"...do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..."

"For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism..."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Maxwell AFB, April 21, 2008

"You will need to challenge conventional wisdom and call things like you see them to subordinates and superiors alike."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, United States Air Force Academy, March 4, 2011

Monday, July 6, 2009

People, Mission, Entitlement, and Servant Leadership

I posted earlier this morning about the emphasis on "servant leadership" in my ACSC/DL "Practice of Command" course. In this same course we discussed the frequently debated concepts of "People and Mission" -- the concepts of taking care of service members and/or taking care of the unit’s mission. The discussion was more interesting than I thought it would be. It was also a bit more disturbing.

Typically the mission/people discussion is posed as a dichotomy of mission versus people and usually frames the concepts as opposed to each other. In an instance you can either take care of people or you can take care of the mission. What do you do? What matters more? Typical examples of taking care of people might include getting an airman home from a deployment to see sick family or the birth of a child or ensuring their spouse has no issues while the airman is deployed. Mission is typically described as the J-O-B of the unit and might entail flying, fixing, or providing other vital functions required to defend the nation. A commander who tells a deployed airman he cannot go back home to be with his wife during her surgery because the deployed unit can’t afford to lose the body, for example, might be considered an example of choosing mission over people.

A common slogan I've seen on various PowerPoint slides has been "Mission First, People Always." While I'm typically not a fan of such slogans I think this one does a pretty good job of prioritizing the two concepts. In my view the mission is always first. Period. The mission is always primary. People are needed to do the mission, however, so we must take care of people so that they can perform the mission now and in the future. As Dave Blair explains, if we treat them fairly and do right by their families we may later find quality recruits in their children (Blair, 2009, 9). People are resources to accomplish the missions, as are our aircraft. We don’t fix them and wash them for the sake of the aircraft but rather we do so for the mission. People probably won’t like the comparison of airman to aircraft or “people to things” but both are resources needed to accomplish a mission. I think we should do what we can for our people, within reason, as long as it doesn’t degrade the mission. We can’t lose sight of why we take care of people, however. We don’t do it because we are in the “taking care of people business.” We do it because we need our people to accomplish our very important mission. Mission is always first.

Some in the course thought my view was “despotic” or negative. Even the course instructor made it very clear he did not agree and said that I could not make an absolute statement like "mission is always first." While I didn't engage further with the instructor (he responded to my views with his own viewpoint but said he didn't want to continue the discussion) he apparently felt there were times when commanders should do things for people without it furthering the mission. I wonder if he thinks it is ever acceptable to do things for people while actually degrading the mission. Either way, this view is strange to me. Why would a commander think it was his or her duty to do something for people if it didn't benefit the mission? Perhaps the idea of servant leadership that was heavily emphasized in the course has something to do with this idea.

This raises more questions. Is it possible that culturally some have lost sight of the emphasis on mission? Perhaps Air Force senior leadership has been so far removed from real sustained combat operations that they have never acquired or have lost perspective on the essential purpose of the Air Force. Perhaps after decades of concentrating on promotions and career and budgets they have formulated other priorities and ideas of what makes a good officer or commander. Is it possible the management aspect of taking care of people has eclipsed the leadership duty of performing the mission?

I think this may partially be the case. One of my peers discussed his favorite commander as one who put people first. He then said he hoped to one day be a commander and that he would put people “right up there” with mission. Like the course instructor, he felt my view—that mission was always first—was too negative.

The belief that a military commander should provide services to people without those services enhancing the mission is, in my estimation, irrational. The purpose of the Air Force is to defend the nation. That is the mission. While it may be nice to do things for our people to make their lives better, if doing so doesn’t come with the expectation or hope of better accomplishing the mission then it is a waste of resources. Is it possible we have officers who have forgotten the very purpose of the Air Force? The question reminds me of some of the "Raptor" funds created by Enron. These funds were created and bankrolled by Enron. Enron paid the fund's employees and provided them with inside information so the fund could then take advantage of Enron in business contracts. One consultant accountant reviewing one such deal said “the idea made no business sense” and expressed “disbelief” that a company would do such a thing (Eichenwald, 2005, 5294). The deal went through, as did several others like it, eventually bringing Enron to its knees. It appears sometimes organizations can forget their most basic purposes and can act irrationally (Eichenwald, 2005, 8272). When I hear officers pine over the Air Force's own "Raptor" (pardon the pun) and concentrate on a hypothetical future conventional war at the expense of the reality of warfare in the present, I find myself wondering how much we may have lost our focus. The vision of our CSAF reassures me, however, and I think he's leading the Air Force to a renewed focus on the defense of the nation.

Another question I have relates to the idea of “taking care of people.” Is the emphasis on taking care of people creating or reinforcing an entitlement generation? When people and mission are discussed as separate issues and taking care of people is viewed as an enterprise unrelated to the mission, I think we may begin to create airmen and families who feel entitled to something beyond a safe working environment, good faith, and a paycheck. Shouldn’t we expect our airmen to act responsibly and use their paychecks to take care of themselves and their families? If the military has a duty to take care of personnel beyond the basics and a paycheck then where is the line drawn? Should commanders ensure spouses have babysitters when their sponsors are deployed? Should they ensure spouses have lawn care? Where is the line?

It seems to me that like Enron there may be short-term advantages to acting outside the pure interest of the organization with long-term ramifications. While the funds described above gave short-term advantages by allowing Enron to hide debt, it came with a long-term price that proved fatal to the company. For a commander, the short-term gain of popularity or compliance that comes with “taking care of people” beyond mission necessity may possibly come with a long-term price of a dependent group of airmen who are irresponsible with finances and their private family affairs. If we don’t specify exactly what we mean by taking care of people we may find people have their own expectations to the detriment of the mission.

Works Cited:

Blair, Dave “Dodging Gaugemela: Three Ways In Which We Are Inviting Catastrophe and How to Stop Doing So”, 2009.

Eichenwald, Kurt “Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story” Broadway Books, New York, 2005.

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