The Air Force’s new chief left jaws on the ground and spirits soaring recently when he told his publicist to power down the propaganda machine and instead simply take dictation. He then delivered a powerful, honest message of reality, renewal, and leadership.
Here’s a transcript of the general’s remarks:
In addressing you today, my objective is simple: straight talk about where we are and where we’re going. Not only because you deserve honesty from your leaders, but because we can’t go anywhere together unless we can agree on where we are.
It’s time we admit that “where we are” is not a very good place. We’ve allowed ourselves to fall into some of the traps that tend to spring on organizations under acute pressure on a chronic basis over an extended period of time. That’s not an excuse, but a statement of reality. We’ve been on war footing for a quarter century, and it shows.
We don’t have nearly enough people. As your leader, I recognize that. We’re tens of thousands of people short of a sustainable baseline, which means we either need less mission, more people, or both. Up to now, we’ve allowed you to absorb the pain of this mismatch because we thought it was temporary and the lesser of evils. We’re not going to play that game any more. I’ll be communicating to Congress and the Secretary of Defense in the clearest and simplest of terms that we cannot continue like this. Not only because it places the nation’s defense at risk, but because it’s just wrong.
But while we press for relief from our civilian leaders, we’ll do everything we can internally to free up people to move where the mission needs them, and to free up authorizations so they can be re-purposed to core mission areas rather than frills. This means some sacred cows will need to be slain. We will have one band. We will have zero show choirs. We will slash the number of Air Operations Centers we operate by two thirds. We will close redundant staffs and offices. We will return human resource management functions to commanders and liquidate most of the Air Force Personnel Center, sending those billets back to the field to advise decision makers rather than conducting redundant staffing actions. Through these and other actions, we’ll make the most of what we have and take pressure off squadrons.
The trappings of executive leadership must also go. No more protocol staffs except in select locations where foreign and domestic dignitaries are regularly hosted. Executive officer authorizations will be reduced sharply and have top-level scrutiny. Travel budgets will be cut in half for all general officers and by more in many cases. Executive airlift will be cut accordingly, with the spare resources rolled back into core mission and manpower. Base visits will be closely scrutinized at the 4-star level, with every day and dollar justified in terms of direct mission impact and direct mission disruption. We will once again trust commanders in the field to do their jobs and promote them according to the results they produce rather than the impressions we get during executive touch-and-goes.
We will no longer tolerate a culture of additional duty in our Air Force. Everyone will have a job and focus on that job. Some of us will have multiple roles to play simultaneously, and we’ll play them to the best of our ability because that’s what we get paid to do at certain levels of responsibility. But as a service, it’s time for us to get back to a mentality of having a job and being excellent at that job, which means we have to provide the resources, support, and the time to let you commit yourself to that excellence.
It’s neither fair nor smart nor sustainable to expect our airmen to spread themselves across multiple functions and still be excellent in all they do. I empower commanders at all levels to stop supporting anything that clearly has nothing to do with the mission, and to email me personally if they get any push-back from anyone about that. I also expect commanders at all levels to go about methodically and swiftly dismantling the superstructure of additional duties and volunteer/self-improvement expectations we’ve built over the years. Our airmen will grow and improve consistently without being coerced, and that improvement will benefit them and our organization in the best way when it complements strong focus on duty performance rather than competing with that focus. In the weeks ahead, we will remove volunteerism and self-improvement from enlisted performance appraisals, and my expectation is that for both officer and enlisted airmen, written mentions of non-duty-related performance will be sparing and reserved for truly exceptional activities and contributions. Medals and award programs for volunteer and community service activities will be closed down. Units are free to celebrate community service contributions in their own way, but we will not, as a service, maintain formal award programs in these areas at the steep bureaucratic cost currently entail.
Finally, we will not continue to deploy our people simply to demonstrate we’re involved or to feed a deployed command or staff appetite for manpower. Deployments are not only a steep expense to the taxpayer, but a hardship for our people and their families. Every one of these must be justified in cost/benefit terms. I will send a team to review and audit every deployment on the books. Those falling short of justification on a standard of strict cost-benefit scrutiny will be non-supported, and I will have the task of communicating this new posture to the joint force. Many deployments are valid and will continue, to be sure. But as a rule of thumb, we’re not going to send someone to the desert for a year to do something they can do from a computer terminal at their home station … and certainly not to do something that is not a valid military function. If you’re a commander at any level with pending deployment bills you feel are questionable, I empower you to raise the issue directly to the first general officer in your chain of command, and Cc me on your message. We’re deploying the speedbrake on this issue immediately.
Speaking of the chain of command, we’re going to be making some changes there too. No more having multiple wings at a single base with multiple command staffs competing with one another for the same pool of support resources. That goes against everything we know works in a military organization. We will be returning to a “One Wing, One Base, One Boss” concept, and the central duty of the wing commander will be to harmonize the efforts of all agencies to best support the mission, our airmen, and their families. Operational commanders will no longer outsource support functions to other organizations. They will take ownership of support agencies and make sure everyone understands his or her place in the bigger picture … who they support, who supports them, and what their contract requires. We’ve stopped expecting excellent support of our operations, and without it, we can’t even hope for mission success in the wars we’re currently fighting … let alone the war that waits inevitably around the corner.
But our problems are unfortunately not just structural and cultural. We also have a problem with how we define and exercise leadership. We’re going to fix that problem. If you’re a leader at any level, pay close attention, because your future in the Air Force depends on your ability to adapt to a new direction. I expect you to get in step rapidly.
Leaders have a sacred charge: to take care of people so those people can take care of the mission. This doesn’t mean “going easy” on your people when they drop below standards. It means giving them the resources and support and example to enable them to meet and exceed those standards … so you can measure them against those standards without reservation.
Your duty as a leader is to work tirelessly to clear obstacles between your people and their mission. Whether this means burning red tape, providing additional training, mentoring individuals through difficult personal and professional challenges, or administering “tough love” … it’s your job to determine what is needed and then cause it to materialize. That’s the job, and if you’re trying hard to do that job, you’ll be given a chance – maybe even multiple chances – to get it right. If you’re not interested in leading … if you’re more interested in status, prestige, power, position, or any of the other various illusions that are mistaken for organizational leadership … you’re in the wrong business. This is a team sport.
If you’re a leader, it is not your job to simply make up and enforce rules. If we’re doing things well, we won’t need many rules and we certainly won’t need a robust enforcement mechanism. Your job is not stalk your airmen on social media, to tell them what personal opinion they should possess, or to suggest how they spend their time away from the line. This is not “just a job” … but it’s also not indentured servitude. Our people need and are entitled to space and privacy and individuality. They are Americans. Remember that, and concern yourself with optimizing their duty performance. Leave the rest alone unless you are presented with clear and convincing evidence that there is a mission-related reason for you to get involved. If you’re functioning well as a leader, you should not have time to micromanage anyone. You should be too busy identifying problems plaguing your airmen and working on solutions to clear them out of the way. You should be too busy thinking about how to unleash their performance potential, and processing the results of their performance as you carefully assess how to develop them. None of that involves controlling their non-duty-related behavior or encumbering them with mindless rules that make you feel more important at the expense of their morale. If you’re doing this – whether you’re an E-5 or an O-10 – knock it off and change course now … or you and I will be at odds.
I will hold all leaders at all levels sternly, swiftly, and transparently accountable for moral and ethical lapses. Abuse of power will not be tolerated. Relieving someone or disciplining someone without proper cause will be the end of your career. Excessive punishments for minor infractions involving otherwise solid airmen are not consistent with a warrior ethos and do not reflect what we’re about as a service. If a subordinate is underperforming or making mistakes, your job is to get them on-track. If you can’t get them on-track, sideline them while you figure out how to develop them or declare to the system that they have reached their potential, but only after you’ve given your best effort to extract from them the performance other commanders who comprise the system saw possible.
And this leads into my final point. We must restore trust across the board, which means we have to start seeing the best in one another again. We have to stop, as a service, looking darkly upon one another. We must return to a culture that presumes good intentions and honorability unless and until evidence to the contrary presents itself. Trust is critical in our business. We go to war together, and without trust in one another as wingmen, victory is not possible. War doesn’t permit constant monitoring or verification. It doesn’t afford needless redundancy. It doesn’t allow for individuals who act in their own interest rather than adopting a team mentality because they refuse to trust their teammates. This is especially true of our career force. While airmen and officers in their initial service commitments are still determining whether they want to be part of our team for the long haul, those who have reenlisted or incurred additional service commitments have made a crystal clear statement that they are with us for good. We can’t afford to alienate them by refusing to acknowledge that they have earned a special and long-term place on our roster.
As you consider this message, think about what it means to be in our Air Force, and what it should mean. It’s a privilege to serve, but that reality – often stated as a platitude – isn’t enough. We should be so much more. Serving should be an uplifting and inspiring way of life. It’s traditionally been a superb profession, and we must make it a superb profession again. We will do that together, and I’m committed to making it the central focus of my leadership strategy for as long as I have the honor of this role in our organization. I ask you to join me in committing to a new direction … one characterized by what I’ve said here today and much more we’ll discuss in the time ahead. Adapt to the spirit of it, and make your own inputs. Together, we’ll get our Air Force back on vector.
It was at this instant that Sergeant Snuffy awoke in a cold sweat … realizing he’d been dreaming this beautiful message. As his senses returned, he recognized the faint odor of mildew harmonizing with the comforting clank of his full-blast air conditioner as he pried open his tired eyes and surveyed the diminutive space of his cubicle. Outside, the hellish heat and diabolical bureaucracy of his deployed base awaited. A productive routine was his only defense against abject misery, so he thought about the day ahead. He would hit the gym, do his laundry, have his three beers, and refresh the donut of misery to keep close count of his time left in this desert prison. No war to be seen, no peace to be enjoyed. He would continue to sweat out his fateful decision to commit himself to an Air Force clearly on the decline and disinterested in changing course. Sure there was a new boss … but he was the same as the old boss.
But hey … Snuffy could dream.
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