Tag Archives: leadership

The More Things Change

On the day SecDef announced the new U.S. mission in Afghanistan, I hit my 20-year time-in-service mark.

The long-running Operation ENDURING FREEDOM is finished.

We didn’t hear about the change until the 31st, and then only through commercial news media. Everything official assumed we’d be called something else. My deployed crew and I were in the middle of planning the first sortie of the new year, so we went with Chuck Hagel as a pretty good source of guidance.

When we landed, at the end of the day, leadership was still confused about what named operation we supported… because their leadership was still confused. Multiple names floated around. No one had even heard of FREEDOM’S SENTINEL.

It’s frustrating… partly because it makes us all look like bumbling idiots trying to figure out the change, and mostly because the humor of my joke was lost:

Really, we're the good guys. We have America Lasers.
We’re the good guys. We have America Lasers.

Sorry, it’s a hastily-done drawing on whiteboard. If you want a good picture, check imgur. I have missions to fly and stuff.

Comic book fans will recognize this as an old-school Sentinel, a giant death robot programmed to find and eliminate mutants like the X-Men. (If you saw the newest X-Men film, modern “cool-looking” Sentinels feature heavily.)

US News & World Report had a headline about the name change, called War in Afghanistan Ends, Except Not At All.


But given that our tasking and guidance remained exactly the same, it’s hard not to feel a sense of “So What?”

An individual on my crew put together this helpful chart that reinforces the point:

(And there's years of missions flown all around these two countries... but that would get cumbersome if included.)
(And there’s years of missions flown all around these two countries… but that would get cumbersome if included.)

Sorry, whiteboard again. We had other things to do (or so I’ll maintain).

When I went through Professional Military Education, we had lengthy lessons on Change Management. The idea is, change is hard and scary, which causes people to resist it. So there’s a good way to implement change, and some bad ways to avoid.

If you can make a change known well in advance, you can get your experts on board to figure out how the plan will work. Questions are answered before they’re asked in the heat of the moment; problems are solved before they’re encountered on the flight line. Ideally everyone contributes, and the plan becomes both better and well-known. Then, when leadership says, “Execute the plan,” everyone carries out the change with enthusiasm and support that comes from ownership.

I’ve seen this process go poorly over the last 20 years.

I’ve seen leaders declare sweeping changes without considering what obstacles stand in the way. I’ve seen people ignore regulations governing how we do business, in order to shift to the “new” plan–when no one knows what it is.

Whole squadrons arrived at work wondering “What exactly is it that I’m supposed to do today?”

I sat in a conference room with the leaders of every office in the squadron at a meeting that opened with, “Since the re-organization took effect last week, we’re going to sit down now and figure out how we all fit in to accomplishing the basic mission of this unit.”

That’s a question that maybe could have been answered well in advance.

I left that meeting with a clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities on my shoulders and on my peers. Better yet, I felt equipped to communicate that vision to my subordinates, who had the same questions I did.

I also stepped out of the room and immediately spoke in private with the officers in charge of operations. “Sir, if feedback flows both down and up, then can we make sure the message goes up the chain that what we’ve just done is the exact opposite of everything we teach about how to implement change in an organization?”

To their credit, both officers I spoke with agreed completely and admitted they’d felt the same frustrations. I overheard a conversation with higher-ups where one of the officers I’d spoken to conveyed my feedback and challenged the superior’s mistaken view that creating chaos and thrash in the unit was beneficial, since it would make everyone give 110% to figure out and implement the change.

When I look at this news and how this change has come about, it leads me to believe one of three things:

1) This name change is purely cosmetic. Since it seems nothing fundamental or practical is different from my last OEF sortie to my first “whatever we decide to call this” sortie, I find this very likely.

2) Too few in power care that we do things well–we just need to do things. We teach a right way to implement change that produces ideal effects. But we are often directed to execute the opposite–doing whatever someone higher up the chain desires, at once, regardless of whether its fit existing rules or structures. And asking questions to make sure we’re legal or compliant with standing regs is viewed as a frustration and hindrance. I’m not sure whether that all applies in this situation, but it smacks of the same “rush to change” I’ve seen elsewhere.

3) What I’d hoped was an isolated “one bad apple here or there” case of poor management seems to be a hydra of similar leaders. Ignorance of what’s going on–throughout a squadron, a community, a region, a theater of operations, and so on–that’s going to happen from time to time. But willful ignorance, once an issue is called out, is unacceptable. It’s also called negligence. Or apathy. Or complacency. But definitely not leadership. Again, I’m not sure this directly relates to our changing-but-not-really operations in Afghanistan. But it matches up with past experience.

True leaders realize what they lack, own up to the fault, and then make corrections and adjustments. It’s refreshing to see that happen. Those people stand out from among the drones and yes-men committed only to their own promotion.

We need more Sentinels of that sort, not the robots.

Happy New Year.

Dripping Water Cuts Stone

There’s a Bruce Lee “quote” I seem to recall from <em>Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story</em>. Turns out, it’s a quote of Lao Tzu, or very similar to it.

Water is the softest thing. Yet it can penetrate mountains and earth.

My Chinese teacher used a similar phrase to encourage me after I improved my language scores slightly: 滴水穿石 - di shui chuan shi

Found at:  http://theinkzenmaster.org
Found at: http://theinkzenmaster.org

It means “Dripping water penetrates stone.”

(Oh, you can see that clearly in the image. Well then.)

The intended meaning is clear: little by little, with constant effort, we make progress toward what might seem a difficult goal.

There’s wisdom in that, of course. Excellence and success aren’t often made of singular actions or short bursts of greatness. If they are born of an instant, it’s often because in that moment, we responded the way we do every day to the thousand pressures and stresses we face.

Yet there’s a darker side to the quote. When I think of the military’s loss of talented and intelligent officers and enlisted, this phrase comes to mind. In all the justifications I’ve heard my peers offer for why they do not wish to stay in, there’s rarely some defining moment or negative experience that drove them away from further service.

It’s dripping water cutting through stone.

Many of our soldiers, sailors, Airmen, and Marines chafe under blanket policies restricting everyone’s activity in order to attempt to prevent the troublesome few from doing anything wrong. We have servicemembers who are old enough to bear arms in defense of our nation, putting in twelve hour shifts standing guard every day, ensuring security for our bases and resources. Yet they are not old enough or responsible enough to make their own decisions while off-duty; many fall under policies establishing curfew hours, restrictions on alcohol consumption, and required reporting of planned holiday travel down to the estimated number of hours and miles of driving each day.

All too often, instead of leaders, we get babysitters – who are themselves forced to “take action” by fear of the consequences of any sign of failure.

However, the burden of being treated like a nursery isn’t all that wears our service members down. A myriad of individually minor grievances contribute to the problem.

Every day, our “best and brightest” wake up to face a shower of priorities, trickling streams from several directions, all clamoring for attention. There’s a new computer-based training or CBT that the whole unit has to complete within the month. Everyone has to turn in updated copies of some form so that someone’s program looks up-to-date. Binders need new cover pages and spine markings so that they all match across the entire unit. Someone found a requirement in an obscure regulation and all the aircrew members are showing up overdue.

The form you turned in isn’t the most current version. The certificate you received for completing a training course doesn’t have the blank back side, so it’s not a valid form. We need you to log four events so that you show up as having all your events logged because if you don’t get all your events, it looks bad for us, and we refuse to look bad. Also go get your flu shot, because you show up “red” on the tracker. And finish your CBT for skills you’ll never use. Finally, I know you’re outprocessing for your next deployment, but we need you to complete the post-deployment survey from your trip a year ago, so you need to schedule an appointment for that.

Our organizations are often cumbersome and entrenched in old methods of management and mission accomplishment. The figurative ceilings are pocked with holes. Every day, our Armed Forces members rush to place buckets under each of these dripping streams of water, scrambling from one “top priority” to the next whenever it overflows. This can certainly be true in the civilian workforce as well.

It takes time, but water will cut through stone, just as frustration and mismanagement can eventually defeat even the greatest determination and optimism.

People talk about the military bleeding talent, and wonder how we can stop the bloodflow. Maybe the holes we most need to plug up are the ones dripping from the rooftop.

Thursday Happies

Normally I have a Thursday Tirade – usually about some facet of leadership and management in the military.

This week, my tirade was DENIED by my Chief Enlisted Manager, our squadron’s Chief Master Sergeant whose job it is to fight for the needs and interests of the enlisted folk.

I’ve been waiting to get some surgery done on my right foot, and the operation has already been scheduled and postponed once due to the needs of the Air Force. For a month or so, the rescheduled surgery date has been awaiting approval. That approval did not come until 7 PM on the night before the surgery was scheduled. And it did not come except for the hard work and effort of my Chief to fight on my behalf.

I anticipated delaying surgery “one more time,” which I’ve learned usually means “several more ‘one more times.'” I even typed up a lovely rant about it. The vent post was sitting on my iPad, ready to publish as soon as I knew for sure that the answer was “no.” But then, after multiple trips back-and-forth to speak to squadron leadership, my Chief walked in and gave a double thumbs-up.

She read the rant and said, “I’m very glad you didn’t have to post this.”

Me too.

In the past few days, I’ve seen a lot of good news about the Air Force, not just related to my self-centered needs. Though I have said in the past that I fear that there is a general decline in the quality of leadership, there are glimmers of hope. While I’ve seen managers who are unwilling or ignorant to the balance between accomplishing the mission and taking care of people, there are still compassionate senior leaders out there.

Last week, we found out who was selected for Senior Master Sergeant, and I saw a friend’s name on the list. Chris is one of the smartest people I know as far as our job is concerned, and he has always been quick to fight the trend toward silly or unsafe decisions in flying operations. He was one of my first supervisors in the Air Force, and he is definitely one of the few who demonstrated that they cared. He did not accept mediocrity, but he also mentored me to show me how to improve.

Another Senior Master Sergeant selectee is a former co-worker and supervisor from my time at Kadena. Steph is also one of the hardest working people with whom I’ve served. She knew how to push our office to succeed and yet ensured we could relax and have fun when mission requirements permitted it. She exemplified our squadron’s unofficial motto of “work hard, play hard,” and she led our office and our squadron to some amazing accomplishments as a result. On the personal level, she fought for me and my needs, but she also fought against my procrastination and laziness to force me to be a better NCO.

My neighbor across the street is also on the selection list. When my family moved across the world from Okinawa to Nebraska, we had no sponsor, no official welcome or assistance with how to find our way around a new base. We moved into our new house on base, and our next-door neighbor literally turned his back and pretended like he did not see us. But not Charlie. He saw me struggling a few days later with the ice and snow that had built up in our driveway, and he immediately came out to help with an ice-breaking tool. He’s the guy who pushes a snow blower around the neighborhood, clearing out driveways and sidewalks for about ten families in addition to his own. In the back of his house, he has a virtual farm of fresh produce growing through the warmer months, and several times this year, he has brought over extra fruit and vegetables to us and to other neighbors because “Hey, what am I going to do with all of this?” He genuinely seems to enjoy helping others.

And yesterday, while sitting with my foot in a splint, I hopped on Facebook to discover that one of the best officers I’ve had the pleasure of serving under just got selected for Colonel. In my experience, John was a no-nonsense leader who knew how to get things done. But more than that, he knew how to prioritize what needed to be done in order for us to succeed, and he tried hard to keep us from dealing with time-wasting projects. He showed great leadership and yet remained approachable.

Is everything great in my little corner of the Air Force? As we deal with sequestration and budget cuts, with aging airframes and low retention rates, with an ever-decreasing pool of experience, it’s definitely become more difficult to keep up with demands. When we get managers that seem to care about nothing more than their next performance report, it’s hard at times to remain motivated.

So it’s with great pleasure that I see some of the future leaders we’re raising up, and it gives me hope.

I don’t have a rant today, and yes, Chief, I’m very happy about that.

Second Tirade

I was planning on only writing a positive “Here’s what I love about the military” Thursday Tirade this week. Then I was chatting with a friend and former co-worker, and I was (unfortunately) inspired.

So you get another Thursday Tirade, since the first one really wasn’t a tirade at all. Think of it like a Hobbit… you get Second Breakfast, or Rage Elevensies.

Today’s Tirade-word is “hypocrisy.” Here’s a hint: in a leadership position, you don’t want this word associated with you.

Seems obvious, but not everyone knows or understands this.

Servant leadership means – among other things – taking care of your people. One of the ways we do this is through open and honest communication. There’s nothing worse than playing “I’ve got a secret” with the members of an office or organization.

And some are smart as bricks too...
The old phrase is true of some leaders: “You make a better wall than a window.”

Open communication engenders trust. It aids with expectation management. The news may not be good for the person(s) affected, but at least they know what is going on. They can plan accordingly, and they know they can trust their leadership in the future.

Unfortunately, it seems like we often trade that long-term trust relationship and positive reputation in order to solve a short-term crisis. Someone gets deployed with little notice, and we tell them “You’ll be back in six months.”

Then, a month out, they get told they’re staying longer. Not only that, they and their spouse get told, “This was always the plan. You were going for nine months all along. You probably misunderstood.”

Congrats. You filled a short-term need and solved the huge “Who’s going out next month” problem. You did it at the cost of years of trust. Your people are not blind or stupid; they’ve seen what you’ve done, and they know not to believe you when it’s there turn to deploy or to fill a need. Not only that, but people talk. Your action seems to affect only one or two individuals, but those individuals are going to spread the story to others. Years from now, people are going to hear about you and immediately distrust your leadership.

What’s worse is when these “leaders” preach transparency and openness with their subordinates. “Don’t have a hidden agenda,” we are told, by an individual who is known for always having a hidden agenda. Did you think we weren’t watching what you do the rest of the year? Were we only supposed to listen to what you say today?

Open communication and a healthy relationship would mean that the person in charge gives the junior member all the information they need while both sides accept the fact that we’re in the military and plans can sometimes change.

I’ve had to call home from training TDYs to tell my wife, “Hey, this might be six weeks long or six months long depending on how they decide to do the flight portion of the training.” On day one, the person in charge came in to pound his chest and remind all the students that the training squadron alone would make all those decisions, so “don’t make any plans. We’ll let you know.”

So my wife is across the world with three kids, wondering whether I’ll be gone weeks or months. And on the last day of academics, the authority comes into the classroom and says, “Get tickets home. My plan all along was for you to do flight training back home.”

Really? Was that not valuable information? I’m a big boy. I understand if I get told, “The original plan was for you to go home but we can’t make that work, sorry.” Maybe keeping a secret helps you feel better about how “in charge” you are, but I never doubted whether you were in charge. I just wanted to be able to tell my wife what to expect. But for you to act like there is no decision, or keep all your plans to yourself when you can alleviate confusion and tension… and then to talk about transparency and clear communication… that’s hypocrisy.

We do this whenever we pay lipservice to a value or rule only so long as it suits us.

If you refer to regulations and guiding documents in one argument to win the discussion and justify your opinion, then you can’t turn around the next week and ignore those regs and guiding documents when they don’t say what you wish they did. That’s hypocrisy, and it’s blatant and obvious.

We can’t in one breath talk about the value of quality and for the rest of the discussion push for ways to get more production faster.

We shouldn’t be in the business of redefining words to wiggle out of what the regulations dictate, or reinterpreting clear direction in order to push (or ignore) the boundaries set upon us by leadership. If we do this for short-term expedience, in the long run, we lose the trust of those following us.

If nothing else, the hypocrisy at least is pretty transparent.

College Football Recon

Here’s an example of an airline… tell me if you’d book a ticket.

9 out of 10 landings successful… 10 out of 10 landings accomplished!”

4 out of 5 pilots perform safely most days… overwhelming majority of pilots have spotless records”

when every other airline refuses to fly, we still try… overcoming adversity to get you to your destination at any cost* (not liable for loss of life)”

Or perhaps you’d like to try a new mapping app on your smartphone:

“Our 2010 maps provide accurate directions to 85% of customers.”

I suspect you might not accept these bare-minimum standards when you know that there are better airlines or better apps available. With the above examples, you’re rolling dice and hoping things go your way.

... I got better.
85% safe landings accomplished.

Welcome to the future of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance for the US Military.

Ok, that’s an exaggeration – I hope. Maybe it’s not. Over the last few years, I’ve been frustrated by a non-stop trend in my workplace and community, and I need to hash out my thoughts since I’ll probably be explaining it to my leadership soon.

Sadly, what I’m seeing isn’t exclusive to intelligence and my particular workplace. It’s basic management that can be applicable to any job. If you’re a worker bee, maybe you’ll see that other people get your pain. If you’re a manager, please take away some thoughts about what NOT to do to your people. And if you’re neither, I hope you enjoy my inner monologue.

I’ve heard some interesting management philosophies lately:

“There’s a basic standard of expected performance… the floor, if you will. We won’t dip below that. But we can settle for that.”
“We won’t ever violate the quality of our training, and I admit our initial students are coming to us with less experience than ever before… but we need to figure out how to speed up the process and get more students qualified faster.”

We’re like a college football coach telling his players, “It doesn’t matter what you do in class or what you learn here… as long as you make a C- and can keep playing on my team.”

That’s great when you’re talking to a guy who needs to throw a football or run for a touchdown. What about people who are required to gather intelligence and funnel it into the hands of a soldier on the ground taking fire from enemy positions, in order to hopefully save his squad? “It doesn’t matter what you learn here” doesn’t cut it anymore.

Here are my thoughts on this disturbing willingness to pump up numbers:

1. If you trade quality for quantity, you get neither. The harder you work your producers, the more their ability to produce quality will decline. The faster you work them, the more mistakes and omissions are made along the way. You’re breaking your people to increase your stats, and soon you won’t have the workers left to make the product.

2. If you trade quality for quantity, you forget your customer. The soldier on the ground taking fire isn’t looking for the bare minimum, he’s looking to come home safe and get his friends out of harm’s way. The intelligence community isn’t in need of bodies in seats (well, we are, but that’s beside the point). The community needs accurate and timely information that highly trained bodies in seats will be able to produce.

3. If you trade quality for quantity, you violate the trust of your employees. If you’re going to surge for a short time and there’s a reason, you can get buy-in and hard work. Picture that college football team. The Bowl game is coming up, so they ramp up the training and give 110%. After the game, they back down. That makes sense.
But that’s not what happens in the workplace. I’ve seen it over and over. Someone tells all the employees that they’re going to carry out a temporary surge in production, but two months down the road, the surge is suddenly the expected norm.
Sometimes you have to surge. Do not turn around afterwards and use that harder workload as the new baseline for production rates. Trust, once lost, is difficult to rebuild. I’ll refer the reader to retention rates in the intel community… “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice… I quit.”

4. If you trade quality for quantity, you trade your integrity for convenience. Getting better numbers means bending the standards that keep us from mediocrity. You start asking “Does the regulation really say…?” and “What’s the definition of ‘safety’ in that grading criteria?” You’re becoming the devil, holding out the apple to your people, tempting them to go the easy way. Your metrics aren’t worth selling out, but unfortunately, for many, job security is worth it. You’re dragging down your organization with you.

5. If you trade quality for quantity, you devalue your people. Once quantity is the only real standard, people become tools and machines whose sole purpose is to reach the target number of products. Late hours, overworked technicians, weekend work, exhausted employees… all of these are acceptable because nothing else matters except that green column on a spreadsheet. “Service Before Self” — or whatever similar mission statement and core values apply in your workspace — these work when I can see the big picture and the value my extraordinary efforts add to the overall meaningful mission. But when you violate my trust and make your success my mission, “Service Before Self” becomes “Service, Nothing Else.” And your glowing performance report doesn’t have my buy-in when it’s written on the backs of broken people.

The gist of all this is servant-leadership — what we’ve been teaching in military education for quite some time. If you are a leader, your people are not there for you. You are there to take care of them. Do that, and you’ll see both quality and quantity soar.