Revisiting CMSAF Cody’s Direction to “Speak Up Before You Burn Out”

Photo: Samuel King / US Air Force.
Photo: Samuel King / US Air Force.

Chief Cody said back in February, referring to commanders and supervisors in the field, that:

“There’s no doubt that they should be paying attention to how hard their airmen are working and if what they are asking them to do reasonable and sustainable. If they’re not, we need to have a conversation with them, too.”

But here’s a question: what if the mandatory administrative workload foisted upon commanders and SNCOs by leaders at Cody’s level provides too little breathing room to strike the right balance? What if the demands of deployment and operational tempo — exacerbated by the “brilliant” Cody-Welsh-James plan of voluntarily conducting a five-year drawdown in one year — has left commanders unable to take care of people?

Cody also remarked:

“It can’t be: I go to work for 14 hours a day and I go home and pass out to get up to work for 14 hours a day tomorrow.”

Oh, but it can. And it is, for many, many airmen. This statement reveals that Cody has not been getting an accurate sense of what’s going on at street level. Some corners of the service are doing fine, but others have turned into salt mines.

The Chief also insisted that airmen suffering from burnout should raise the issue with the chain of command, persisting up the chain until they get relief. He wants them to believe that he and Welsh will give them the top cover they need to push back against an unreasonable work/life balance. “Both Gen. Welsh and I have said this over and over and over again: ‘Tell us what it is that you’re going to stop doing,” Cody said.

There are huge problems with this. First, it sets up an unhealthy tension between fielded commanders and senior bureaucrats. These two sets of people should be working together, with the former getting the necessary support and resources from the latter.

Second, it encourages airmen to do the heavy lifting of pushing back against the system to correct workload issues, which abdicates senior management’s core responsibility. Cody and his ilk exist and hold their positions solely for the purpose of making sure airmen are organized, resourced, and capable of doing their jobs. Telling those airmen to solve problems of resourcing and overwork through self-help is shirking in the extreme.

Finally, his prescription is fantastical. An airman going to the boss to say “gee, boss…we’re overworked, and here’s what we’re going to stop doing” is a recipe for getting tagged as a whiner, crushed, and separated in the next wave of the drawdown. Knowing this, airmen will never do it. If Chief Cody knows this, he knows he’s giving empty advice. If he doesn’t know it, he should.

Finally, the chief talked about the subject of commanders not giving airmen time for PT during duty hours:

“The direction of the Air force is they should be provided an opportunity to PT for 90 minutes, three times a week. So, ‘should,’ is not a suggestion. It means: Unless impossible, that should be taking place.”

In no part of the rational universe does “should” actually mean “will” or “shall” or “must.” Should means should. It is therefore a suggestion not a mandate. In a resource-deficient environment, commanders cannot usually afford to do optional things, even if they want to. So if Cody wants it to be mandatory, it needs to be made that way in Air Force Instructions.

Why revisit this episode? Because it shows why the Air Force chain of command is weakening and corroding. Senior management is blaming mid-level leaders rather than taking ownership of the problems identified in the field. For their part, airmen are unimpressed by this circular firing squad and are simply gutting it out as best they can.

Unfortunately for the nation’s defense, that’s not a recipe for greatness. It’s a recipe for mediocrity.

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