Machiavelli has gotten a bad name over the years, but those who’ve studied strategy recognize the timeless genius of one of his key precepts (paraphrasing): never let a crisis go to waste.
It’s clear to me Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria gets this idea. It’s also clear he is a committed leader unwilling to let his organization, the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA), be co-opted by racists. Indeed, given the opportunity, it’s clear he’ll eliminate them from USAFA and from future military service altogether. This is as it should be.
Silveria responded yesterday to a disgusting incident that occurred earlier in the week at the USAFA Prep School, a proving ground where candidates who did not quite make the cut for outright admission compete for a slot the following year while building the academic bandwidth and resiliency needed to succeed in the Academy’s demanding curriculum. The tone, form, and content of his response set a definitive standard for what right looks like in these situations.
The whole thing started this past Monday, when five African American cadets at the Prep School found racial epithets scrawled on the whiteboards outside their dorm rooms. No word yet on who did the scrawling, but the unambiguous message relayed was one of hate, discrimination, and exclusion … roughly the precise opposite of what we’d expect to find in the moral makeup of America’s finest young men and women.
A photo taken of one of the boards later surfaced briefly on social media before being subsequently taken down (edited for content and to protect identity):
To be honest, when I first heard this had happened, I was worried and maybe even a bit skeptical about how it would be handled. Throughout the tenure of Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, who is on terminal leave and retiring effective October 1st after four years as USAFA Superintendent, the school’s response to questions of institutional health has been shaped by opaque and denial-drive public relations strategies. The school has been reluctant to admit it has problems, even when they’ve been clearly manifest. This has gotten in the way of embracing and solving those problems, leaving USAFA less healthy than it could be.
All that has obviously changed with the recent arrival of Jay Silveria. A number of things impress me about the way he has handled this.
He’s been transparent. No attempts to hide or minimize. He’s been swift. Took him two business days to organize a gathering of 6,000 people in one location so he could address them directly. He’s also put his leadership team on the hook, making it clear to the USAFA community that even though individuals did this, it reflects a culture at USAFA that leaders are responsible to address. We can infer from the totality of Silveria’s actions that he’s also investigating what happened at the Prep School, and will hold the perpetrators accountable when they are inevitably identified.
But what impresses me most about Silveria’s response is his personal leadership. He came to the conclusion that if someone was bold enough to do this, USAFA has a problem. If USAFA has a problem, he is responsible personally to address it rather than delegate it away. He took the challenge head-on, and the strength of the message he delivered was multiplied by the fact it came from him, in an open and publicized venue. He didn’t use intermediaries or press agents, and didn’t send someone to do his talking for him. Silveria reportedly cancelled an important trip to prioritize this incident and his response.
He also didn’t mince words. See for yourself in the video below, focusing especially on the last couple of minutes.
The best way to strengthen USAFA and the broader Air Force is to make them unwelcome environments for those who don’t have adequate character to serve. It’s heartening to see a leader in a critical role who gets that, and also understands that open and candid communication is something to be pursued rather than avoided.
Even more encouraging is Silveria’s skillfull use of a regrettable situation to move USAFA forward. It’s obvious he’d rather this hadn’t happened. But given that it did happen, he’s not letting the chance to have a conversation about it go to waste. This is a wise move that reflects a long view rather than the prototype tactical orientation we’ve come to expect from Air Force generals.
Lt. Gen. Silveria says if you can’t treat people with dignity and respect, you need to get out.
I couldn’t agree more.