. Col. Blair Kaiser and Lt. Col. Craig Perry.  These look like bad firings and obvious cases where a responsible adult leader should step in, make things right, and explain to the various audiences involved what went wrong in the decision process and how it will be prevented in the future.  These would be excellent teaching moments, and would not only affirm a commitment to individual fairness, but demonstrate a commitment to objective review processes that keep senior officers at sufficient distance for impartiality.

If our intuitions about these recent firings are accurate, they were too arbitrary to be supportable.  But since they were likely sanctioned by generals before being made public and have — either by public statement (Perry case) or deafening silence (Kaiser case) been endorsed by senior leaders, reversal would now constitute a loss of face for those involved, and a corresponding erosion of public confidence in senior management.  Or so the conventional wisdom goes. 

This locked-in, zero-turn philosophy is hazardous.  It risks the loss of *actual* credibility where it matters most — among the airmen and officers who comprise the US Air Force — for the sake of preserving *theoretical* credibility where it matters least . . . in the public image of various general officers who, if they’ve been doing things right all along, have a deep well of goodwill from which to draw in owning an occasional mistake.

This intriguing and multilayered issue is even more complicated given the fact that wing commanders come to their jobs by way of the formal and informal sponsorship of general officers.  This means that if Wing Commander X turns out to have been wrong, General Sponsor Y can also be seen as wrong for having “picked” or “groomed” or “pushed” such a questionable candidate.  The pressure to stay “clean” in preparation for that next nomination or next round of congressional testimony can be intense, and this might explain the anxieties generals feel when their sponsored protégés appear to run afoul of their ordained paths. 

Does this lead some generals to intervene or refrain from intervening when it would be appropriate?  Hard to say with particularity, since such actions are buried far behind the public facade. But those who have worked directly for senior officers know this to be an occasional reality. Whether the underlying insecurities driving it are well-founded is a publicly unexplored question given the rarity of course corrections involving wing commanders and the even greater rarity of public discussion concerning who sponsored or mentored those that end up failing or flailing.

Nothing in this academic discussion should prevent generals from doing the right thing, no matter the consequences personally or professionally.  When a decision turns out to have been wrong, someone needs to make it right.  And if the only reporting a general officer is using to determine whether a disputed decision was right or wrong is compromised or from biased sources, it’s the duty of that senior public official to affirmatively seek more useful information.  The processes we follow and the results they generate for individuals are more important than avoiding troublesome publicity or maintaining an even keel.  In holding to this idea, I’m exhorting senior Air Force leaders to occasionally re-vector when it’s the apparent right thing to do, and deal with the broken glass as a secondary matter.

This unsolicited advice is animated by a genuine sense that the service is losing the emotional loyalty of some of its best officers as a result of a tainted leadership culture.  When your best and brightest stop seeking command, you’ve got a problem that can’t be fixed with a few bonuses and barbecue competitions . . . and given the inherent velocity of the airpower business, you might not sense this problem until the course correction required is beyond the maneuver limit of the service.

On the other hand, people are suckers for leaders who take personal responsibility for mistakes — whether personally or by implication when a cherished subordinate comes up short.  Air Force generals should try this approach — they might be quite happily surprised at the results.

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