A couple of weeks ago, I shared a MSgt’s unfiltered take on the nature and trajectory of SNCO leadership in today’s Air Force. It was instantly and explosively popular. Like a piece penned by a Colonel a few months before, it tapped into emotion simmering beneath the surface of current Air Force life, triggering an eruption of responses and thousands of valuable discussions.
Why did this particular slice of sensibility hit home so decisively? I think there are two reasons.
First, the author spends some time on a subject that is bothering a lot of people these days: how to raise a fighting force — not a collection of stripe-wearing bureaucrats, but a combat team — within a paradigm that treats honest mistakes as unforgivable crimes and trashes futures on the basis of minor, one-time errors.
On some level, everyone knows this is wrong — even the senior officials who continue to champion such a culture. Deep down, in places they don’t talk about at Tops in Blue performances, they know they’ve made mistakes themselves. They know they wouldn’t be perched atop the organization without the benefit of learning from those mistakes. And most damningly, they know that in the Air Force they’re running, those same mistakes would not be survivable.
This series of contemplations should be producing a response in form of messaging from the top and perhaps even policy change. There’s no reason a dated PT failure or administrative counseling given years in the past should be used to deny a decoration or degrade a stratification. Instead, airmen are getting nothing but more apathy and apparent helplessness from senior officials. Even with the mountain of evidence showing that the nuclear ICBM scandals of the past few years are inexorably interwoven with a culture of perfection, not much is being done to unravel it across the force.
One of the reasons I left the Air Force myself was realizing that even as a commander, I couldn’t do anything to overcome an entrenched “zero defect” culture. In several cases involving enlisted members and officers alike, I lost battles against the bureaucracy and failed to persuade its agents that not all mistakes were built alike and that crimes and non-crimes should be treated differently in terms of career viability. Here’s an excerpt from an email I sent to a mentor explaining my decision to retire:
It’s not in my belief system to condemn members of our family or team based on single mistakes. In today’s Air Force, mistakes are taken more seriously and documented more carefully. Transgressions formerly considered cautionary but normal by-products of building a warrior ethos into a spirited group of young Americans embracing adulthood for the first time are now looked upon as criminal actions. A minor scuffle at the end of a night at the club. A shouting match between a stressed out husband and wife. A couple of inadvertent bounced checks. A speeding ticket.
The structure of our system virtually guarantees that these minor incidents will now be documented. The system encourages commanders to document all mistakes into official records, and in our system that is likely to mean the end of a career.
This is morally wrong. These men and women are on our team. We made a commitment to take care of them. Sometimes that means disciplining them, but that discipline should not mean a career death sentence. It’s also morally wrong in what it robs from our future. We can’t be excellent in the future if we’re led by those who survived in their careers by being mistake free; by never taking chances, exploring limits, or risking career jeopardy by following their emotions, appetites, or impulses just a little too far and having to learn from it.
This construct is also morally wrong in its hypocrisy. We were not held to this standard as younger Airmen, and few of us would be here to lead in the current Air Force had we been asked to lead mistake free careers. I have a captain in my squadron who shows obvious potential to lead at higher levels. He was #2/45 among all CGOs in his deployed MC-12 squadron and was credited with putting steel on terrorist foreheads and saving American lives. He’ll be a terminal captain because he threw a couple of beer bottles off a balcony a couple years ago.
We’ve forgotten the difference between mistakes and crimes. We’re now treating both the same and we’re not rehabilitating our Airmen….we’re just waiting for the next board process to push them out. Not only does this encourage inhuman, mistake-allergic behavior in our young people, it encourages commanders to violate the principles of consistency and fairness to preserve the careers of high performers by looking the other way. With enough examples of inequity, discipline will break down.
I believe the second reason the epic rant resonated had to do with its vivid rendition of squadron life in today’s force, and how the structure of squadron life is warping what is considered “excellent performance” by an NCO.
A few years ago, a gang of geniuses at the Air Staff (including a noted ringleader who put himself back in the Air Force discussion recently but was not well received) got together and decided to take the unprecedented step of trading manpower for modernization funds. There was little discussion on the matter and dissent was not meaningfully permitted. To make matters worse, these myopic managers cut manpower not from staffs, but from squadrons. The effects of this gaffe (and many others exacerbating it) are core to the mutilation of squadron life today. No one can focus because everyone is task saturated, focusing too often on non-mission things.
This condition might be reversible if today’s senior leadership were to confront and deal with it. But they remain apparently out of touch with the problem. Look no further than remarks from CMSAF Cody, who said earlier this year — in encouraging airmen to speak up before they burn out:
“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.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
When these current realities give way to a healthy institutional climate where NCOs can once again lead effectively at squadron level and commanders can once again build spirited fighting teams that are not comprised of perversely risk-averse airmen, the Air Force will once again ascend. Until then, lamentations of a service culture manifestly unhinged and permitted to worsen by aloof leaders will continue to resonate.