Patience Is a Vice


“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed at some indefinite time in the future.”
– General George S. Patton, Jr.

Conventional wisdom holds that leaders exercise patience. It is said to be a mark of maturity and the path to lucid, maximally informed decisions.

But this is, I offer, a grave misreading of an important principle. It’s meant as a caution against impulsivity, not a general rule favoring timidity of thought and action.

Patience is not a virtue in leadership. It’s a vice. An addiction fueled by risk aversion, political correctness, self-preservation, and the timeless bureaucratic preference for slow, status-quo protective, lumbering organizational behavior. When these things predominate, patience is often touted as the legitimate mask for many illegitimate pretexts. This has a lot to say about the unfolding talent and retention crises gripping the Air Force.

A patient bureaucracy will never retain its best people, because it will be too satisfied with itself. This will make it disinclined to accommodate the sought-after latitude of those driven by genuine zeal to improve and advance all they touch … those who are, by their nature, innovators who want to lead their own self-constructed systems and own the results.  

These types thrive on autonomy, and our Air Force has become hostile to the very notion. Resistant to change, the service’s bureaucracy has preserved itself by inventing and implementing rules that constrain free thought and derail experimental action. As a result, organizational life has become too limiting and stifling. The workplace liberty sought by zealous and committed practitioners is nowhere to be found. Instead, the Air Force has settled into a stubbornly rigid authority structure. The smothering tendencies of bureaucratic staffs have been set loose on wings, groups, and squadrons, infecting combat organizations with torturously inappropriate top-heaviness and centralization.  Those who grow impatient with all of this are seen to be challenging authority, and are admonished to slow down … things take time … change is gradual … the rules are there for good reason. These are the soothing phrases by which the existing power structure reinforces itself, tightening its grip and resisting meaningful change.

There are two types of authority leaders exercise: formal and informal.  Formal authority is derived from legal sources, from position, or from written rules and policies. The more formal authority is exercised, the greater the creative limits placed on those subject to it. If you think about it, when you “control” or “direct” someone to do something, you’re really telling them what “not” to do. You’re placing limits in them, so formal authority has a negative object to limit behavior. It pushes down.

Informal authority, on the other hand, unleashes that which can spring up. It is derived from personal influence, credibility, reputation, and respect.  This is preferred way to get things done, because rather than limiting people, it empowers and catalyzes them.  You don’t tell them what to do or how to do it, you tell them the deliverable and let them design the system to achieve it, with amply broad limits giving them room to breathe their individual and team enterprise into something.  They are then free to innovate a solution that may or may not resemble what you envision, but will more often be ingenious and novel.  Most importantly, they will own the solution, so they will work twice as hard to arrive at it. 

Ask yourself … when’s the last time someone innovated effectively through bureaucratic means? When’s the last time someone designed a novel tactic because they were being “patient?” Now ask the opposite questions. The answers tend to reveal a lot.

Informal authority has a positive object: to unleash talent.  The problem with our Air Force today is that there are too many rules forcing commanders into the application of too much formal authority, leaving not enough room for the exercise of unbounded thought and action. This all arises from a bureaucracy that is failing, but is too patient with itself and insistent that others exercise similar patience. Incremental steps are substituted for the systemic solutions actually necessary to address anything. The impatient leave, the patient remain, and the pathology deepens.

There are good leaders in today’s Air Force, but they toil under constant discomfort and dissonance. Their views and approaches are aligned with traditional values and principles, but not necessarily the rules that have sprung up over time.  This misalignment is why so many of them leave before they get to the upper rungs of leadership.  They envision progressing to the highest levels and creating structures and systems capable of winning wars. But they too often learn, in bitter terms, that the rules standing in the way can’t be negotiated. One of the hardest things to do in a bureaucracy is to kill a rule … because every rule has an attached constituency that will fight to maintain it.

The energy spent fighting rules — most often in vain — is not spent innovating, meaning our best people are focused internally rather than externally.  This explains how enemies are time and again able to surprise us. They make better use of their intellectual energy than we do. Patience is the vice keeping us enslaved in this cycle of entropy. We’re too patient with that which deserves to be destroyed, with prejudice, on the basis of common sense and operational necessity. Our leaders bend to the will of pdf-wielding clerks, and in doing so unwittingly kill our intellectual rate of closure on our enemies, current and future. Risk avoidance is, in this way, creating risk in more insidious form.

Someone will say that loyalty will save us from this. That loyal people will stay. But that too is wrong, and indicative of too much patience. People won’t stay for the sake of loyalty when there are other important pursuits, interests, and issues in the world to be cultivated, and which can be cultivated with greater fulfillment and personal happiness than they can ever hope to achieve in our Air Force.  

Someone else will argue that money is enough to keep our innovators under the Big Blue tent. But this too is wrong. No amount of money can replace inspiration. Airmen don’t want to be rich … they want to make enemies suffer. They don’t want individual rewards … they want strong, cohesive squadrons. They want to believe in what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with and for. They want the freedom to be tactically, operationally, and intellectually as impatient as those who founded our air service … without being marked as pariahs.

George Granville remarked that “patience is the virtue of an ass, who treads beneath his burden and complains not.” He was right. Patience is not a virtue.  It’s a vice.  A vice that has dampened the zeal of our airmen and seeks to make them unthinking, uncomplaining burden carriers. That’s not a description that will strike fear into the hearts and minds of adversaries, or keep those adversaries at bay. 

The best among our airmen — those impatient to trample mediocrity and charge toward excellence in what they do — will not long countenance participation in a failing enterprise. It’s time for the Air Force’s senior leaders to channel the impatience of the rank and file … and become far less tolerant of the direction of things.

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