Taking Care of People: System First, Empowerment Second


Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody said recently in a speech at the Air Warfare Symposium that supervisors

“should be paying attention to how hard their airmen are working and if what they are asking them to do reasonable and sustainable.”

He wants airmen to speak up before they burn out, and expects supervisors hearing a message of burnout to do something to fix it.

Cody’s statement is something approximating a maxim of organizational management: empower supervisors to do the right things, and they will take care of people in the ways you expect. 

But there’s an important corollary: within a system that doesn’t recognize supervisory authority, verbal empowerment from any leader — even the very top leader — is meaningless.

In the days since Cody spoke, many airmen have chafed at some of his points — not because what he’s saying is wrong, but because aside from his words, nothing about the system currently instituted across the Air Force would predict the outcome he assumes should come about routinely.

In other words, airmen are left wondering how Cody cannot see the reality awaiting at the receiving end of his message: supervisors in today’s Air Force have no real power to do much of anything about the issues most important to their airmen.

If he doesn’t see this, is he out of touch? Airmen are wondering aloud about this question and struggling for a way to help Cody see the often uncompromising reality of life at street level. They know that unless Cody first fixes the system within which supervisors are operating, all the verbal empowerment in the world won’t make a difference.

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Fact is, supervisors have been telling the Air Force for a while that daily life is neither sustainable nor reasonable, and no one has been listening (or if they have, they haven’t been acknowledging the message).

In response to an article from Col. Don Grannan back in November, wave after wave of frustration washed over the Air Force conversation. Airmen expressed irritation with the basics of work-life balance, excessive “churn” in the workplace, too many unnecessary deployments, not enough manning, and too many evasive or nonsensical answers to their questions about the future.

The institutional response was underwhelming. Col. Grannan’s article didn’t launch a new conversation about leadership, and no senior leader directly addressed its content or the reaction to it. In fact, General Mark Welsh, the service’s Chief of Staff, recently hinted he’s tired of talking about concerns he considers peripheral to the mission and is looking to narrow the focus of his discussions with airmen.

But the systemic dysfunction airmen lamented in November hasn’t gone anywhere, even if Cody and Welsh don’t have it in their sight pictures.

The over-arching complaint on the minds of airmen at the moment is the same as it has been for several years: the rampant, unchecked popularity of top-down, un-resourced mandates that warp daily service life by pretending the service has unlimited people, and that those people have unlimited time and a superhuman ability to focus on myriad subjects while continuing to excel at the core airpower mission.

“More with less” was a fine and even light-hearted slogan in the 1990s, when the mission got busier as the force trimmed away a couple hundred thousand airmen who represented its “mission margin.” But in the last 15 years, that tired witticism has descended from slogan to joke to insult as the service has cut through its muscle and bone while continuing to do everything it did before and more – that is, except for capably support its own warfighters and their families.

At this point, “more with less” is considered hate speech by airmen. We know now, if ever we were dumb enough to have been fooled in the first place, that “more with less” is not real. When there are fewer resources, demands must be reduced. Otherwise, the difference between what is expected and what is possible within the resource model ends up getting accomplished outside of the resource model. 

Where, exactly? Easy. On the backs of airmen.

What the service doesn’t provide, airmen work their damndest to compensate for with extra mileage, frequent ingenuity, their own money, and, most often, their precious time. They work longer hours, they take shorter breaks, they take work home with them constantly, and they loosen their grip on key relationships in order to open up new stores of time with which to close the widening gap between what leaders demand and the resources provided.

This all happens within a cloak of craftily woven propaganda that persuades everyone involved of just how normal things are, how proud they should be to be a part of it all, and how much they owe to their country for allowing them the privilege.

Messaging openly celebrates the peripheral. It glamorizes the secondary. It lionizes the expert tackling of administrivia. Why? Because of the stark realization that this stuff has become part of the job for squadron-level airmen, and that keeping them motivated to do it all — plus their assigned jobs — is important to keeping the thorny truth of the matter safely obscured.

If Chief Cody doesn’t have a handle on the fact this is the governing dynamic, and that it’s been tightening into a death spiral across most of the service for the last several years, airmen have a right to be concerned about his perspective. They have a right to wonder whether he’ll fix any of the things ailing them in ways meaningful enough for them to feel the effects.

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It’s fine for supervisors to be aware of stressors on the force and it’s professionally imperative that they raise concerns. But commanders — specifically the generals with ample authority to change things at the system and structure level — need to act, ideally on the basis of advice from Chiefs who have established a mental bond with the reality of service for their troops.

This isn’t to imply Cody doesn’t care or that he’s corrupt in any way. Only that it’s fair to question whether his numerous visits around the force have availed him of the essential truths he needs in order to safeguard the interests of enlisted airmen. Cody’s been serving above wing level for nearly seven years, and much has changed in that time.

In his speech, Cody said something that has drawn a lot of fire offline. I’m going to do my best to channel some of that fire into a reaction that seeks to capture the prevailing wisdom among street-level airmen. 

The Chief 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.”

Well, it’s usually not. For most, it’s much worse than that.

It’s: work for 12-ish hours, tackle additional duties until and during dinner with a commute wedged in there somewhere, complete off-duty education or career development courses well into the evening, and wake up early to squeeze in PT before duty hours the next day.

During the lunch “break” of that 12-hour day (assuming the physical ability to do so), run around base frenetically trying to get things done to support professional, household, readiness-related, financial, medical, and administrative requirements. At every step, expect resistance and lack of support from base agencies, many of which are also under resource pressure and responding to it by taking downtime for their own needs, curtailing hours, and essentially dissolving their bonds with customers (to the extent that word is even used anymore).

Back in the duty section, contend with the burgeoning ballast of externally forced training requirements that have grown by an order of magnitude in the same time that manning has been sliced to the bone. Click through dozens of useless computer-based training courses so someone can say you were trained on something that was important to someone somewhere in the chain of command because someone else did something wrong. Sit through countless speeches about issues that don’t impact you or your teammates and crimes you’d never commit. Conduct incessant prep drills for visits by senior officials that will rob you of productive duty time without the benefit of any insight you didn’t already have or couldn’t glean from an email.

Somewhere in the middle of all that, focus on your job for the scant few moments someone isn’t obliging your attention elsewhere. Do it well, because excellence remains the expectation and imperfection is the first waypoint on the road to your professional demise.

When feeling especially frisky, raise issues to your supervisor or commander and listen intently as they tell you how much they understand and empathize, but how they lack the authority to do anything about your problems.

As a bonus, they might add how lucky you are to have a job. At the end of the reporting period, they’ll remind you of that good fortune by giving you the same performance report everyone else gets, that is unless you’ve shown yourself to be a fallible human. In that case, they’ll hand you a delay-fuzed pink slip.

Amid all this, contend with unceasing pressure to surrender the tattered, shredded remains of your schedule to efforts to help the less fortunate, or at least to create the appearance of doing so to keep your supervisors at bay. Be reminded of how much volunteering fits within the value system someone says you swore to uphold but that they don’t seem to understand, and get these reminders mainly from senior personnel who never lived your tempo, never experienced your version of the Air Force, and still managed to volunteer less and goof off more than you do as they sailed into their current roles. 

Oh yeah, and don’t get too comfortable, because the next 179-day or 365-day deployment notification (complete with the lack of a deployed job description and maybe even the absence of downrange relevance) is already winnowing its way through the bureaucratic wickets on its way to your inbox, where it’ll slide in right above your promotion notification and that other recent email reminding you that you need to take a few week’s worth of “staycations” over the (weekends of the) next few months or lose days of entitled leave you built up involuntarily by being denied leave in the name of deployments, exercises, and/or Tops in Blue performances over the years.

When you get back from deployment, someone will be waiting. Probably not at the airport, but in the auditorium. For wingman day. So you can brush up on how to keep yourself from having a postal meltdown by staying aware of your personal stress level. Because without this down day to talk about it, you’d never have had any clue — aside from the premature graying, deep-set eyeballs, pissed off family members, and chronic fatigue — that you were stressed out.

Never fear, though. Because when wingman day is over, you can retire to your dorm or privatized house, where you get all of the “benefits” of living on base — like withering community support, slowly exsanguinating commissary and exchange facilities, and more motherhood than you ever had as a child — to do whatever you’d like.

As long as it doesn’t involve alcohol. Or playing video games, which is bad for your resiliency level. Or expressing your opinions online. Or talking to Congress about the future of national defense. And as long as it involves volunteering, PT, or preferably both.

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There isn’t any doubt Chief Cody cares about airmen. He wouldn’t be in his job unless he did. But as it turns out, caring is a necessary but insufficient condition for effective leadership in the 2015 Air Force. Leaders have to dig, test, reflect, challenge, push, and understand. And once they understand, they’ve got to mount some inverted swords in the ground and show the willingness to fall on a few of them if that’s what it takes to safeguard airmen and keep them “upright and mission focused” to borrow from Gen. Wilbur Creech.

Otherwise, the path forward is a one-way road to failure with no turning. There are simply too many bureaucrats whacking ceaselessly at too many good idea piñatas for senior leaders to adopt every harebrained tasker and force it on airmen for the sake of political expediency, budgetary cooperation, or the personal comfort of official approval. People who do the mission will never be able to withstand bureaucracy on their own. This is why we have leaders — or at least it used to be.

The hard truth is that the kind of push-back suggested here is unlikely to spring forth from anything but an un-ignorable failure (see the ICBM community). But if leaders can be made to see the core problem clearly, they might yet refute this assumption. Chief Cody’s words give us a window into how the current crop may be misapprehending what they’re dealing with. He said, as reported by the Air Force Times, that he:

“does not feel the Air Force needs to have mandatory physical training because commands are already supposed to provide airmen with time enough to exercise three times a week. If airmen are not getting that much time to work out, they should talk to their chain of command.”

This isn’t how things work in any bureaucracy, much less one struggling against endemic resource shortfalls. In such an environment, only that which is required of organizations will get resources, and only then if it earns the right priority level.

Cody doesn’t see that with his own headquarters and other staffs constantly barraging fielded units with too much to get done, they can only set aside time for things that are mandated. By making PT, for example, optional, Cody and Welsh have set up a system where they know (or should reasonably predict) airmen will not get duty time to work out, and will therefore take it out of their own time.

This is how the stress locomotive gets started . . . by leaders laying down the tracks — perhaps unwittingly — and then pretending airmen or their supervisors can control the speed of the train. But they can’t. Only senior leaders can structure the tracks and govern the speed of the train, and only when they’ve done that effectively will it matter how much coal is shoveled by airmen or their supervisors.

Empowerment is a beautiful idea. But without the right system, it will remain strictly rhetorical. Airmen are hoping to see it made real. Let’s hope Chief Cody can help them, because they deserve to be cared for, and the future of national defense can bear nothing less.

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