CMSAF James Cody made a mess of the enlisted corps. From his policies on mandatory careerism to his use of public relations apparatchiks to swerve straight talk, he showed himself as out-of-touch as he was inept from wire to wire. He left behind a struggling and anemic enlisted corps racked with severe understaffing and overloaded with excessive mandatory bullshit.
Into his place steps a career dental technician with an online MBA and seven consecutive assignments as a professional advisor. Kaleth Wright comes to his role as the Service’s most senior enlisted airman during a time of crisis. If he doesn’t get things turned around quickly, the pressure on the enlisted corps will sever its spine once and for all, and the damage will be irreversible.
Which is what makes his initial statements about enlisted morale cause for concern. As documented by Air Force Times, Wright’s recent speech at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium concedes there is a morale problem. This is more than can be said for Wright’s predecessor, the unfortunate Cody, who could never quite navigate his way to this obvious fact in as many words.
But that’s where the good news ends. Wright spent his sermon admonishing “leaders” to “step up” their game and “fix” the morale issues. Apparently lost on Wright is that he himself is one of those leaders, and that the power to correct morale issues rests at his level rather than in the field. He’s at the level where policy is made, while the “leaders” he is addressing are the executors of policy. If there is a morale problem — and there most certainly is — the solution will originate from within a few meters of where Wright stands, and it’ll happen because he has rendered advice to his boss and exerted influence upon the Air Staff.
Later in his speech, Wright implied that leaders need to do their homework to understand what is driving the morale deficit. This is pure nonsense. No more homework, observation, or data collection are necessary. The problems are obvious. The Air Force needs tens of thousands more airmen to share the burden of the mission. It needs senior leaders to remove red tape. It needs staffs to shrink in size and influence so squadrons can grow in prominence. Airmen need fewer obligations both on and off duty. They need to be valued and recognized for core mission contributions rather than watching recognition funnel to pragmatists skilled at latching on to the latest management fads. They need fewer deployments, shorter hours, and far fewer additional duties — to include the additional duty of completing education and career development courses on arbitrary timelines.
Wright’s speech lacked acknowledgement of any of this, which means he’s either shrewd or ignorant. His bid for more time to understand morale problems is a politically adept but wholly unnecessary slow-roll. The time for committed action was years ago.
But his speech also lacked commitment. It’s one thing to admit there’s a problem, which is an important first step. But it’s another to show commitment to correcting it. Wright’s insistence that others get busy fixing morale is a massive shirk reminiscent of the rhetorical style of former CMSAF James Roy, who would be firmly atop the Hall of Shame as Worst E-10 Ever were it not for the horrific performance of his successor, the negligent Cody. Roy was notorious among airmen for putting a problem on the table … and then pushing it across the table, away from himself.
The schtick Roy was employing, now being mimicked by Wright, was to look concerned while guaranteeing nothing of significance would be done … because to consign top-level problems to the remedies of a vague and amorphous cohort of “leaders” is to guarantee they will not be owned, and therefore will not be solved. What he should be doing is owning morale and taking it upon himself to fix it.
But even more disturbing is this little gem uttered in response to a question from the audience:
“We can’t fix this with more time off and more picnics.”
Well, we certainly can’t fix morale with more picnics, but more time off would be a hell of a place to start. And real time off, too. Not the kind where you’re given a day “off” so you can work on Course 15. The overall workload in many units is unsustainable, and to equate this very basic factor in morale with frivolities like picnics is a red flag. Does this guy “get it”? Does he know just how bad things have gotten in the last decade? It’s a fair question given he has spent that decade on staffs or in dental squadrons.
On a positive note, Wright touched on the importance of character development. Here, he is spot on. Let’s just hope he realizes character is most lacking on staffs and in alleged support agencies … where people make an art form out of saying there’s a problem and staffing a solution that creates more work for those in the field. I say enough of that. Let’s see some leadership from the very top for a change.