The Say-Do Gap

Welsh All Call

Air Force Chief of Staff (CSAF) Gen. Mark Welsh visited Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico just before the holiday break. Like virtually all CSAF base visits, this one included an all-call, with hundreds of airmen gathered in a hangar to absorb wisdom and information from the service’s highest ranking officer.

CSAF does these visits frequently, and publicists generally always churn out a quick propaganda sheet or two capturing the highlights — or at least those deemed fit for public consumption. Accordingly, we’ve seen enough from past visits to discern certain patterns in the wisdom and information shared by the big boss.

In the Air Force’s video excerpt of Welsh’s stump speech, which you can view here, three recurring themes are employed. They’re worthy of some elaboration.

Theme #1: Common Sense.

Gen. Welsh says:

“I believe common sense has to be the first standard we apply as we face the future. It has to be. So if you’re doing something in your unit that doesn’t make sense even though it aligns with policy, direction, or even the law … let’s get it highlighted and change policy, direction, or the law.”

This sounds great. Airmen hear this and are instantly inspired, feeling that the guy running the circus gets it. 

And then, they actually try what he suggests, and they get crushed by the bureaucracy. Their suggestions get discarded and they are hammered back into conformity, sometimes adorned with a mark of disapproval for being misguided enough to actually believe and act upon CSAF’s words. 

In today’s Air Force, even wing commanders lack the authority to employ common sense, because far too much direction and policy are exerted upon daily life and commanders in the field have far too little interpretive latitude to decide how to comply with it all. With too much authority concentrated at the top of the scale, it’s simply not possible to give life to Welsh’s “common sense” marching order. It’s the primary reason talented SNCOs and field grade officers are bailing out rather than continue their careers.

If the boss really wanted this to be possible, he’d take some steps to shift the locus of authority to the field, and he’d tell his staffs to not only stop making new policy, but scour their own portfolios for non-value-added red tape and actively eliminate it. Because he hasn’t done this, the incentives for staffs to create make-work continue to outweigh the incentives associated with making life easier for the rank and file.

Theme #2: Fixing the Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) Community.

“Look, the RPA community has been abused for about 8 years now. For sensors, for pilots, for maintainers … everybody. We’ve got to get the training pipelines right. If we don’t get past training fewer people than we lose each year, I mean, the math just doesn’t work well.”

Again, this sounds great. It’s a textbook “feel your pain” reassurance, implying that Welsh understands the problem and is working to fix it.

But his actions and policies tell a different tale. It was eight months ago that CSAF visited Creech Air Force Base and warned RPA airmen who pleaded with him about sustainability that no help was on the way. In the time since, the problem has worsened continually. The service slashed 19,000 airmen from its roster last year despite having the legal latitude to spread out those cuts over a five-year period. Among those released early or jettisoned were hundreds of pilots and maintainers who could have been re-routed to the RPA community to ease the pressure.

In other words, Welsh owns some of the abuse he’s talking about. He is responsible for the policy failures leading to that abuse. He is responsible for the absence of an overall personnel strategy for the Air Force, and without such a strategy, problems such as those in the RPA community are totally foreseeable. Acknowledging there is a problem seems nice, but it’s also a crafty way of eliding his own agency in the creation and deepening of that problem. 

Congress has noticed this particular rift between rhetoric and reality. In the defense authorization bill headed for presidential signature, lawmakers included a provision demanding that the Air Force report back within 60 days about how it’s going to assess and remedy its RPA maladies. The provision is quite detailed, and can be taken as an embarrassing example of Congress stepping into a leadership void and telling the Air Force how to perform its most basic functions. While CSAF is at the problem acknowledgement phase, legislators are seemingly at the losing confidence phase.

Theme #3: Love.

Referring to a denizen near the front of the Holloman audience, a gentleman apparently named “Melvin,” Welsh said:

“I’ll go back to my buddy, Melvin, here. Melvin and I have known each other about an hour now, but I can tell you — I’d die for you, Melvin. I wouldn’t think twice about it. And, I am just naïve enough to think that when it mattered you’d do the same for me.”

Welsh uses this line at every all call.

Backed by actions, these words would exemplify what makes military service distinctive. Backed by policies vindicating the trust airmen place in one another, these words would capture the best traditions of leadership. 

But without supporting decisions, policies, and actions … these words are hollow, and actually injure the trust bond between airmen and CSAF. For three years, Welsh has been telling airmen how much he loves them. For three years, the service has been in a downward spiral made worse by a toxic blend of official action and inaction. 

It was in response to one of Welsh’s prior loving assurances that I wrote the following, which seems appropriate again here:

“Applying a gloss of camaraderie to official rhetoric in order to hoodwink a trusting audience desperate for something and someone in which to believe isn’t love at all. It’s just retail politics. It’s also increasingly obvious.”

Words are nice, but genuine love is expressed through actions … like asking for suggestions and ideas, and implementing them; like listening more and talking less; like keeping promises, and having the courage to make them in the first place; like apologizing when you get something wrong; like ensuring fair treatment for everyone on the team, even if it means losing face or disciplining a crony.

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Generals have a tough task. They stand on the bridge between politics and operations. They’re engaged a constant balancing act as they work to advance a tough mission under changing circumstances without enough resources, all while doing their best to take care of people … while at the same time reinforcing institutional interests and preserving future prerogatives. It’s not easy, and Gen. Welsh should be commended for attempting to pull it off while maintaining, at least in form, the presence and perspective of a leader.

But to do anything, a leader needs credibility. The fastest way to lose it is to cultivate a gap between words and actions. 

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