Off-Target: Air Force’s Command Cookbook a Recipe for Mediocrity

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“Effectively leading people is the art of command.”  This sentence, one of the few substantively or stylistically redeemable turns of phrase in the Air Force’s recently released Air Force Instruction 1-2: Commander’s Responsibilities, carries the weight of several rich ironies.

First, in a publication claiming command as its subject, the mention of leading people is not raised until this sentence appears, more than a third of the way through the instruction.  Second, this sentence deems leadership an “art” while the publication within which it appears envisions leadership as a matter of management science, achievable by following a straightforward cookbook.  But most of all, this sentence stands at stark odds with its subject in the most important of ways.  Leadership is about knowing people . . . remaining in touch with their lives, aspirations, and mentalities, and adapting style to situation to extract the highest level of performance from them.  In publishing this instruction, the Air Force has shown itself wildly out of touch with its own people. 

0-1-crayolasThis is merely the latest in a long series of ham-fisted attempts to heal the service’s ailing culture by writing things down.  Just a couple years ago, the service published AFI 1-1: Air Force Standards, a 34-page “compendium of the obvious” greeted in Air Force squadrons with a collective eye roll.   At that time, the chief complaint from airmen was that their own service must have considered them far less intelligent and capable than they actually were to think they needed such an infantile reminder of their most basic responsibilities.  Many pointed to the Airman’s Creed, a blunt device foisted upon the service at the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom as a means of re-kindling martial tradition but widely panned as a hokey misapprehension by senior leaders, as the beginning of a torturous trend of addressing anecdotally observed concerns with “reminders.”  The problem, airmen contend, is that these perfunctory instruments alienate those who don’t need to be reminded and fail to influence those who do, meaning they accomplish nothing other than making senior leaders feel better about having “done something” to address issues that may or may not have needed their attention in the first place.

Cue AFI 1-2.  Apparently as a response to perceptions of ineffectual leadership and misconduct by a few outliers, Chief of Staff (CSAF) General Mark Welsh has sponsored a document that seems certain to frustrate the vast majority of his commanders. Not because they’ll have to comply with it, but because they’d have to be inept to need reminding of the concepts it outlines.

To the extent AFI 1-2 does offer anything new, the novelty is matched by misguidedness.  At a moment when all agree the demands of national defense are becoming more dynamic and uncertain, raising the premium placed on commander judgment, the service is moving in the opposite direction. By publishing a document that essentially tells commanders exactly how to do their jobs (or at least how they’ll be evaluated), the Air Force has left them scant latitude to adapt in the fluid circumstances likely to characterize future conflicts.  The emphasis of 1-2 is conduct and compliance rather than the judgment and ingenuity core to leading people in the 21st century.  Instead of innovating, commanders in the construct created by this publication will be busy proving to their own bosses that they’re baking the cake as instructed.

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Based on the feedback shared with me in the few days since AFI 1-2 was promulgated – feedback which will remain anonymous for obvious reasons – reception to this latest rulebook will be somewhere between grudging and seething.  Of course, since it came from the CSAF, it’ll be jammed down the throats of commanders at all levels as though etched on stone tablets and representative of absolute truth.  It seems fair, given the dissonance likely to be introduced by AFI 1-2, to provide a few critical observations.

It’s Insulting.  Commanders reading AFI 1-2 will likely wonder why the USAF thought they needed to be reminded of the bare minima for mediocre command.  The Air Force is seldom more selective than in choosing commanders, and should be confident enough in them and in its own development processes to see an instruction like this as superfluous.  If the service has qualms about the quality of its commanders, it should relieve those not measuring up and change its processes to ensure it develops and selects better ones in the future. For the vast majority at squadron level who are amazing, dynamic, and capable leaders, this document will be taken as a professional slight.

For a while now, General Welsh has been reportedly reminding his wing commanders of their duty to lead in tough times, an exhortation which has alienated many, triggering a quiet reflection along the lines of “what the hell do you think I’ve been trying to do?  And oh by the way, how about more resources and fewer demands.”  Many commanders at wing level and below believe the sickness currently gripping the service is a function of staffs dumping work on operational wings, constantly creating administrative task saturation without providing the time or resources to contend with it. This pulls commanders away from focusing on people and mission, allowing problems to sprout and grow in their blind spots. Having witnessed this first-hand as a squadron and deputy group commander, I can relate with those who find it somewhere between out-of-touch and disingenuous to pretend the problem of burden shifting by generals and their staffs can be solved by reminding commanders to do their jobs.

Channeling currently-sitting commanders: if CSAF wants to improve the efficacy of his commander cadre, he’s going to have to dig in and address things meaningfully by providing more resources and manpower along with fewer rules and requirements.  Welsh acted on that very intuition in 2012 when he ordered the restoration of Commander’s Support Staffs, but implementation hasn’t materialized for most, and needs headquarters follow-through.  Welsh has also reportedly told his commanders in the field to hold the Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC) to account for horrid communication, but the ability of commanders to get meaningful results is limited, and will remain that way until Welsh himself is seen correcting APFC’s sight picture.

Of course, if the service continues its cultural spiral, high performers will continue to bail out before reaching senior command billets, which could move more problems beyond the reach of Welsh, even if he adopts approaches superior to that envisioned by AFI 1-2.  This document is likely to insult commanders at multiple levels, tightening the descending spiral rather than breaking the spin that started it.

It’s Incomplete.  Assuming for a moment that commanders see past their misgivings and dutifully purse the edicts of AFI 1-2, it suffers from a few critical omissions that could make compliance impossible.  First, each of the responsibilities enumerated assumes resources with which to accomplish them – resources that in some cases don’t exist. For example, 1-2 admirably recognizes the importance of giving subordinates back their time and charges commanders with doing so.  But it doesn’t relieve commanders or their people of the onerous requirements foisted upon them over the last several years by dozens of functional communities incessantly competing for the calendar white space of airmen.

yokotaJust recently, airmen at Yokota Air Base were stopped at the front gate on the way back to their quarters after a night of celebration and camaraderie downtown.  The ensuing 100% drug sweep consumed approximately 45 man-days of time – all of it lifted right out of the calendars of airmen.  Undoubtedly, Yokota’s Wing Commander felt the sweep was necessary, and was probably convinced to undertake it by a functional area bureaucrat pointing to a requirement that it be conducted much the way it was.  For years, squadron commanders at Joint Base Charleston have complained of an administrative levy placed on them by the base security manager, who insists that commanders provide personal explanations in memorandum format any time one of their people makes a minor documentation error in checking out or turning in classified material.  It’s not uncommon for a dozen such memos to be generated by a single squadron in a week’s time – all based on one GS employee’s interpretation of a functional regulation that happens to touch squadron business.

These are minor examples of a macro phenomenon.  Commanders are routinely challenged by Functional Area Managers on headquarters staffs on everything from internal documentation practices to assignment decisions to how people are utilized in carrying out the squadron mission.  AFI 1-2 doesn’t discuss this problem, but assumes it doesn’t exist.  This is one of the many flawed assumptions upon which the document rests, and invalid assumptions risk invalidating the entire document.  I expect operational commanders will be particularly incensed that this instruction reminds them of their responsibility to train their people . . . something they’d love to do if only they could get mission relief and sufficient resources.  Many see their units slipping toward mediocrity and sound off about it regularly, only to be treated with empty reminders of the duty they’re desperately trying to fulfill.

A related but more fundamental omission is what might be called an “integration clause.”  In the law, a contract contains such a clause to represent to the parties involved that only what is written is applicable to the agreement, and no outside requirements can create additional obligations.  AFI 1-2 is not an integrated agreement, which means it’s not really a contract between the Air Force and commanders so much as collection of obligations that are not (nearly) all-inclusive.  It expresses what is necessary for commanders to succeed, but not what is sufficient. Leading people successfully can’t be achieved simply by following 1-2.  Commanders are responsible for thousands more pages of guidance, from the functional documents mentioned above to baseline human resource, fitness, and uniform policies written into other instructions.

Other regulations charge commanders with doing all sorts of non-negotiable things, creating all sorts of binding obligations.  Similarly, other documents give staffs, support agencies, and contractors authority over commanders and their people, creating more compliance requirements for commanders to meet.  When you add it all up, the reality is that a commander is always failing to comply with some amount of written guidance, and must decide where and how to contain necessary non-compliance in order to preserve the mission, not to mention hold on to his or her leadership role.

It’s Unrealistic.  AFI 1-2 charges commanders with safeguarding the morale of those they’re charged to lead.  Again, this is a basic point that shouldn’t need to be expressed in newly published instruction, and to the extent it does, this invites larger questions.  The problem with making it so explicit is that doing so demonstrates a widening of the already huge gap between the realities of life at wing level and the situational awareness of senior leaders.

RANDOLPHCommanders in today’s Air Force don’t have the ability to truly manage morale because they don’t get to make the big decisions.  While commanders have some influence over assignment nominations, their choices are tightly bounded. Final assignment dispositions are made by AFPC and airmen are informed by email.  Commanders aren’t even usually copied, and find out about assignments when they get back-briefed by recipients. (Remember, there’s no Commander’s Support Staff to track these things and keep a commander informed). 365-day deployments are handled purely by AFPC with no commander input and direct notification to selectees.  This is a grossly misguided process given the potential of a remote tour notification to overwhelm the coping ability of airmen already in troubled circumstances, but it’s the way the system works. Commanders are also cut out of the promotion and school selection loops – either because AFPC publishes results directly to a website, or because the chain of command simply informs everyone by email.  The ongoing drawdown provides a fresh example of the reduced role of the commander; airmen non-recommended for separation or retirement by the commanders were nonetheless approved, and vice versa.

The loss of these key “touch points” leaves commanders without access to some of the most meaningful and memorable moments in the lives of their airmen, removing critical morale-shaping opportunities.   When a commander can’t impact the things that are most important to airmen and their families, they become seen as little more than policy re-transmitters who occasionally dole out discipline.  This perceptual effect further undermines authority and effectiveness. Today’s generals came of age in a different paradigm where commander authority was more expansive. This instruction reflects a lack of understanding of how contextual differences make command different, and in many ways more difficult, in today’s Air Force.

It Portrays Institutional Insecurity. The message sent by making “Commander Conduct” the first substantive subject discussed, even before mission execution, is that the service doesn’t trust its commanders to behave themselves.  In making commander conduct a question by answering it, the Air Force gives unwarranted weight and prominence to something it should take for granted. That weight and prominence send an unmistakable message likely to corrode trust bonds within the chain of command.  Commander conduct should never occupy a scintilla of active thought. It should be trusted totally and implicitly unless reason exists to suggest otherwise.

The same is true when it comes to airmen. It’s never been necessary to remind leaders (good ones, anyway) that they have a duty to provide for the well being of subordinates. Until now.  AFI 1-2 doesn’t merely tell commanders to take care of people, but tells them how, making it an affirmative duty for commanders to know the personal lives of their people. By prodding commanders to avail themselves of the details of the private lives of their airmen, the service sends a message that it thinks airmen need tighter overwatch, more surveillance, and more control.

Good commanders know their people.  They can sense – either directly or through strong, well-built communication and front-line supervision – when someone on the team might be struggling.  They open the door and make help available.  Going beyond that into positive surveillance is ill advised for a host of reasons, not least of which is that high-functioning people need their own private interests, and being forced to share them with commanders will hurt morale rather than enhancing it.  But in any case, to the extent more motherhood might be advisable in some situations, the direction needn’t come from Air Force headquarters.  This will lead to inappropriate micromanagement and flawed incentives, with commanders evaluated according to how well they know what their airmen are doing during their off-duty time.

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One gets the sense that the Air Force doesn’t understand its own notions of leadership and command very well, and is compensating for a lack of problem comprehension by grappling for the stability and predictability of a sturdy rule structure. This is a bad fit for the subject of command, which is rooted in judgment and dynamic adaptation rather than the rote management of processes or commodities. AFI 1-2 doesn’t feel like it was influenced by experts, or directly authored by one of the many leaders who’ve taken airmen into combat over the last decade.  It feels instead like a document starving for valid perspective, perhaps crafted in isolation by generals or colonels drinking old wine out of new bottles.  It certainly doesn’t seem to represent the intent of the current Chief of Staff, instead reading like something written by Chiefs who are on the staff.

The Air Force has been disintegrating its own supervisory system for a while now, over the objections of commanders.  Support has been removed from units, workload has been increased, assignment bills have become unsustainable, training resources have been reduced, and both officers and NCOs have been promoted earlier and with less experience. Over time, this confluence of forces has led to some noticeable effects.  The service now responds to those effects by wrongly concluding commanders are the problem.  They’re not.  Regulations like this one won’t help.  If anything, AFI 1-2 will drive a few more officers with the requisite leadership skills off the command path and into civilian life.  The commanders I’ve spoken with are irate that while they’re screaming for mission relief, fixes to manning, and a functioning human resource system, the staff has been busy developing and publishing this instruction.  This isn’t the kind of “help” they’ve been hoping for.

I never like to critique without a recommendation, so here it is: rescind this instruction. Instead, conduct an internal conversation about the principles of command and leadership.  Reverse the errors that degraded the chain of command, and trust the leaders you’ve selected to do the job you hired them to do.   Affirm your confidence in them, grant them authority over support agencies and the power to resist staff mandates. With these actions, you’ll do more to improve the practice of command than a thousand checklists.

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