Last Wishes of a Dying General: Parting Thoughts on Air Force Culture

Recently, the career of an Air Force officer ended abruptly.  This officer was, by all accounts, destined for upper management.  He was decorated, educated, and experienced. He’d had the right assignments, been promoted ahead of schedule, and succeeded in an operational command role.  He received strong performance reviews to the very end and was almost certain to be promoted early again. But, in a development that stunned colleagues and mentors, he decided to retire rather than continue his career. It wasn’t an easy decision.  This guy had dreamt of one day holding a senior position in the Air Force. I know all of this because I’m describing my own decision.  I was that officer.

With the memory of this “general who never was” fading rapidly, I’d like to relay three pieces of unsolicited advice from his deathbed:

#1. Evaluate People Accurately.  This may seem like a narrow wish, but its implications are pervasive and fundamental.  With 83% of enlisted members receiving a “Truly Among the Best” rating and 90% of officer reports indistinguishable, supervisors and hiring authorities are not able to determine who is truly the best.  As a result, the service is promoting and putting into key leadership roles many of the wrong people.  This not only hurts organizational performance, it creates morale-crushing inequities when the wrong people advance at the expense of the right ones.  It also provides a disincentive to going the extra mile, since an individual evidently need not perform at the highest caliber to receive the highest rating. Beyond a certain point, senior officers and enlisted leaders are certain to place declining stock in what has been written about their subordinates, leading to diminished trust in their capabilities.  This leads to rampant micromanagement.  Lurking in the background behind this critique is a disturbing notion: continuing to certify performance appraisals that it is known can’t all be true is structurally dishonest.  This injures the integrity of the entire Air Force.

#2. Give People Time to Think.  As a commander, I had a front-row seat for the declining expertise of a community of practitioners being asked to juggle too many no-fail priorities. Being an expert operator is job enough for anyone.  Having the additional duty of being self-financier, administrative self- supporter, training manager, and supply coordinator is enough to stretch most individuals beyond capability limits.  Now consider the institutionally imposed mandates for advanced degree work and online developmental education for officers (with no time budgeted to get them done), and it’s clear the demands being placed on individual headspace are unreasonable — to say nothing of the stress this creates in families and key relationships. This set of circumstances leaves people continually re-shuffling mental priorities, unable to deepen knowledge, experiment with concepts, or contribute new ideas to a craft that must change to keep pace with the changing character of war. In other words, unable to engage in critical thinking.  Over time, the absence of widespread critical thinking will strangle the tactical excellence upon which the Air Force depends for operational and strategic success.

#3. Stop Micromanaging People.  The natural impulse of generals to submerge in the details of execution is a timeless temptation, but one with destructiveness equally well-established.  During my time in a leadership role, I had the privilege of commanding a deployment during which my team performed at a very high level, ably supporting our joint partners fighting on the Afghan frontier. When the “big boss” came to visit during the latter stages of the deployment, the squadron was excited, not unreasonably expecting praise for all they’d achieved. What they got instead was a quick pat on the back followed by a soliloquy on the merits of centralized execution. They were regaled with stories of awesome technologies capable of placing 4-star generals into the tactical decision process. His message knocked the wind out everyone who heard it. Airmen do not relish futures as forward-deployed re-transmitters or glorified antennae.  They are people who operate machines, but not machines themselves.  They long to be given resources along with left/right limits and entrusted to apply their wit and will to defeat an adversary.  They want the proper authority to match their responsibility; the proper degree of autonomy to adapt to the fluid circumstances of the tactical fight; and for their leaders to trust in their judgment and hold them accountable for results, good and bad. Our professional studies inform us on the complexity of war.  We must embrace the lessons of history in this regard and build into our front-line airmen not just technical expertise, but the judgment that can no more be removed from war than humans themselves.  Today’s junior airmen know they cannot be effective as tomorrow’s leaders unless they learn how to make decisions, and thus they yearn for the latitude to do so. Generals would be acting in their own interest to heed this broadly-felt desire.

These ideas are my own, and therefore limited in their usefulness to the reach and pertinence of my opinion.  But I submit that the organizational components represented by these three wishes — inspired people, clear thinking, and mutual trust — are foundational to the vitality of any organization, and certainly to the US Air Force.  Jimmy Doolittle admonished us to fight “from the neck up” and Ron Fogelman told us to be honest with ourselves and trust one another. Decentralized execution has been a fundamental tenet of airpower since before our birth as a service.  These things are important to our culture, and therefore must be transformed only with great care and calibration.

That’s really the larger message lurking within these departing thoughts, if there is one — the importance of shepherding culture change carefully. I ended my career because I felt the culture of the institution had shifted beyond the point at which I could stay in step, and therefore I had no business at higher levels of command.  Given the pace of change of the past several years, I’m left to wonder — with some trepidation — how many others are struggling with how to adapt … and perhaps more importantly, whether to adapt.

Because an organization’s most committed members are most deeply wedded to its fundamental values, it stands to reason that they are more likely to be alienated or dislodged by large-scale or rapid cultural change.  We can’t blame any institution for changing, which all must do in order to survive and thrive. We also can’t blame individuals for failing to change, which beyond a certain point is like asking a rhino to become a unicorn. But we can acknowledge that in a value-driven enterprise, the moral chaos of rapid change can place strong, committed performers on the horns of a dilemma resolvable only by leaving the institution.

The nation expects and deserves an Air Force committed to expanding and exploiting its potential, which is the only way to stay ahead of enemies who are doing the same.  This means holding on to people who perform well and want desperately to be part of flying, fighting, and winning.  When it comes to culture change, throttle setting and velocity must therefore be kept carefully in the cross-check.  With such an approach, the Air Force has its best chance of delivering another century of superiority in air, space, and cyberspace … and fulfilling the dying wishes of its generals, both real and imagined.

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