Leading Through People and Organizations: Creech and the TAC Turnaround

We have a base named after Wilbur Creech, but are we living up to the standards he taught us?
We have a base named after Wilbur Creech, but are we living up to the standards he taught us?

People frequently ask why I (and many others) are so frustrated and dissatisfied with Gen. Mark Welsh’s performance as Chief of Staff.

The answer lies in a single word: expectations.

Before 2012, Welsh was the most admired senior leader in the service. Those who’d worked with and for him over the years attested to his obvious concern for airmen, his natural leadership ability, and the poise with which he tended to handle tough challenges while employing his trademark sense of humor.

While running United States Air Forces in Europe, Welsh had taken an interest in morale issues springing up like brush fires throughout the fighter community. This buoyed the spirits of many who saw the Air Force in sharp decline. It looked as if Welsh shared that perspective — or at least sensed the possibility — and was more likely to do something about it than any other candidate for the top job.

Welsh Guam

For attentive students of the Air Force’s post-Vietnam history, there was another reason to expect a lot from Mark Welsh: he’d come of age as a young officer during a period of service reform. Welsh entered the Air Force in 1976, one the eve of Gen. Wilbur Creech’s takeover of Tactical Air Command (TAC), and joined the command in 1981, as Creech’s reforms of TAC were taking hold. 

In his formative years, he’d had a front row seat for deep-seated organizational dysfunction as well as the uncompromising leadership and organizational competence that turned it all around. There was reason to believe he’d take just such an uncompromising approach to the contemporary service, which exhibits many of TAC’s 1970s problems.

Consider the following excerpts from the 2004 version of Air Force Doctrine Document 1-1, “Leadership and Force Development.” (I’ll explain later why I chose the 2004 version rather than the most recent 2015 update).

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Thinks about how the “zero defect” expectation in the missile community led to falsified test results; how Air Force Personnel Center flesh peddlers have long ignored actual manning rosters in favor of dummied-up reports that give commanders the falsely soothing idea that manpower is inexhaustible; and how metrics and “statistical imperatives” dominate staff meetings, reporting routines, and managerial communications. TAC’s problems are pervasive across the entire Air Force of today, and have been entrenched for a decade or more.

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Contrast this with today’s concentration of authority at the highest levels. Contrast it with the constant fielding of layer upon layer of new regulations, including the insultingly useless AFI 1-1, which preaches a sermon of fundamentals to airmen instead of expecting them to think for themselves. Management through intimidation and the coercive use of disciplinary threats … these things are par for the course. It’s stunning to think of just how far the Air Force has wandered from Creech’s vision while being led by generals who came of age in his revitalized command. Welsh doesn’t even recognize basic civil liberties, and empowerment is a candle flickering in a hurricane of obedience.

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Product over process. Excessive regulations depress the spirit. Full openness over restricted communication.  How did our contemporary leaders forget these basics?

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Here’s where we’ve really come unglued. Honest and victimless mistakes are career-ending in today’s Air Force. Micromanagement of all things — including discipline — is rampant. Accountability is harsh at the bottom and nearly non-existent at the top.

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SQUADRONS! Ding ding ding!

Creech understood innately something that Welsh has periodically professed but has never given much real-world effect: that as squadrons go, so goes the Air Force. Resource them and give them strong leaders, and the service will soar, with the inverse also holding true.

Squadrons are not simply labor warehouses feeding and glorifying the objectives of wing commanders. Squadrons are the entire point … the core of the service and its mission … the place where the rubber meets the road and airmen make the magic happen. Not giving them priority, resources, and latitude is institutional malpractice.

Granted, Welsh is operating in tighter constraints than Creech. Budget decisions made over a decade ago gutted squadrons and their capacity to support themselves, and putting things as they were is not possible. But much more could be done than has been attempted, and squadrons are withering in many corners of the service.

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Notice … Creech accomplished huge results without more funding or personnel, and did it by focusing on organizational health. By rejuvenating trust and outlawing micromanagement, he was able to eliminate wasteful activities associated with verification, monitoring, and control, making the entire organization more efficient and productive.

This is a perfect prescription for the 2016 resource environment. Improved organizational functioning is always eased by additional resources, but lacking additional resource flows is not an excuse to stand with feet planted in the face of obvious and remediable issues. In fact, tight times require the placement of a premium on individual productivity, which is the ultimate object of many of Creech’s principles.

Welsh has spent too much time waiving the white flag and not enough demanding that his subordinate commanders make their organizations as healthy as possible within existing constraints.

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And this is the key point: contrary to the popular “wisdom” holding that the US military was revitalized almost exclusively by enlarged Reagan-era defense budgets, Creech fixed TAC before those budgets kicked in.

I chose the 2004 version of Air Force doctrine because the 2015 edit has scrubbed away this point about the Reagan budget reform taking effect after Creech had broken TAC’s spin. We can only speculate that it was removed because it’s inconvenient to current Corporate Air Force arguments tethering restoration of institutional health tightly to desired budgets. If certain members of Congress and their staffs were to review the service’s history, they might begin to question whether the Air Force has done all it can to heal itself within existing limitations. The answer is clearly “no.”

Arguably, things are more dire now than they were in the malaise of the 1970s. The Air Force is smaller, tempo is higher, equipment is older, and the entrenchment of interest-driven Congressional meddling in operational affairs is more pronounced than ever. Its problems are not limited to one or two commands, but extend to virtually every corner of airpower. To boot, public accountability is now amplified by the existence of social media.

But these are descriptions of the environment, not excuses for inaction or timidity.

Gen. Welsh hasn’t fallen short by a little bit. He has failed to make a genuine effort, and is leaving the service much worse than he found it.

The Russians (and others) have long observed that Americans are difficult to predict militarily because don’t follow our own doctrine. Operationally, this is an advantage of sorts. But strategically, it’s the road to collapse. Another cycle of aloof, cautious, bureaucratic, publicity-centric, mis-prioritized in-charge-ship could kill the service. We need a CSAF focused on returning organizations to operational health, which begins with telling the truth about our problems and trusting our own people to address them.

In other words, we need a Creech. The question is whether there is one to be had.

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