It was a few weeks ago that someone sent me a tip about the Air Force selecting a group of retired generals to serve as “Senior Mentors.” Between them, these seven men have exactly zero experience at wing level or below in the past 13 years, so I found it curious the Air Force would hire them to mentor its senior officers at a time when it is openly acknowledged by everyone that the service’s most severe issues — those threatening its institutional vitality — are concentrated in the functioning and support of its squadrons.
I found it doubly curious these men would be mislabeled “professors.” None of them has spent much time developing academic or teaching expertise. In fact, the Air Force has long harbored a nasty anti-intellectual streak, and that didn’t change when these particular senior generals were running the show.
I reflected on the matter and wrote an article that was critical of the entire idea. I took particular aim at the selection of retired Lt. Gen. Robert Allardice, a man I worked for and respected in the aftermath of 9/11/01 who managed to completely squander the faith I had in him over the course of the subsequent dozen years. I wasn’t alone in turning away from Allardice as he rose through the ranks, and in fact I can think of only a few officers who didn’t believe he’d been a massive failure as a strategic leader. Air Mobility Command (AMC) is a wreck today, in part because Dice did little to strengthen or fortify the command when he had a position of substantial authority and influence. He was too busy giving speeches about his chosen leadership principles.
The piece generated a flood of online commentary, most of it critical of the Senior Mentor program. Much of it reflected the pent-up anti-Allardice rage of AMC officers who served during his tenure as commander of 18th Air Force — a particularly punishing period that drove masses of good airmen to leave active duty.
But there was one particular comment so rich and multi-layered in its purpose and meaning — perhaps unintentionally so — that it deserves a fulsome response.
Here’s the comment. Analysis after.
Ah, I do so love the comment that starts off by pretending we’re all pals. Especially when it comes from someone with a faceless Facebook account whose identity therefore can’t be verified. I don’t have any idea who I’m responding to, but in the end the source of the comment is less important than the substance.
“you were a pretty good Lt Col and had the opportunity to command an amazing squadron.”
I think the phrase you’re looking for is “pretty darn good.” I’m glad you think so, but I don’t grade myself on the Air Force’s scale because it measures mostly the wrong things. I choose instead to consider two things: how well my organization achieved operational results (even when few in the chain of command seemed to notice or care), and how well those I was responsible to develop have done for themselves since I moved on. By both measures, the 14th Airlift Squadron was indeed amazing.
Up to this point, Joe hasn’t said anything particularly controversial. But he’s about to take the plunge.
“however, you opted out of the opportunity to lead at the next level and therefore really don’t have the background or experience to comment on what is required to lead at the O-6 and higher level.”
The first part of this is factless, and the second part a classic non-sequitur.
I didn’t opt out of the opportunity to lead at the next level. I chose to do so somewhere other than the Air Force. The same is true for scores of my colleagues similarly situated. Part of the reason for that decision is that because of the narrow and unduly conservative intellectual bent of the Air Force’s general officer corps, successful commanders are expected to spend half a decade or more in professional purgatory before being given the chance to command again. The service sets up its top-performing officers to waste a decade of their professional prime holding down chairs on staffs when they should be leading organizations. Some choose to find work elsewhere, in companies that better reflect their personal ethos and professional views.
Like many others in my generation, I wanted more responsibility and a chance at greater influence faster and more dependably than the USAF could offer it. And I wanted those things without moving my family four times in five years for the privilege of taking a continual teeth-kicking from wooden executives like Allardice … who were too busy acting out a live-action role-play of Patton to actually employ his principles.
So I moved on, taking a wealth of development and tribal knowledge with me, as did many of my most capable colleagues.
But this does not mean I don’t have any idea what it takes to be successful at the next level and beyond. When you think about it, this is a silly argument, and it is often made by the dull-minded. If the only people capable of judging colonels and generals are other colonels and generals, you have a closed system by definition. Closed systems degrade and rot. They die. Look no further than the abject deterioration of the blue suit general officer corps since 2001 for evidence. It is a textbook example of organizational entropy.
This is why good companies make a constant study of how senior leaders are performing by asking those they are charged to support: their subordinates. It’s the captains whose inputs and opinions matter most when grading a three-star general … not his or her four-star benefactor.
Not even the Air Force believes you have to be a general to capably grade the performance of a general. It sends its officers to be aides, executive officers, and interns precisely because it wants to give them exposure to generalship early in their careers … so they will know what it takes to lead at that level long before they get there. Having served up close with many senior officers, I’ve got a solid grip on what it takes to be effective as a senior leader in the Air Force. Enough of a grip to know Allardice and those like him have no idea what they are doing.
The commenter goes on to insist that Dice was an amazing leader at every step of the way. Lots of bias in that remark, but no evidence, likely because the evidence says just the opposite. Between 2009 and 2013 — the years during which he commanded all AMC operations and served as its Vice Commander — life in air mobility got multiples worse than it had been before. Squadrons were given more to do, had declining resources, and had their authority pulled away … centralized within do-nothing staffs at Scott, Randolph, and the Pentagon. When they raised the flag, they were told to shut up. When safety lapses demonstrated a lack of proper training, it was assumed pilots lacked work ethic or that they were misprioritizing. When suicides occurred, long VTCs were held so the anointed — removed by hundreds or thousands of miles — could bloviate about someone else’s loss … but no one ever stopped to question the linkage between declining morale and declining resiliency.
That’s the kind of culture Dice engendered when he had the chance to do great things. He’s not alone in having done so. He’s just a poster child for a horrifically ineffectual and aloof generation of general officers. They’ve put the service into a real mess, and they shouldn’t be rewarded for that with lucrative advisory contracts — especially when candidates are available who can provide far better advice, even if they (gasp!) left the service as mere mortals.
Jackson closes by asking me to find something positive to write about. This is ironic given that I’m taking a lot of fire recently for actually giving the current crop of leaders credit for trying to fix what the last generation broke. But he’s right — there’s plenty of positive to dwell upon in the present without stirring the sleeping dogs of the past.
May they long slumber, especially if it means we can quickly forget how badly they’ve screwed up an institution whose proper functioning underwrites the defense of our entire way of life.