Leadership by Uniform … Here We Go Again

Open Ranks

When Gen. Norton Schwartz took over as Chief of Staff in 2008, he had in his mind (or was influenced by others who had in their minds) that the Air Force had a professionalism problem. In the grand tradition of the bureaucrat masquerading as leader, he and his cohort atop the chain of command surveyed the many deep-set problems that naturally attend to a force worn down by (then) 17 years of continuous war … and decided it was all attributable to people just not caring enough about the small stuff.

Of course, Schwartz was wrong. The Air Force had created so much “small stuff” that airmen couldn’t keep up with everything, especially with fading top cover, reduced manning, longer deployments, and an increasingly corroded supervisory system. It was the failure of the generals to handle the “big stuff” that was causing problems. But that didn’t stop Schwartz and his underlings from enacting the now-infamous “Blues Monday” policy, creating a blanket requirement for everyone in every unit to don the service uniform once each week.

This was a power grab. It took discretion normally reserved for squadron commanders and lifted it to the 4-star level, continuing a pattern of centralization and micromanagement that was already well underway.

But that’s not why airmen hated the policy per se.

They hated it because of the way it enabled and encouraged do-nothing senior NCOs and their approval-seeking toadies to zero in on and spend time policing superficial appearances. It was a green light for stopping anyone on the street on a Monday and questioning why they weren’t in blues, and then having a division-sowing conversation about it. This played out again and again as part of a larger pattern of focusing on appearances.

With every incident, the focus on superficial matters deepened, providing cover for senior officers and NCOs to continue neglecting the substance of leadership. In default of being able or willing to solve real problems, they spent their leadership energies on empty exercises feeding a sense of control and authority, but without actually improving organizational maladies.

When Gen. Mark Welsh took over in 2012, he rolled the policy back. It was a wildly popular move. In fact, some say it’s the biggest thing Welsh has put in the win column during his tenure. He was clearly signaling that he wanted airmen spending less time worrying about style and more time focusing on the mission.

But recently, Col. Frederick Thaden, who commands Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, decided it was time to roll back Welsh’s roll-back. In a manicured propaganda release announcing the mandatory wear of blues every Wednesday, Thaden proclaimed that:

“Military image, tradition and heritage are tied closely with our service uniform. This new policy allows us to celebrate that heritage and ensure our people reflect the professionalism of their service.”

Of course, this is total nonsense. Professionalism doesn’t depend on outward appearances, and even if it did, a high level of formality or blueness wouldn’t correlate with it as Thaden suggests. Heritage doesn’t come from policy. It arises in healthy organizations from consistent practices that reinforce a strong sense of shared identity. Top-down directives from the base commander will not create heritage, and may well destroy it.

Thaden’s resident message repeater, CMSgt. Craig Poling, piggy-backed thusly:

“It reminds us that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. It works to reaffirm our pride in our service and heritage.”

This is the worst kind of banal tropery. Airmen don’t need a weekly uniform requirement to remind them of their place in the universe. They volunteered to serve in a time of war. Talking to them like idiots … all along trivializing the concepts of service and military heritage … is a great way to corrode rather than reinforce their pride and sense of connection with a larger purpose. 

Duty uniforms should be about two things: required duties and uniformity. Nothing else. The decision should be made at the individual or small unit level. To the extent heritage and pride have a connection to uniform wear, they develop on their own, and instantly evaporate when leaders try to possess them in this way.

The issue was perhaps best articulated by a reddit poster, who uttered the following harsh but accurate words from behind an anonymous handle:

Col Thaden,

Thank you for self-identifying as a poor leader, focused only on appearances and queep that crush morale in your domain. Of course all flying squadrons will need people in flight suits at all times in case they get called on that last second flight. Blues Monday in an Ops Sq meant the CC and his front office wore blues. I’m sure it’ll be the same this time around too. Meanwhile the support Airmen will suck up the winter in paper-thin blues and shoes with no tread.

Oh and this line, “Military image, tradition and heritage are tied closely with our service uniform” is farcical at best given the uniform came out when you were just barely clearing Captain. Also, “This new policy allows us to celebrate that heritage and ensure our people reflect the professionalism of their service” is utter non-thought if I’ve ever seen it. If being professional means we wear blues, why did you exempt flight suits and utility uniforms for any duties? We aren’t we flying in those and why do we wear ABU’s most of the time since we can’t be professional in them?

We’ll process that retirement app quickly, thanks for your service.

E-9 Poling,

You should be ashamed of yourself. Really with this – “It reminds us that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. It works to reaffirm our pride in our service and heritage.”

That happens when I put on my ABU’s, PT gear and any other uniform of the United States Air Force. My oath doesn’t change based on the clothes I wear. I’d fight naked for the Constitution if I had to. Perhaps you’d have to make sure your ribbons were straight first, or which uniform you wear on which day defines how you’re going to perform.

Your job is to represent the E’s to the Boss, not be some sycophant E-10 with parking spots, and admin troops dedicated to you “getting the word out.” I get it, you can’t cross him in public. Noted, but your quote is overly long for what it should have been: “Our Commander is focused on heritage and I support him in that.” Your overly wordy blubbering informs the thinking that’s brought malaise to the force and is decried from the Deid to Vandenberg by O3’s and E7’s on down.

Or you could have put in for retirement to show you still have some pride in what it means to be an enlisted member.

Holy Lord above does the hubris, and deafness of leaders burdening the Airmen forced to serve under them offend the basic leadership lessons I’ve been instilled with from the same service!

Difficult to argue with that. The more the Air Force detaches from its intellectual and philosophical roots, the more alienated airmen become. 

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