Politicians and Operators: the Virtuous and Vicious Cycle of the Air Force’s Promotion Systems

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In discussing how organizations perform, there’s a common tendency to attribute failures (and successes) to a single or dominant cause. “This place is a mess because of bad leadership” … “morale is horrible because we lack resources” … or a personal favorite, “we’re in a tailspin because of Obama.”

While (some of) these simplistic explanations contain a kernel or more of truth, they ignore the reality that most outcomes arise from multiple contributing causes. They also pretend that the entire causal chain can be described as a straight-line result of a single input … when the reality is that most organizational outcomes unfold in chapters, each evincing a response to what happened before. Input A creates outcome 1, which partially forms input B, triggering outcome 2, and so on. Eventually, in most cases, the system behaves in this iterative fashion until it circles its way back to somewhere close to where it began. Many systems are cyclical in this way, though to assume so can become a risky excuse to withhold from actions that create often healthy circularity.

One fascinating example of how organizations operate according to input-response phases involves the relationship between the Air Force’s operations community and its promotion systems. In former times, it would be necessary at this point to distinguish between officer and enlisted promotion norms, but in recent times the enlisted system has been “modernized” such that it almost completely mimics the officer system. More on that in a future article, but for now we’ll treat it as an assumption.

One more assumption is helpful in framing this discussion. While it is almost never explicitly stated by Air Force senior leaders these days for fear of triggering hurt feelings, it is the responsibility of the operations community to execute the Air Force mission. While every function in the Air Force is important, each occupies a different place and posture in the organization (under normal conditions). Operations is where the mission happens, and it is supported by everyone and everything else. Support exists only to enable operations, but operations would (and these days, often does) exist without support. This is so because operations performs the mission that is the Air Force’s reason for existence. If executing the mission isn’t the point of the Air Force, it has no reason to exist.

Armed with that article of faith, consider how a promotion system should work in such an organization. In its natural state, or “Phase One” of its system life, the Air Force’s promotion systems supported its operations community by supplying officers and NCOs capable of executing and leading the execution of its mission. Those promoted were those whose performance demonstrated they were capable of executing, orchestrating execution, and supporting execution at the next level. Under these conditions, the promotion system could be seen propelling the mission forward, with both the promotion system and operations communities moving in the same direction.

Now let’s imagine a second iteration. In this “Phase 2,” the operations community begins to lose focus, wandering directionally as it continues to progress in the general direction of mission accomplishment. In response to this errant weaving, the promotion system, which is much more plodding and deliberate than a fluid operation, does its best to stay in parallel but struggles … occasionally progressing in a direction divergent from that which it exists to support. It is at times out of step with operations or seeming to produce something that doesn’t support the organization.

In context, we can understand this phase as the period during which the Air Force vacillated between valuing operational mastery and heralding political deftness and correctness. Uncertain about whether it should produce operational leaders or politicians but woefully susceptible to political pressure and influence, the promotion system produced a growing number of the latter and a declining number of the former, leaving the organization with a human sorting problem. It didn’t have enough mission-focused operators to place in key leadership roles, having signaled its promotion system to produce more politicians to safeguard political approval.

As a result, the organization placed more and more politicians into operational leadership roles, where they diffused the focus of their teams from fighting and winning to whatever happened to be politically fashionable at any given moment.

Over time, this led to a redefinition of operations community and a wholesale change in what it sought from the promotion system supporting it. In “Phase 3” of organizational development, this shone through as the promotion system re-achieving parallel support of the redefined operations community by producing mainly politicians, with true operational leaders rising to high posts by exception rather than by rule.

This can be understood as the point at which the organizational pragmatists, who value self-success, prestige, and promotion above all else, took control of the promotion system. They manned it and molded it in their favored image. Rather than promotion being keyed to performance, it was keyed to administrative savvy, shows of commitment and loyalty, the possession of politically favored personal attributes, the ability to appear to be saying and doing everything perfectly (notwithstanding a bureaucratically invisible truth to the contrary), and most of all, sponsorship by cronies further up the chain of command.

This is not to say that the system doesn’t produce a number of fine operational leaders in this phase of its life cycle … but they are produced by happenstance rather than by purpose.

From this point, which describes the current state of affairs, one of two outcomes is possible. Hopefully, the custodians of the operations community – and by extension the Air Force mission – will capably analyze the situation and take appropriate action to re-focus themselves, thereby also signaling the promotion system to change direction as well. This would make the cycle virtuous, even if it spent too long working through its phases.

Alternatively, the politicians running both the promotion system and the operations community it supports will continue to devalue operational excellence in favor of political ability. This will eliminate many superb operators directly by rejecting them for future leadership roles, but it will eliminate countless more indirectly by dissuading them from career service long before they compete for leadership. By many accounts, this is already happening, and it creates a vicious cycle of declining operational capability incapable of correcting itself without external intervention.

If the Air Force corrects itself, we will look back in a few years and notice a cycle of organizational development. The promotion system will eventually return to valuing what it must value to capably support the organization.

Absent a correction, there will come a day when someone pushes the blue button labeled “airpower” and the machine will sputter and clank and fail to respond. A few puffs of smoke later, we’ll realize we’ve built the world’s most overpriced water fountain instead of a war machine.

But standing around it in a circle of trim waistlines, gleaming teeth, and sharply creased sleeves will be the most presentable and politically capable group of managers ever assembled under the blue banner. They’ll lose the war and fail in their duty to the nation, but look marvelous while doing so.

Few things drive an organization’s direction like its promotion system. Is the Air Force’s promotion system driving it in a virtuous or vicious direction?

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