"...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

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Reflection, Perception, and Owning Failure

The recent DoD/IG report on the Thunderbirds video scandal, and specifically General Moseley’s part in it, makes me think of the importance of followership and a recent reading assignment in the ACSC/DL “Practice of Command” course I recently completed.

In that course we were required to read "Sharing Success – Owning Failure: Preparing to Command in the Twenty-First Century Air Force" by Major General (select) Dave Goldfein (F-16 pilot). He was a Colonel when he wrote the paper.

Then-Col Dave Goldfein stated in his article, written for the consumption of brand new squadron commanders, the following:

"Many of the stories I included in this paper involve situations in which the individual failed. Why? Because it is from studying our failures that we learn, grow, and improve as officers and leaders (Goldfein, 2001, 53)."

"Owning failure…and then sharing the story of that failure in a published paper takes courage and a commitment to helping you succeed (Goldfein, 2001, 61)."

He also quotes an example of senior leader expectations for a new commander, "From relationships to money matters, you need to be squeaky clean. As a commander, you will sit in judgment of others, and you cannot afford to surrender the moral high ground-ever! You are expected to be above reproach (Goldfein, 2001, 111)."

Then-Col Dave Goldfein also quotes Adm Stockdale, "A leader must be able to look a man in the eye when he fires him and weep for him at the same time (Goldfein, 2001, 524)."

In a couple places then-Col Dave Goldfein referred to his older brother, retired Major General Steve Goldfein (F-15C pilot) as an example of leadership to be emulated. Gen Steve Goldfein was also a Colonel at the time the article was written.

Years later his brother Major General Steve Goldfein was found by the DoD/IG (read the report here) to have acted unethically. The DoD IG found his brother Maj General Steve Goldfein guilty of exerting serious undue influence to steer a $50 million dollar Thunderbirds video creation contract to his boss's friend (a retired four star general) despite the company "barely existing" and having bid more than twice the lowest bid (Washington Post). He was administratively punished by the Secretary of the Air Force according to this AF News article.

The author of the article on “owning failure” again put pen to paper and wrote to the Air Force Times defending his brother despite the IG conclusion and the punishment. Then Brigadier General Dave Goldfein defended his brother as a model of integrity and honesty who was blameless and undeserving of the administrative punishment he got for the "Thundervision" scandal.

The situation resulted in commentary on what punishment was fitting for a flag officer who was found guilty of unethical and/or illegal behavior. One blogger discusses a double standard and specifically how an enlisted man got much worse punishment for a much lesser offense. The recent IG report rehashing this same scandal and charging General Moseley with unethical and illegal action may resurrect this same discussion.

Regardless of what actually happened there are a couple of points I find to be true. First, Maj General (select) Dave Goldfein was correct when he wrote that we need to own up to our failures and that publishing such failures does take courage. We have to honestly discuss our shortcomings if we are to improve and such analysis is not the mark of disloyalty. Our Secretary of Defense has challenged us to critically analyze our service culture and to change what needs changed while keeping the valuable parts of our culture intact. The General's words on owning failure are a good part of our culture and we need to expand upon them and solidify such reflection.

Second, it’s important for followers to ensure they communicate and act properly. Major General (retired) Steve Goldfein discussed the problem with subordinate perception in his investigation testimony. He told a story about how he might be looking at a wall of the Pentagon and the next day there would be a crew performing maintenance on the wall assuming he found something wrong with the wall which must be fixed. I believe he used that analogy to argue that sometimes subordinates go out of their way to read a high ranking officer’s mind and some might unwittingly break rules trying to accomplish these imagined desires. I think Maj Gen (retired) Steve Goldfein brings up a good point that emphasizes the need for followers to properly communicate and act even when faced with intimidating high-ranking officers.

It seems to me we need to remember an old fashioned American trait that may be slipping by the wayside. Men are men. They are not gods because they have stars or influence or know people or have money. We shouldn’t lose our minds in their presence to the point where we are too timid to ensure we have received correctly any message they intended to communicate. We’ve probably all seen the stock footage moment in movies where somebody meets a movie star and they’re too tongue tied to make good on their one brief chance to talk to the person they put on a pedestal. We can’t allow that kind of thing to become a wall between our superiors and us. And even when we know what the message is intended to be, that does not relieve us of the moral duty to say no when that is the appropriate response. We need to raise a courageous corps of officers who are not shackled by warped mutations of “loyalty” resulting in them thinking vice is a virtue. I think both Major General brothers have something to teach us about the importance of good followership and critical reflection.

Works Cited:

Goldfein, Col David L., Sharing Success – Owning Failure: Preparing to Command in the Twenty-First Century Air Force, Kindle Edition (2001)

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