Leading the Horse to Water … and then Drowning it in a Sea of BS

Chief Hoffman

In today’s world, there are two basic forms of micromanagement. There’s standard, make-my-eyes-roll as I turn away in mild disgust micromanagement … and there’s you-have-got-to-be-sh*tting-me, whip me ’till it hurts, bureau-fascist stretch-my-life-on-the-rack micromanagement. The kind that gives people recurring nightmares about suffocating.

Here, we acquaint ourselves with an exemplar of the latter form.

Chief Master Sergeant Charles R. Hoffman, occupier of the high tower at Kadena Air Base, really really wants his NCOs who are eligible for Course 15 to complete it.

What, you ask, is Course 15? 

It’s a needlessly duplicative, impersonal, solo click-and-“learn” cure for insomnia masquerading as professional military education. Someone decided we’d save enough to replace a tire on an F-35 by closing classrooms and outsourcing NCO development to a courseware author … and then we made up some cool jargon and buzzwords to make it sound useful after the fact. The course is so attractive to newly-eligible NCOs that the Air Force found it necessary to publish a coercive instruction threatening all manner of professional consequences for failure to “voluntarily” complete it within a certain timeframe. This under the capable hand of CMSAF James Cody, who insists Big Air Force policies have no connection to noticeable irritations and frayed mission focus in the field.

It’s this learning-is-best-done-at-the-point-of-a-bayonet instruction that seems to have animated the esteemed Hoffman as he dispatched the following missive to Team Kadena, employing equal levels of personal charm and managerial imagination.

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It’s pretty clear what’s going on here, but let’s talk about it a little. Just for fun. Oh, and because this email captures pretty much everything that has gone wrong with the enlisted force … and everything that needs to stop if it will ever recover and become strong again.

A few points.

First, if you’re a Chief, you are by definition enlisted. That means you can’t order officers to do things. Sure, it’ll be argued that Wing Commander X or General Y delegated you the authority to send taskers to field grade officers. And your response should be to respectfully decline that delegation and insist that your commander do his own job by exercising authority over his commanders. This allows them to push back as officers do with other officers. When you send it, you get afforded special deference … and you also create special, seething alienation. Minor point, but over time it creates major problems.

Second, skipping to a rendition of data points without first explaining why they are important implies that you really only care about the numbers … and not so much the underlying value proposition supposedly vindicated by your email.  If you’re worried that NCOs will not be professionally developed if they don’t do Course 15, lead with that. Say that. Own that. Make yourself accountable for that and allow yourself to be challenged on it. If your real worry is that Kadena (and you, and your boss) will look bad because most of your Course 15 NCOs will be reenlistment and promotion ineligible, you’ve crafted a message perfectly reflecting that concern.

At no point in your message do you argue Course 15 is valuable, or explain why. This gives commanders and NCOs no driving reason to comply with your requests beyond that compliance level which will unperch you from their backs. You’re engineering minimal compliance. What you should be manufacturing is enthusiastic initiative. Wars are won by people who believe in what they’re doing and take ownership of their mission.

Third, you try to paint this as a “readiness issue.” Everyone knows that’s BS, and it fatally shoots your credibility. No adversary ever prevailed over an Air Force organization because of Course 15 completion rates, and it has no business being part of anyone’s readiness calculus. Course 15 compliance might indirectly create readiness challenges by pulling airmen and commanders off-target to make a priority out of complying with emails like this one … but if that was your concern, you would obviously keep your powder dry and keep emails like this one leashed to your recycle bin.

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There’s a lot more to say about this, but alas, the point is made. It’s bad enough that the corporate Air Force has created a system of top-down coercion utterly inappropriate to the prospect of professional development, thereby consigning airmen to a certain level of micromanagement from the very top. It’s worse that local chieftains like Hoffman trip over themselves lurching to not only advertise the glistening teeth of a micromanagerial system … but add their own special layers of pain, amplifying rather than shielding against bureaucratic pressure. This is how toxicity is born.

This is also a large part of how the Air Force has gotten warped. Headquarters minions whack continually at the “good idea pinata,” berthing one misguided notion after another. They ensconce their bad ideas in regulations, spiriting them easily past aloof and oblivious generals so out of touch with the field that they are incapable of noticing — much less testing or challenging — flawed policy proposals. And then, in the endless effort to accumulate official adoration on the road to E-10 … or purely as a function of inertia fed by incuriosity, E-9s in the field adopt and double down on these bad ideas, foisting them into the laps of hapless airmen already ground into a fine dust by overwork, undermanning, and an endless string of mandatory trivialities — all assigned “HOT” status by the squadron crier.

Hoffman could have just said “hey guys … limited slots for testing … and here’s a reminder of how the Air Force will deal with your airmen if they don’t do Course 15.” Better still, he could have spent his energy unraveling why Kadena doesn’t seem to have enough testing opportunities to accommodate its NCOs unless they’re willing to test on someone else’s pace and schedule.

These approaches would have encouraged without coercing. They would have recognized the choice NCOs have about whether to engage in Course 15, and allowed them to decide and accept the consequences. By adding in the requirement for a “scare tactic” memo in their personnel records, Hoffman obviously hopes to amplify coercive force and psychologically squeeze as many as possible into completing the course … thereby making Kadena’s “numbers” look better.

Heaven forbid a group of airmen decide of their own free will to refrain from participating in what they see as an illegitimate exercise. Heaven forbid the Air Force actually persuade them that Course 15 is worth their time. And heaven double forbid that a Chief might have to explain on a VTC why NCOs are opting out of promotion to the next grade. Too many instances of these things, and the truth — that morale is not “pretty darn good” — might start to surface.

We can’t have that, because then we’d have to fix it, and that’s hard work conducted under a lens of accountability we can’t dodge. So, let’s mask it through hounding and harassment given undue legitimacy by the wing commander’s authority.

Chief Hoffman closes his email by ordering commanders to do things. My suggestion to those commanders: don’t abdicate your duty to think for yourselves, and don’t comply on the non-order of an advisor with no authority and limited visibility over your responsibilities and challenges. Push back. Request a meeting with your actual boss. Discuss with your enlisted leaders. Register your view with the chain of command. Decide, based on your own judgment, whether to comply with the Hoffman proposal. 

Maybe you’re alright with pushing the horse into the water when it refuses to drink. Or maybe you believe leading it to the water is enough … if it’s not already too much.

As a fun footnote, let’s consider the following: 900 NCOs, 15 minutes to verbally counsel each one and another 45 to prepare and file the memorandum directed in the Chief’s guidance. Where does that 900 man-hours come from?

From the endless well of time and manpower, of course. People like Hoffman — and the lackeys who wrote the regulation he’s enthusiastically enforcing — have been tirelessly plumbing that well for a quarter century. Must be why morale is so darn good.

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