"...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

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Stupid and the Industrious

"I divide officers into four classes -- the clever, the lazy, the stupid and the industrious. Each officer possesses at least two of these qualities. Those who are clever and industrious are fitted for the high staff appointments. Use can be made of those who are stupid and lazy. The man who is clever and lazy is fit for the very highest commands. He has the temperament and the requisite nerves to deal with all situations. But whoever is stupid and industrious must be removed immediately."

The quote above is attributed to a German General who apparently gave an order for any stupid/industrious officers to be removed once so identified. His classification system is presented in Benton's Air Force Officer Guide. The Guide quotes the officer on the stupid and industrious:
Great damage may result from their actions. Attacking the ill-advised with zeal and energy, they may induce a disaster. They are the most dangerous. They must be eliminated!
I have had similar thoughts as I watched officers labor for promotion in one non-combatant command. They put in long hours, prioritize their job over time spent with the family, come in on the weekends, and rarely produce anything useful for the Air Force. Time is spent crafting perceptions, wording reports to support whatever position the boss wants to be reflected, and many hours are spent combing through administrative minutia that has lost all real connection with the actual mission it purports to improve. If the mission was making a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, there would be rules made requiring only certain types of watches to be worn while making said sandwiches, and reports and spreadsheets to track timepiece compliance. Pet projects would shape and craft how many people wore watches, what kind, the accuracy in relation to the official time zone (which would change weekly) and lost in the process would be making a PB&J. But the industrious would sacrifice themselves and their family life to track Swatches versus G-shocks in the hope of pleasing the boss and getting promoted. Nobody would dare suggest time was being wasted because watch wearing doesn't have squat to do with the task at hand.

There is nothing wrong with hard work and long hours of course. There is a problem with change for the sake of change, self-licking ice cream cone processes removed from actual mission benefit, and busy work that keeps officers from spending time on actual mission enhancement. Unfortunately there are plenty who are stupid in that they prioritize tasks devoid of mission impact, or with negative impact, yet who are industrious because they spend long hours on such useless endeavors. They take pride in their contributions and long hours at work. Look what I have sacrificed for my country, they opine. The substance isn't important, just the hard work they exhibit.

I remember a commander and I having a discussion over officership and more broadly what makes a good American. Suffice it so say we disagreed on the requirements. He wasn't pleased with my diagnosis of his viewpoint and at the end of the conversation, as I was leaving, revisited the topic. My previous comment on his thinking being un-American had clearly bothered him. He told me as I was leaving, "I work hard. That's what makes me a good American." I left without mentioning that North Koreans, Chinese, and Russians also work hard but they are hardly good Americans.

Being industrious is not an excuse for failing to think. Failing to think makes one stupid and, as the German tells us, the industrious stupid are a grave threat to a military organization.


  1. The industrious stupid are a grave threat to everyone, especially in an authoritarian culture, be it government, military service, or corporation. In the military, the stupid get men killed, i.e. Custer. In the government or corporate sector, money, people, and resources are wasted or looted. On the other hand, in the government and corporate worlds, the moral and competent can be sacked when the agency or company is being looted by control fraud, while the industrious stupid survive and thrive. The German officer did not take fraud into account. Obviously, there were higher moral standards back then.

  2. The commander I discussed above is the worst I have ever known. He is now back at USAFA no doubt dulling the sword some more.

  3. I stumbled upon this post while reading another forum. I have taken the liberty of showing your fine words to people who work for me in hopes that they will recognize the behavior (both up and down the ranks)and work within the rules to nip such behavior in the bud and attempt to trim it from those who are "over grown" into the culture. Bravo, Sir, from an old school SNCO. .

  4. Samuel Huntington writes of the tension between the types of officers useful in peacetime --- predictable, procedure oriented, good at building and running military organizations (think finance officers) --- and those most useful in wartime --- creative and unpredictable to the enemy but still reliable to us. In peacetime deep creative thinking often takes a long time to show its value. Early on it may appear to be something that subtracts value, particularly if it "gums up the works" of business as currently conducted. It's critical to convince the peacetime officers to retain and reward the wartime officers. This gets harder as peace gets longer because the wartime officers age out and are replaced by the peacetime officers. Then war comes and brings the Clausewitzian nemesis of chance. The only remedy is to protect and encourage officers who keep stepping outside the box in pursuit of their military professionalism. General George Marshall is reputed to have kept a list of officers such as this and used it when finding Commanders when he was Chief of Staff in World War II. When General Matthew Ridgeway retired after his tour as Army Chief of Staff he was asked to name his greatest accomplishment. His response was "I protected the Mavericks." The rest of us would do well to follow suit.

  5. Thank you Peter. I enjoyed reading that.

  6. Lucabrasi, I don't know how I missed your comment. I hope you have had great success leading your people.