Photo of the Day: Flagrant Micromanagement


I hesitate to give Brig. Gen. Darren James a hard time, given the push he seems to be making to improve Al Udeid in the wake of a congressional and media attention on the living conditions there.  

But if he’s going to distract himself, I don’t suppose a little additional (and richly warranted) criticism will degrade things much … so here goes.

The screenshot above is from an email James recently sent to his group commanders. In the note, he openly embraces that it’s time to “micro-manage” the problem of fender bender accidents among the several thousand denizens of Al Udeid. His chosen tactic is to create a reporting requirement for colonels, which will translate into an amplified and increasingly pressurized reporting requirement for squadron commanders. 

This, James likely theorizes, will force squadron commanders to pay more attention to vehicle accidents … and perhaps the prospect of having to report such accidents to the big boss will instigate more focus on prevention by those commanders. This is standard bureaucratic thinking.

But what will really happen is that squadron commanders will conclude this is what the big boss cares about right now, and many will consequently obsess over the issue at the expense of the thousand other things in their cross-checks. Best case, their obsession will marginally reduce fender benders while allowing some other issue to crop up elsewhere for lack of attention. Worst case, the obsession will have no effect on the rate of minor vehicle incidents, making their over-focus useless while starving other areas of the organization of commander involvement. 

This is classically stale managerial nonsense from James. Before demanding a new bureaucratic metric, he should take a closer look (or better yet, have someone at an appropriate level of his organization take a closer look) at the accidents themselves, which he concedes in his own message might be explained by many factors. There might be systemic explanations like parking or visibility, or the details of the incidents might reveal little to no culpability borne by airmen. But instead, as a result of reading a blotter summary, James adopts the attitude that inattentive miscreant airmen, NCOs, and officers at Al Udeid should either do better or have their licenses suspended. There will be at least a few commanders who will pay tribute to this attitude by stunt-suspending a few drivers … like cats carrying dead mice onto the back porch as trophies. The likely result: subtle degradations of mission and morale.

You don’t think this way if you have a high opinion of your people. If you have a high opinion of them, you assume the mistakes made were honest and that commanders will pay attention adequately and correct swiftly. You simply state that this remains your expectation, and watch them rise to meet it. Or even better, you refrain from reacting to blotter entries reflecting trivial happenstances that can’t be totally eliminated at a certain scope and intensity of human interaction. You focus on the big stuff and leave things like this to squadron level safety NCOs.

Now, it’s fair to critique this critique by saying it’s a point example, or with the tenuously valid (if blunt) platitude that safety is everyone’s business.

But at the same time, it’s fair to ask if this is really why we have general officers. James has been in the Air Force for nearly 26 years (30 counting his time at the Academy), has attended three levels of professional military education, and has commanded several times while also observing other senior commanders in action from a close vantage point. From all of that socialization, education, and experience … he has extracted the grand lesson … that he’s really got to focus on those fender benders? Is this why we grow senior airpower leaders?

Call me crazy, but I think we’re paying him too much to accept focus this narrow. He’s responsible for more than 8,300 airmen, including those dropping munitions on Daesh militants. If he’s taking time to, in his own words, “micro-manage” this issue, it’s fair to wonder what other, more important issue is going begging. 

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