What can you get done when a group of 36 dignitaries — including 18 general officers and a service secretary — are visiting your base? Nothing. You can do basically nothing.
And if you can’t do anything, you can’t screw anything up.
This is the idea that animates micromanagement, even if micromanagers don’t usually realize that the idea of close control is driving them.
Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James recently brought three dozen senior officials (and their entourages) to Minot in the middle of winter. The photo they had taken of themselves while there captures an essential truth of the current iteration of the Air Force as well as anything in a long time. What this photo reflects is that the Air Force is currently suffering from a potentially fatal failure of imagination: it believes the answer to every problem is more visitation and impression-based management by senior officials. This is roughly the opposite of what actually holds true.
The Air Force nuclear missile community is suffering from a range of maladies. Chief among them is a failure of trust between fielded airmen and the senior officers who neglected the duty to care for the community and its mission systemically over a period of years (if not decades). Not far behind is a structurally ingrained habit of micromanagement that has crippled the community’s capacity for self-healing and placed true productivity out of reach.
This photo exemplifies both problems. When Secretary James descends on Minot with a constellation of generals, the message communicated is clear: she and her cohort of executives don’t trust that what must be done will happen without their constant, close surveillance. They visit to make sure airmen are doing exactly what they want, exactly the way they want it done, and not only without mistakes, but without even the opportunity for mistakes. Moreover, these executives don’t trust that they’re getting accurate and reliable information from the field, so they are visiting (again and again and again) to see for themselves. In other words, they’ve hired subordinate operational leaders that they don’t trust to level with them, or for whatever reason can’t find it in themselves to let that trust mean something.
Whether this is what James really means to convey is irrelevant. This is the message received by the community. Moreover, James and her generals are not aloof to the symbolic impact of their actions.
This is Secretary James’ fourth visit to Minot Air Force Base in the last year, something she’s proud to trumpet. After all, that’s what this is about — the trumpeting. It’s not about the airmen of Minot, or the rehabilitation of the missile community. Those things don’t require so much executive attention and probably suffer from it. This is about showing up flanked by a legion of senior officials in order to demonstrate seriousness about correcting the ills that have plagued the community. It’s about James and other Air Force leaders showing their bosses they have a handle on things. It’s about them, and their jobs, reputations, futures, and performance reviews. It’s about their interests.
It’s not about what is best for missile airmen and their leaders, who just want everyone to give them what they need to get the job done, trust them to do it, and then get the hell out of the way.
Demonstration isn’t the same as substantive effort, and the missile community will not find consistent, excellent functionality until James and her band of fellow travelers back away to managerial distance and allow the reforms developed over the past year to actually take effect. The three bases comprising the nuclear ICBM community have been “treated” to 81 dignitary visits in the past two years. This means that every single month, someone “very important” drops in for a tour, update, or progress check, complete with a full public affairs workup to make efforts visible.
Despite an official finding in a Department of Defense review lamenting the disruptive impact of too many leader visits, the Air Force’s corporate team is steadfast that it can fix the problem by doubling down on it. This is close to the definition of insanity, which is appropriate since these constant visits drive airmen insane.
It’s one thing to watch the water boil, which is bad enough. This is worse. This is about watching everyone so closely that they can’t possibly do anything, much less do anything wrong. While this is an effective tactic for self-preservation and for making Congressional hearings less painful, it’s not helping missile airmen. They need manning, resources, and capable leaders who care more about the mission than their careers.
One last thought. The missile community is in disrepair in part because Air Force senior leaders got so fixated on the tactical-level implications of adapting to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that they failed to pick up the signals of impending failure. In other words, they micromanaged themselves into this problem. With this much constant attention channelized on one issue yet again, what signals are now being overlooked in other mission areas?
See also: the problems with a rampant VIP culture.