A recent commentary posted on the Air Force’s official website provides a fascinating window into an inappropriate mentality that has tightened its grip over the service in the past few years and threatens now to asphyxiate professionalism.  Senior Master Sergeant Vincent Miller, undoubtedly a skilled and well-meaning senior NCO, unintentionally crystallizes the difference between careerism and self-improvement in his recent opinion article entitled “Filling [S]quares.”  As a senior enlisted manager providing tutelage to thousands of impressionable airmen, he baldly showcases the nascent loss of mission focus that continues to provide shelter for the service’s mediocre performers while alienating its best and brightest.

Though they seldom receive it, the writings and rhetoric of service leaders deserve critical review and analysis. Breaking down some of what SMSgt Miller has to say in his piece will cast light on larger lessons embedded in his words and ideas.  This will mean quarreling with his message at times (which I’ve previewed above) while at other points agreeing with him, even energetically.  But before stepping into a critique of his work, let me disclaim two things.

First, I’ve written many stupid things over the years.  More than I can count (and in fact, probably more than I recognize — communicators make poor judges of their own messages).  I’ve even managed to get a few misguided writings published, and had them critiqued, sometimes  savagely.  This has left me aware of the ego bruising that generally accompanies writing things for public consumption … but it’s also left me deeply appreciative of the critics — no matter their petulance or snark — who helped me learn to communicate more proficiently and who often helped me find new layers of meaning in my own ideas.  In other words, notwithstanding the Air Force’s allergy to any hint of internal disagreement, we benefit by analyzing and critiquing the words we share with ourselves, and we learn much more when disagreement is culturally acceptable.  Second, no matter how much I might disagree with SMSgt Miller’s message, I congratulate him for demonstrating the courage to offer his ideas to a broad audience.  Most of the service’s field grade officers and senior enlisted people — in other words, the spine of its squadron-level leadership corps — demonstrate no such courage.  There are some very good reasons for this; the Air Force has a preference for carefully crafted propaganda rather than honest public commentary — something free-spirited Airman Hunter S. Thompson learned many decades ago.  In contrast with the Army, which encourages its officers to quarrel with one another in the blogosphere and in service journals, the Air Force socializes its people to stay away from these venues for fear that intellectual battles may somehow erode public confidence, inadvertently spill sensitive information, or result in hurt feelings.

As a proxy for open discussion, debate, or — gasp — argument about its trajectory, issues, and day-to-day business, the service instead encourages its members to craft stock, crayon-drawn messages reinforcing high standards, strong values, and positive performance (those familiar with AFN commercials catch my drift).  These snippets of wisdom masquerading as true commentary are rampant in base newspapers, social media streams, and command websites.  The majority of these say substantively nothing and are bland enough to induce narcolepsy in a clinical insomniac.  The few that say anything threatening to evoke a response are unlikely to make it through the Public Affairs approval wickets to appear on the Air Force’s official web page.  But occasionally, something provocative slips through.  This brings us back to SMSgt Miller’s recent piece.

I must say, with deference to its well-meaning author, this is one of the more lamentable messages I’ve ever seen from someone in a position of high authority.  In one fell swoop, this article delivers a heartbreaking message to young airmen: you will not be promoted or recognized based on your duty performanceIf you want to succeed in this Air Force, you’d better play the game we’ve defined for you, which has nothing to do with excellence on duty … but the checking of off-duty squares.  Your work ability is pass/fail.   Square-checking is where we will judge your worth.  Airmen come away from this message realizing everything they were told about mission focus, excellence, and the value of technical competence was inaccurate; they realize working hard and being better than their peers at wielding combat power is not the path to success.  I saw this gestalt moment several times as a squadron commander … and it is incredibly deflationary.

Miller’s not the first to say what he’s saying, but it’s rare to see it done so transparently.  His message is a  jolt of honesty, as he writes for public consideration things that are said on Air Force bases every day.  His message is also deeply wrong.

Consider the following excerpts, with my comments offered below.

[“As Airmen, we are more than familiar with the need to fill the proverbial squares as we strive to progress in our military career.”]

Tough to quarrel with this squib.  Filling squares indeed has everything to do with careerism in today’s Air Force and little to do with actual development, which is rightly not mentioned here or anywhere else in this article.

[“To be competitive for awards and promotions, we must commit ourselves to goals such as education, passing the fitness exam, and community service.”]

There’s a lot going on in this sentence, and almost none of it good.  First of all, awards and promotions shouldn’t be equated.  People win awards for what they’ve already done.  They’re promoted because the service needs them to have more responsibility.  It’s possible to win awards and never be promoted, and it’s possible to be a Chief or General having never won an award.  It’s important to know this distinction, because things like education and community service play different roles in competing for awards or preparing for promotions (aside: community service should arguably have nothing official to do with anything … but that’s a screed for another day).  Those seeking to compete for awards should understand that awards processes are often locally governed and might consider a  broad range of factors, while promotions are centrally governed and consider only a few discrete factors.  Ideally, the things that help airmen win awards would also help them demonstrate promotion potential, but this is not always the case.  But what’s most revealing in this sentence is what is not included … because ideally, a senior enlisted leader would never overtly encourage his airmen to chase awards or promotions. S/he would ideally  tell them to work as hard as humanly possible to master their duty performance and generate mission results, letting awards and promotions follow naturally.

[“In reality, the squares are designed to make us better and provide a separation between the willing and unwilling — the committed and uncommitted.”]

This should alarm everyone.  Every member of the US Air Force takes a sworn oath to enlist or accept a commission.  That oath is the signing of a blank check that is cashable by the Air Force up to any amount, including the ultimate sacrifice of giving one’s life in service to the mission.  In other words, that oath is a solemn commitment.  It’s the point where discussion about whether someone “really means it” when they say they’re committed should instantly end.  The service has raised a subpar generation of leaders who have unacceptably commoditized this sacred notion of commitment, making it into a tool airmen are now encouraged to wield in exchange for a ribbon or a stripe.  This devalues every oath taken by every airman; it cheapens the words they swore to live up to and diminishes the memory of those who fulfilled that oath by giving their lives.  Most concerning is the idea that the service’s leaders don’t believe its airmen are committed, and asks them to prove it continually.  This injures trust.  If Miller doesn’t believe the airmen in his charge were serious when they took their oaths, how can he trust them to operate with authority and autonomy in expeditionary combat?

[“As we continually strive to become that “whole person,” we must challenge ourselves intellectually and work toward attaining a certification; associate, bachelor’s, or even a master’s degree.”]

Here’s a great message.  Education matters, especially for our enlisted airmen who typically start their careers young and without much college behind them.  As the more successful among them rise in rank and responsibility, nurturing the mind becomes important in arming them with the tools for effective management and leadership of their teammates.  Miller is right to encourage this, though I fear he’s doing it for the wrong reasons; it’s not about getting promoted, it’s about development.  Again, the reason matters.  If they’re doing it simply to check a square for promotion, they’ll approach it with a utilitarian motivation and simply get through it to prove their commitment; this type of transaction will generate very little real development, because the airman won’t necessarily be interested or invested … s/he’ll just be responding to career coercion.  If the motive is development for development’s sake, better choices about what, when, and how to study are more likely, and true development is much more possible.  If the USAF wants developed airmen, it must decouple education milestones from promotion and retention eligibility and instead arm its people with the tools and the time to pursue off-duty education earnestly.

[“At this moment some of you are saying there is no time to attend school; high operations tempo, 40-hour work week, and spending time with family are a few reasons that prevent you from taking classes … Honestly, these excuses are hindering you from progressing and improving yourself.”]

This takes the good argument made above and shreds it before burning the shreds in a fire of obliviousness.  Miller has clearly either been hiding away in a comfortable corner of the Air Force or is simply superimposing his own philosophy on his airmen, a thing doable only by those with a debilitating lack of empathy.  “High operations tempo” doesn’t begin to describe what life has been like for most airmen over the past dozen years.  Manpower and operational demands have skyrocketed while resources have declined sharply.  “Do more with less” went from a bitter joke to a cynical reality.  Excellence has been incrementally sacrificed in favor of mere sufficiency in many areas, but our people have not been relieved from pursuing excellence, meaning they are caught in a terminal trap of chasing the unattainable and being graded on how stylishly they endure living in a world of make-believe.  People are still being deployed in droves for 179 or 365 days and many are on war footing even when they’re home.  Few airmen are working 40-hour weeks, and those who are doing so should arguably be working longer hours to be there for their operational counterparts who continue to run a marathon at a sprinter’s pace.  It is fundamentally immoral to oblige airmen already giving more than we ought to fairly ask of them to electively deepen the imbalance between work and life.  Robbing them of free time is also a recipe for burnout, diminished productivity, and a curtailed length of service.  Miller’s biggest sin here — and I don’t mean to personalize him too much since he’s speaking for many like-minded cohorts — is his diminution of the entire concept of family.  Men and women who enter into relationships make a commitment to their counterparts; they assume a duty to that family.  Under ideal circumstances, they’re able to fulfill the duties of family and service concurrently or in parallel.  But too often in the years since 9/11, they’ve been ordered to do things in their duty to service that make fulfillment of their duty to family impossible. In other words, we’ve already borrowed from the family  account inappropriately, and shouldn’t be doing so any further at this point.  It’s also quite myopic to do so, given that eventually an airman put too often in such a conflicting position will be forced to choose between family and service … and will more often than not choose to take the degree he was coerced into earning and put it to work as a private citizen, taking years of development and experience out the door with him.

[“The choice is yours and yours alone. Be willing to accept the consequences. Don’t say, “He/she only got Senior Airman below-the-zone because he went to school.”]

This was the point in this article where barber poles appeared on my instrument panel and I realized the message was crashing and burning (which, judging by most of the response comments below the article on the AF website, it did).  Airmen First Class are considered for early promotion to Senior Airman very early in their time in the Air Force — prior to the 30-month point.  These are people who may or may not have even earned a 5 skill level in their primary job (for the uninitiated, a 5-level is no longer an apprentice, but a journeyman who has finished initial career development studies and on-the-job training and is considered independently capable). These folks have not yet formally decided to make the Air Force a career, and the Air Force has not yet decided whether to allow them to do so.  They’re still proving they belong on the most formidable airpower team ever assembled, and still working to deepen expertise in their primary role of producing air, space, and cyber power for national defense.  Why in the world would we make pursuit of college education even a remote consideration in their advancement at this point?  In making education dispositive in career success far earlier than is rationally appropriate, we’re invalidating Miller’s contention that airman are free to choose whether to develop themselves or not; we’re coercing them into attending a class just to prove their seriousness so they can stay in the hunt for promotion.  Perversely, we’re probably also stunting their professional growth by pulling their focus away from where it belongs too early in the development process (some airmen can juggle these priorities, but most can’t and will end up degrading in one area or both).  Most concerning is that we’re openly telling them it’s acceptable to put the cart before the horse, which makes it more likely they’ll do the same thing again in the future (especially if doing so makes them successful in earning a big reward like an early promotion).  This is not the road to excellence; it’s the road to a force broadly exposed to education but insufficiently focused on the technical superiority core to beating enemies on the battlefield.  It’s a message so flawed it should be denounced by the Air Force, with an accompanying prohibition on considering anything other than duty performance when determining who will receive early promotion to Senior Airman.

A wiser man than me once said “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”  I believe SMSgt Miller is an honorable and well-meaning manager who is seeking to arm his troops with street smarts.  He wants to make sure they’re not left behind because they were ignorant of or chose not to conform to the patterns of Air Force careerism.  But in speaking from the high pedestal of an E-8, he’s doing arguably much more harm than good; he’s reinforcing and fostering a culture of divided focus and self-concern; the Air Force is in danger of drowning in a rising sea of mediocrity, and like too many before him, he’s describing the water.

An article like his demonstrates a core difficulty of being a leader: simultaneously maintaining loyalty to both your people and the institution.  While instructing airmen on how to be successful careerists manifests a kind of loyalty, it’s a betrayal of the service, which needs its leaders to keep airmen focused on the mission first and themselves later, after they’ve established a professional foundation upon which they can stand firmly and build themselves into capable career airmen.

I encourage you to read and judge the message yourself, and welcome your feedback.