Frey Stripes

Here’s what E-9 Shelina Frey said about Air Force morale back in November:

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Here’s a sample of what I wrote about her remarks at the time.

“It’s one thing to make a hollow statement when substance is needed. It’s another to actively misrepresent the truth for politics’ sake … [b]ut it’s another still, and a far more injurious foul, to actively deceive oneself about the truth of things, and in so doing, to deny people and organizations their entitlement to open-brained stewardship. Here we catch one of the worst E-9s in the service in the act of forcefully denying reality, much to the chagrin and detriment of the 38,000 airmen negligently entrusted to her care.”

Now Frey has suddenly changed her entire assessment. Here’s a sample of her recent remarks in an interview with Stars and Stripes:

“We have to stop and … look at what we’re asking people to do … and how do we make this work without overburdening them or creating a mass exodus for the door.” she said.

Frey is interested in taking a look at “how do we give airmen time back?”

“[The mission of Air Mobility Command] sounds exciting, but it’s also exhausting,” Frey said.

“This is just a difficult time,” she said.

On November 23, Frey was absolutely convinced the service was not tired, things were fine, and concerns about retention were unfounded. She was dismissive of contrary views. She was prepared to reject non-conforming opinions out-of-hand, even if they came from commanders. She was proudly and loudly crowing these sentiments and happy to be quoted on them.

Today, she’s concerned about a mass exodus, aware of a risk of overburdening people, and stipulating that circumstances and burdens are especially difficult. This is a 180-degree reversal in less than 100 days.

Does this mean she changed her mind after reasoning and examining the evidence?  No, it doesn’t. She had access to the same data in November.

We don’t really know what it demonstrates. Maybe she’s trying to align better with she believes her new boss thinks. Maybe she’s just flaky and inconsistent. Maybe changes in key posts in the national defense establishment have made her think she should say different things. Maybe her time in Air Mobility Command has slapped some sense into her.

But the most likely explanation is that she is dutifully obeying a carefully crafted messaging strategy issued by the Pentagon. That she doesn’t actually have any opinions aside from those issued to her. She doesn’t actually care about anything. She exists to repeat someone else’s ideas. She believes something must be right if it comes from the Pentagon and further believes it is acceptable to cast aside her own views, and whatever was propping up those views, in order to parrot an official line composed by someone else.

Air Force E-9s help us distill the hopeless confusion gripping today’s Air Force. It is seen as a core duty to tell lies. To shift positions. To change principles or eschew them altogether. This is the opposite of leadership. 

Leading people means inspiring them, which requires authenticity. This doesn’t mean truths must be blunt or that they must be portrayed in the worst light. But they must be told. And the people telling them earn the trust of their organizations in that telling. When they refuse to tell the truth or show themselves so changeable as to make a joke of the concept of honesty altogether, confidence and trust are lost totally and permanently.

We don’t know if Shelina Frey believes there is a morale problem. We don’t know what she believes. We know she cares most of all about message alignment, and that’s different from caring about people and working to improve their organizations and resource models so they can kick ass.

The most common critique of Chiefs and Colonels in today’s Air Force is that they abuse power. This is true in a very relevant sense — people in these positions often run afoul of the responsible exercise of authority, especially in matters impacting the rights and liberties of airmen.

But in an interesting and disheartening way, these people are more powerless than they’ve ever been before. They are forbidden by the order to which they belong from speaking freely or even thinking freely. They must align their messages and thoughts, intellectually suffocating in exchange for the privilege of rank. They have less liberty to remark on the obviously wrong or stupid than their own airmen.  They’re not leaders. Leaders talk about hard subjects and wrestle with difficult truths. These are just bridled spokespersons, and grossly overpaid ones at that.

Little wonder they have trouble relating with a generation of people who have come of age witnessing and participating in the democratization of information and organizations through social media engagement.

It’s great that E-9 Frey now, at long last agrees with the obvious. But she is exposed as a foundationless charlatan who will say whatever she is programmed to say. She is a pull-string doll and nothing more.

And most concerning, she is exactly as the Air Force made her.