Much was made about a “feel good” story recently reported by Stars and Stripes and later picked up by our sister publication Popular Military.
The way the story goes, Col. Kenneth Moss, commander of the 374th Airlift Wing at Yokota Air Base in Japan, arrived to the base’s Enlisted Club to participate in some sort of event. His designated parking spot was taken, which he resented on some level. So he blocked the vehicle into the spot, himself parking illegally, and proceeded with his event.
He later learned the vehicle had been parked there the night before by an airman and his wife who responsible chose to take a taxi home after drinking too much at the Club. He also learned that the means used to mark the spot as reserved meant that the airman did not even realize he was taking the commander’s spot.
Moss devised and implemented an improved means of assuring himself a guaranteed spot and then swiftly claimed victory, proclaiming that a problem had been solved. There’s no evidence anyone on the crack reporting team at Stars and Stripes challenged his proclamation or asked any follow-up questions.
I would have. Because it’s obvious Moss learned all the wrong lessons.
The first lesson he missed is that there should not be reserved spots for colonels at the Enlisted Club. In fact, in my opinion there should not be reserved spots for anyone, anywhere. These vestigial perks are extensions of a flawed mentality holding that one person’s time is more important than another’s. We’re meant to believe that commanders are so important and busy that they can’t be bothered to walk a distance corresponding to how early or late they have arrived to an appointment. In my experience, colonels and generals have a lot more control over their calendars than those they command. Arriving on time is a matter of discipline, same as it is for anyone else except that a commander has the latitude to walk away from prior meetings or engagements without anyone questioning it.
But even if I were to concede that reserved parking spots were somehow legitimate, there is no theory that makes it acceptable for a colonel to have a reserved spot at the Enlisted Club. The entire conceit of the enlisted corps is one of cohesion and teamwork that doesn’t really recognize rank distinctions beyond the point where they reflect technical experience or proficiency. If a Staff Sergeant respects a Master Sergeant, it’s because that person had to be better at the core tasks of a given specialty to earn those extra stripes. The whole notion of advancement based on political savvy and resume-padding has been completely foreign to our enlisted corps for the best part of seven decades. It’s only with the rise of the self-important E-9 that enlisted members have started to glimpse careerism. They’ve repudiated it, tens of thousands voting with their feet.
The second lesson missed by Moss was the one about how leaders should respond to perceived inappropriate conduct. Rather than find a legitimate parking spot to use (and there was one right next to the occupied spot), he chose to park illegally himself. This sends the message that it’s OK to break the rules so long as you feel personally justified. This is exactly what we tell airmen they must not do. Even worse, it sends the message that leaders see themselves as above the rules or in control of the rules rather than subject to them. A low-ranking airman taking similar actions would be subject to censure. If the rules only apply to the disempowered, we’re not a fighting team but an authoritarian structure existing to glorify itself rather than win wars.
Third, and most poignantly, Moss missed a point about his own psychology. His reaction when his spot was occupied was that some brash, bold, rule-flouting airman had challenged his authority. He was resolved to teach this brigand a lesson, as a king might chasten a rebellious upstart. Of course, he was completely wrong about what had happened because he failed a key but not often mentioned test of leadership: commitment to the idea of positive intent. If you’re not assuming the people working for and with you are doing their best, you don’t deserve to be on the same team with them. One of the first rules of being on a team is to assume the best in your teammates unless and until they prove otherwise.
What Moss should have been saying to the media was that he got this wrong because his perspective was miscalibrated … because he was raised in a flawed and failing organization that has long since stopped raising good leaders.
Air Force officers are too self-important. This is because they too seldom serve in true team environments, where selflessness and an egalitarian ethos are premium cultural fixtures. Promoted to a certain level, this self-importance morphs into vanity. Perks become measures of status, which props up ego.
This us exactly the wrong way to empower men to exercise authority over others, and it will lead to a lost war if it doesn’t change.