"...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, October 29, 2011

True Transformation Needed to Avoid a Big Blue Enron

I recently read an outstanding article by Gregory D. Foster, "True Transformation: America's Military is Overdue for a Dramatic Overhaul," printed in the Armed Forces Journal in December 2009. I believe in just the first two of his several points, he has accurately identified the most important challenge in our military, the one entrenched flaw that stands to bring our nation to its knees and invite our enemies to trample us, as Enron executives invited bankruptcy. I've reproduced Mr. Foster's first two points below:
1. From dutiful followership to assertive leadership. The future, considering its expected complexity, ambiguity and turbulence, will demand extraordinary leadership — especially strategic leadership — throughout the military. This wouldn’t be an issue if the prevailing mythology that the military is in the business of producing leaders coincided with reality. But the reality is that what the military actually nurtures and rewards is dutiful followership. Those who succeed in the military, who make it to higher rank, are those who show themselves to be the most dutiful — silent, compliant, unquestioning, can-do — followers. Mavericks, iconoclasts and renegades who challenge established orthodoxy and authority, or impede stoic execution, need not apply. The generals and admirals who, by virtue of rank and position, command a measure of public attention are typically assumed by the public to be leaders, even when, as is often the case, they actually aren’t. The problem is that those who are thoroughly socialized over time to follow dutifully, to invariably seek direction (and approval) from higher authority before acting, eventually lose the capacity and the inclination for boldness, vision, initiative and moral courage — the stuff of true leadership. Moreover, those who are inculcated only with the transactional, superior-subordinate, tactical leadership the military emphasizes, similarly lose the capacity to exercise the transformative, predominantly intellectual, strategic leadership required at senior levels, where the name of the game is motivating equals with minds of their own, not directing submissive subordinates.
2. From blind obedience to responsible dissent. Inherent in the leadership the future will demand of the military will be the concomitant need for responsible dissent from those in uniform. This imperative for dissent of course flies in the face of the military’s deeply ingrained ethos of obedience to authority. The ethos of obedience underlies and reflects the enlistment oath and the officer’s commissioning oath — both of which bind those in uniform to support and defend the Constitution, and, either explicitly (in the case of the enlistment oath) or implicitly (in the case of the commissioning oath), to obey the lawful orders of their superiors in the chain of command. From this constitutional commitment come the implicit requirements for civilian control of the military — the expectation that uniformed personnel must necessarily defer to properly constituted civilian authority — and political neutrality — the associated principle that the military must eschew involvement in partisan political affairs (even to the extent, many think, of desisting from openly opposing policy, though not, paradoxically, from openly supporting policy). These conjoined imperatives, almost universally internalized and embraced, frequently serve as justification (or rationalization) and moral cover for those in uniform not to speak out, even when circumstances demand that they do so. They also suppress the equally important, but constitutionally unspecified, responsibility of the military to act as an institutional check and balance against the strategic illiteracy and ineptitude, militaristic impetuosity and arrogance, and ulterior partisan political motives of civilian authorities who display such traits.

The ethos of obedience also is born of the primacy of command in military culture and the military’s largely unquestioning and unquestioned conflation of command and leadership. Though the two should be essentially synonymous, they often aren’t — command frequently taking the form of unilateral, authoritarian edicts from commanders who expect their orders to be obeyed unquestioningly. Just as the military conflates command and leadership, so too does it correspondingly conflate dissent and disobedience. Few in uniform, if they are to avoid sanction and thereby succeed, can (or care to) resist the slippery slope from obedience to unquestioning obedience to blind obedience. The result of perpetual obedience, like the crippling effect of perpetual followership, is that those who bear responsibility for speaking up to those in authority and when necessary speaking out in public, are robbed of their ability and willingness to do so.

What an outstanding article, and he has a great deal more to say beyond these two points. I suggest every service member read this article, and every civilian who pays them.

His diagnosis explains, in my opinion, why the Air Force recently botched its VSP program, and followed it up a few days ago with an amazing Reduction in Force (RIF) - ie booting out highly qualified officers who sacrificed a decade or more during war time. It is really the only way to explain such behavior by leadership, to cut the people who get the mission done during a time when the mission suffers and the force is severely undermanned. But anything to lower the number on a Power Point slide, I suppose. I literally would not be shocked to see Air Force airplanes being sold to the highest bidder on Ebay next week. The insanity has no end, and I truly fear the United States Air Force will go the way of Enron, and for essentially the same reasons.

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