A controversial mentorship briefing given by a senior officer a few years ago has recently re-surfaced, opening up a fresh conversation about the state of the Air Force officer corps.
At the core of that conversation is a timeless question: to be or to do?
In April, 2008, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a speech at the Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama. In his remarks, he castigated the Air Force for its sluggish adaptation to unfolding irregular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, lamenting that many senior officers were stuck in old ways of doing business. Extracting battlefield innovation from the service was, Gates bemoaned, like “pulling teeth.”
Gates seemed to be proposing that the Air Force was suffering from not just episodic shortcomings, but deep-seated, systemic ills. He spoke to what he viewed as an insufficient thought process across the officer corps that left the service intellectually toothless in the face of required change. To cement his point, Gates went beyond the immediate facts and into an exposition of Air Force culture, invoking a powerful parable Colonel John Boyd was known to share with his colleagues and subordinates:
“[O]ne day you will take a fork in the road, and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go [one] way, you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and get good assignments. Or you can go [the other] way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself … If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself … To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you have to make a decision. To be or to do?”
Gates went on to insist that:
“[f]or the kinds of challenges America will face, the Armed Forces will need principled, creative, reform-minded leaders – men and women who, as Boyd put it, want to do something, not be somebody.”
By implication, he was insisting that the Air Force had too many of the latter and not enough of the former. And he was telling service leaders to do something about it.
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At the time Gates delivered his remarks, Colonel Michael Hornitschek was wrapping up a tour on the Air Staff. A career mobility pilot with an exceptional service record, Hornitschek was on the fast track. Within a couple years after the Gates speech, Hornitschek would find himself in command of an airlift wing at Scott Air Force Base.
At some point during the course of that command tour, he gathered together officers from across his wing and gave them a 42-slide mentorship presentation entitled “Empowering Your Air Force Career: Understanding the Rules of the Game.”
This presentation explored, in an unusual and perhaps unintentional way, the be/do question presented as stark realism by Boyd in the 1970s and later invoked as a service liability by Robert Gates during his Air War College speech.
This presentation, as legend has it, would cost Hornitschek his job.
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Hornitschek, who by all accounts was a concerned and effective leader who cared about his people and wanted them to succeed, modeled his presentation after Harvey J. Coleman’s book “Empowering Yourself: The Organizational Game Revealed.” Coleman’s analysis of corporate culture contends that 10% of an employee’s perceived worth derives from performance, with the other 90% deriving from image and exposure.
Hornitschek’s synthesis of the Coleman theory as applied to Air Force officership set forth a few problematic conclusions, including the idea that duty performance is insufficient for success, and that promotion depends not on merit, but on receiving an “invitation” from cronies occupying upper management.
This wasn’t Hornitschek’s first time giving the briefing. Sources tell JQP that during a prior tour as Vice Commander of the airlift wing at McChord, he delivered the same presentation to a large gathering of junior officers in the base theater. Most who attended were stunned and deflated by the application of corporate logic to the value-driven Air Force framework, but some appreciated the apparent realism and honesty — however brutal — of Hornitschek’s approach.
His summary points painted an Air Force career as a game, making no mention of mission, duty to country, or the importance of caring for people. Instead, the brief made clear that relying on work ethic was the road to career defeat, while winners were those who mastered organizational politics.
This is pretty much the opposite of what the Air Force says it wants in its leaders, and upends the core values of integrity and selfless service officers are expected to uphold.
While undoubtedly well-meaning, Hornitschek’s attempt at mentorship is entitled to no charity. At best, he clearly conveyed that the reality of “to be or to do” was alive and well, and that “to be” meant playing a shrewdly pragmatic game without regard for teammates or even the mission itself.
At worst, he lurched well over the line dividing a useful illustration of the immutable realities of organizational life from active instruction on how to manipulate and exploit organizational seams and gaps that allow impression and influence to matter more than performance.
Apparently, someone consequential agreed at the time. After Hornitschek gave his presentation, he was, in Air Force parlance, “crushed.” As the unconfirmed story goes, word of his unconventional mentorship methods reached four-star level, and he was pushed out of command not long after. Since the Air Force generally does not provide information about why commanders are relieved and did not use this particular episode as a “teachable moment,” there is no way of knowing exactly how Hornitschek’s brief impacted his fate.
What can be concluded is that two years after Gates’ forceful urging that the Air Force reform its officer corps, at least one virulent strain of non-mission-oriented careerism remained viable enough to be embraced and overtly championed by a senior officer with sizable influence. This is a concerning indicator of where at least some of the service’s commanders were putting their focus: not squarely on taking care of people or dominating the mission, but on climbing the career ladder and encouraging subordinates to indulge in self-important conduct.
While the brief seems to have played a role in costing Hornitschek something, it did not catalyze any sort of push for cleanup or clarity across the officer corps when it comes to mentorship and career development. While most officers recoil at the cravenness of approaching a service career with a corporate mentality, the feeling is not universal. Hornitschek was far from alone in seeing things as he did. On a sort of “beat ’em/join ’em” theory, many of his subordinates felt it vain to wish careerism away, and appreciated him showing them how to beat it. Facebook comments reacting to the slides posted above have shown a similar dichotomy of opinion.
This reflects on ongoing struggle for the hearts and minds of the Air Force’s junior and mid-level officers. They’re given a set of official pronouncements about how to succeed and how to reach leadership roles where they can be consequential. The key themes in these pronouncements have to do with duty performance, and mission excellence, and taking care of people.
But those who follow this roadmap often find themselves outdistanced by those who figure out early on that performance isn’t enough — and that in fact, it might not even be necessary or helpful to advancement.
By the time they find out that attending weapons school is less valuable than being someone’s executive officer, or that clicking through a masters degree is preferable to studying every night to be the best operator in the squadron, or that a high PT score trumps a high maintenance reliability rate … they’ve already unwittingly let too many doors close, their more pragmatic peers having slipped through and slammed those doors shut behind them.
In other words, the service’s value system and its promotion system are misaligned. Steering in the direction suggested by values often leads to derailment from the path of success, and vice versa. This means that too often, those most willing to divorce themselves from honest and excellent selflessness and engage in the right combination of schmoozing and square-checking end up getting promoted ahead of peers. Once promoted, they tend to perpetuate the system that made them successful. This setup also means that officers who are honorable to their core are the least likely to reach higher posts, because doing so means abandoning their values and competing with organizational pragmatists on political terms.
The most recent O-6 promotion list reflects that when it comes to early promotion (the most important prize in the contest for generalship), being in the right place (read that “working directly for a 3 or 4 star”) when recommendations are written is far more important than having commanded successfully. This reinforces Hornitschek’s theory that getting noticed is more important than generating results.
Last year’s drawdown (euphemistically titled “Force Management”) was a parade of victories for careerism with many officers selected for elimination from active duty despite exemplary combat records while peers who had checked more squares were retained. Sometimes, even the recommendations of involved commanders could not overcome the service bias in favor of officers who continually demonstrate their commitment to the “game” by stuffing their records with as many feathers as they can gather. In doing so, they’re simply reacting to the service’s incentive structure, captured in macabre relief by this slide from the Hornitschek brief:
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Hiring and firing decisions are also evidence that the be/do question remains central to organizational life. Craig Perry was relieved of command for daring to adopt style and philosophy preferences that his boss disliked. Blair Kaiser was one of a handful of commanders who had their careers destroyed because the boss disapproved of them in some way. These two officers refused to play the game. Their firings reinforce a culture of cronyism in which officers will choose to curry favor with the boss rather than perform their way to success, knowing that the latter is irrelevant unless the former is achieved. For every independently-willed and free-thinking officer cast aside by an imperious boss, space is created for a pragmatist to rise up.
As the Air Force rang in 2015, there was evidence that this culture had seeped into the root structure of the enlisted force. Objectives such as “get promoted” and “lead a unit program” were openly touted by the Air Force as valid career goals, with mission, people, and family utterly unmentioned. This continues an excruciating cultural descent that substitutes mindless affectations and shows of conformity for substantive teamwork and performance.
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As this hearts-and-minds battle rages on, there seems to be little coherent effort from the top to set the incentives right and realign them with values. At the mid level, commanders are left with the tough task of either telling people the unvarnished truth as they see it, or accepting that they may be setting their officers up to fall behind. This is a tough dilemma, not so much because of whatever individual harm befalls this officer or that, but because the universal motive of squadron commanders is (or should be) to see the best officers they have make it the farthest, where they can most fully exploit their potential and effectively shepherd airpower, ensuring air service credits national defense.
Some commanders manage to strike a balance. They do this by being transparent, not just in Hornitschek’s pragmatic sense, but in a broader way that includes weighing of both the career and personal scales. This, after all, is closer to the definition of true mentorship. It invites subjects to think not just about success on the promotion register, but how that success relates to personal and professional values as well as family considerations. Officers need to understand that while morality, ethics, and personal balance may not be part of the calculus of promotion to the senior level, they remain inseparable components of effective leadership and personal fulfillment.
One squadron operations officer found a particularly effective way of getting this across as he sought to help his people process what they had heard in the McChord version of the Hornitschek brief.
Lieutenant Colonel Jon Olekszyk showed his people this version of the “life planning matrix”:
The slide was accompanied by these words:
“All of these events happened to people smarter, richer, and more ‘successful’ than I am. Most of them had a plan as well. You don’t have to be Irish like me to realize that life and the USAF may sometimes put you on a different (or even downward sloping) vector for a short time, a long time, or the rest of your friggin’ life. The only people that go nuts are the ones that assume it will never happen to them.”
He then gave his people some practical tips for finding balance as they pursued success, including the admonition that:
“Every Air Force career ends in failure. The thing that you get to control is if you let it ruin your life, your marriage, and your family before you figure that out.”
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These different approaches illustrate that fine line between letting people know there are certain immutable realities of institutional life and instructing them on how to exploit those realities for personal gain. The former resonates as mentorship while the latter sounds in tones of corruption.
General Mark Welsh, the Air Force’s senior officer, and his personnel deputy, Lieutenant General Sam Cox, haven’t said a whole lot on the subject of officer development. However they have begun to speak through policy, and this is reason for optimism.
Welsh is working to unravel the “square-checking” system of officer development that creates a permissive environment for careerists, taking advanced degrees out of direct cross-check for promotions below colonel. He’s also been stressing the primacy of duty performance in evaluating both enlisted and officer airmen.
But these moves are akin to chopping down a few trees without tilling or treating the poisoned soil beneath. Careerism, and its ugly cousin intellectual infirmity, are entrenched phenomena in the modern Air Force. They must be destroyed systemically, not simply medicated at the surface. This will mean, among other things, reforming what is taught in pre-commissioning and developmental education courses. There are stirrings within Air University that such reform efforts are under active consideration.
But distressingly, Welsh has also poisoned the soil of development himself, publishing a command cookbook telling leaders exactly what they must do for success. To create such a checklist is to create a gospel for careerist worship and lazy-minded assessment. This is a gargantuan mistake in an area where judgment, creativity, and innovation are so important, and where there is no checklist for most situations.
While Hornitschek’s direct influence was cut off, he didn’t get his ideas from thin air. Who was his sponsor? Who taught him what he knew? Who was “pulling him up” through the organization and inviting him to the next level? Is that person still influencing others? Did the Air Force do enough when Hornitschek’s mentality was noted to determine how widespread his view might have become?
These are important inquiries, because the level of dysfunction documented in the Hornitschek brief matched up with the cultural ailments bemoaned by Gates two years earlier and distilled by Boyd decades before. The bare fact of the brief’s existence shows that not much changed after Gates’ admonition, and that the cultural ills Boyd noted have become even more entrenched in the years since he warned the Air Force that it was becoming too corporate to fulfill its role in national defense. At what point does careerism become so pervasive that it crosses the line into corruption? Can officers be trusted by civilian masters if they are, as a bloc, self-interested rather than performance oriented?
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At service level, “to be or to do” is a trick question. While deciding whether to succeed in the “promotion game” or work to make a real difference may be a true dilemma for individuals, the two ideas cannot be spliced apart at the institutional level. The ability to do both must remain real in the design of promotion and command screening systems, because if the service only promotes and rewards those who want to “be someone,” it will lose the ability to “do” anything meaningful in national defense.
The service needs committed difference makers passionate about the mission to comprise its senior-most ranks, rather than vain pragmatists who want power but have no earthly idea how to use it for leadership once they’ve attained their prized positions. Whether it’s managing crises of training and readiness, contending with a drawdown, or persuading Congress on budget issues, the inability of the Air Force to see its objectives through in recent times is attributable at least in part to a culture that has made too much room for play-it-safe managers who want to be rather than bold leaders who want to do.
The Hornitschek briefing is several years distant at this point, but its horrors remain real and its lessons were largely missed. One such lesson concerns the essence of mentorship itself. It’s not simply the exercise of instructing juniors on how to game the system. This perverts the concept, morphing it from a frame for leader development into a petri dish for sponsored corruption.
It’s also not something to be formalized, programmed, or managed from headquarters. It’s an informal conversation between professional colleagues that springs forth naturally when the conditions are right. It’s based on the existence of a professional relationship. To get effective mentorship to occur, the service need only ensure the supervisory system is appropriately resourced, align value and incentive systems, and then back out to a distance and allow airmen to do the rest.
Boyd’s perpetual “be/do” question hangs over the service unresolved. For the Air Force, it’s a trick question. But only by answering successfully can the service’s officer corps navigate a turbulent future.