war on the rocks

Promoting What We Value in the Air Force: Wouldn’t That Be Nice?

September 10, 2018

The Air Force chief of staff hasn’t just spoken about what it means to be a leader, he has clearly demonstrated what it means. After he graciously responded to my article critiquing the state of leadership selection in the Air Force, he offered me a place on his team to work to solve the problems I identified. Some would call me naive but I believe Gen. David Goldfein was being completely sincere.

We recently got a chance to speak. During our conversation, we agreed that “Ned” will continue to write as an anonymous colonel amongst the many. We believe there is value to an outside voice who can look at what is being done and encourage the constructive debate necessary to make things better. Gen. Goldfein’s offer was beyond generous and some would call me foolish for passing it up. To my mind, this has never been about me and I don’t want to distract from the work we can do together to make our Air Force better.

I remain steadfast in my belief that making our service better begins with leadership. Weapons of war come and go but the great constant is people. Great leaders bring out the best in people and horrible leaders can destroy the best teams. We have some great leaders in our Air Force, but we need to do a better job of finding and developing more of them while weeding out toxic leaders before they have a chance to do significant harm to our airmen and missions.

Before we get to the how, or even the what, we need to agree on the why. The “why” is simple: Airmen are what make the difference in our Air Force and we could do much better by them. Airmen really need two things: First, to feel like they contribute meaningfully to a portion of our mission that plays to their individual strengths. And second, to have leadership that actually cares about them and the mission more than being promoted. If you think the Air Force does those things well enough, large numbers of our airmen disagree and are voting with their feet. Don’t take my word for it. These are consistently among the top issues identified in exit surveys I have seen.

In his interview with Ryan Evans on the War on the Rocks podcast, Gen. Goldfein said we should promote what we value. I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, we have a system that falls short of that. The best example I can provide is the label “high-potential officer,” which I discussed in my first article. Such a label is usually applied to individuals promoted early or on track for early promotion. I think most would agree that regardless of what we say, early promotion is indicative of what the Air Force really values.

Gen. Stephen W. Wilson, the vice chief of staff of the Air Force, signed a memorandum titled “2018 Force Development Guidance” on June 7 that provided clarity in the form of 12 “indicators” about what it means to be “high-potential.” We need to identify and promote talented officers but I worry the indicators in the memo will reinforce some of the problematic aspects of the current system. For example, “distinguished graduate status” (i.e., graduating in the top 10 percent) appears on the list three times in addition to professional military education recommendations and both in-residence education selection and attendance. In other words, six of 12 indicators have to do with training and education. Half. Really? Only one criterion may indirectly relate leadership performance: “highly successful squadron command tour(s),” and that link is weak at best.

As someone who has attended several service schools and achieved “distinguished graduate” status multiple times, I can tell you there is little about either of those things that makes a person more effective than any other officer. We should care about what someone does in the “real world,” and not how well someone can regurgitate back the Air Force-approved response on a given subject. My personal opinion is that “outstanding contributor” awards and recognition granted by one’s peers by ballot vote are more meaningful and should mean more to the Air Force. Instead, outstanding contributor awards seem to be treated as consolation prizes. Give me the outstanding contributors and you can keep the distinguished graduates.

Any mention of the Air Force core values is absent from the “high-potential” criteria. Integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do: If those are what we value, we need to measure those things and promote based on them. To do that requires an understanding of how to interpret the core values in a way that actually reflects the intent of those values. For example, one could argue winning distinguished graduate honors constitutes excellence, and be correct in a sense, but not in the way that matters to our airmen.

I would offer that “service before self” does not mean long hours and it should not be used to shame our airmen into working unnecessarily long hours either. Selflessness for leaders means putting our airmen and mission before ourselves, especially promotion consideration.

“Integrity first” means doing the right thing when no one else is looking and doing those things even when there is a high likelihood of blowback. I can either trust you to do the right thing or I can’t. There is no middle ground.

“Excellence in all we do” means unwavering commitment to the first two values underpinned by genuine humility. Leaders need to tirelessly strive to do better — to be better read, better listeners, better teammates, better human beings, better in anything that can help their airmen reach their potential.

If the core values accurately represent what the Air Force values, we have a significant disconnect in both the format and execution of the evaluation system. Under the current system, so long as someone “meets standards,” the only lines that matter on an officer promotion report are the bottom lines of the rater and additional rater. These lines contain the order of merit ranking (i.e., stratification), the job recommendation, and the professional military education recommendation. The rest of the evaluation is practically meaningless because we can’t be honest in our evaluations. Any negative comment results in a referral process that places a significant administrative burden on the entire chain of command. In short, the current system disincentivizes candor. People reading the records, including promotion and command boards, are forced to read between the lines or directly contact the rater to discern the message being sent. This lack of candor also suggests raters may not be providing candid feedback to their subordinates. We need a system that encourages transparency and candor with clear and meaningful information that enables various boards and hiring authorities to make more informed decisions. I think it needs to be a balance of subjective assessments by the rater and quantitative measures that provide indicators.

What should that include? I have two ideas for now.

First up is a 360-degree assessment. I emphasize assessments because 360-degree feedback is only useful if the individual is open to it. It involves getting assessments from an individual’s subordinates and peers in addition to supervisors. While some argue 360 assessments are flawed because individuals have “an axe to grind” or that such assessments can devolve into a popularity contest, there are ways to extract useful indicators in the aggregate, and those critics underestimate the desire of our servicemembers to do the right thing. Further, a formalized assessment by peers would speak volumes on matters of teamwork.

Second, I would like to see the Air Force explore an access-restricted psychological profile on any officer volunteering for command consideration or promotion to the general officer ranks. We must have safeguards to weed out those who fall prey to power’s corrupting influence or simply lack the empathy and other traits necessary to lead effectively. We need Dr. Wayne Chappelle and his team of psychologists at the Air Force’s 711th Human Performance Wing and elsewhere to help identify the traits that make the best leaders and then design a continuum of learning to help us develop those leaders. They have had success working with special operations personnel, battlefield airmen, and unmanned aerial system pilots and sensor operators on similar initiatives.

Whatever we do with the evaluation system, we need to remove the largely disregarded content that constitutes 95 percent of our current performance reports and focus on measures we value so we can improve our promotion system. I don’t have all of the answers but I know we can do better. I look forward to working with Gen. Goldfein and his staff on the way ahead and encourage everyone to take up the pen. If you have ideas but don’t want to go public or through official channels, please write to me at eddard.stark.USAF@gmail.com.

 

Col. “Ned Stark” is an Air Force officer. His opinions are his alone and do not represent those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government, but he hopes one day they will come closer.

Image: Air Force/Samuel King Jr.