One of the pages I follow on Facebook had a post in praise of the new Secretary of the Air Force and the leadership vision she brings. It shared this article. New Air Force secretary presses for a culture change in her service. Please forgive me, but I have to suppress something that ranges from an inner chuckle to an outright laugh.
I entered active service in 1974 and after retirement in 1996 spent the next twenty years working as a civilian for the Air Force. In those forty plus years I can’t recall a time the Air Force was not experiencing some kind of culture change.
Sometimes the changes came so quickly we hadn’t even began the last one, before the new one had replaced it. I often wondered if we wouldn’t be better off with a chameleon type uniform to show our ability to change.
I would like to borrow Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, “How do I love thee?” to capture my view on this.
How do I change thee?
How do I change thee? Let me count the ways.
I change thee to size, strength, and mission so large
My soul can reach, while I am in charge
For the ends and purpose of political grace.
I change thee to the level my days allow
Most quiet change, by rule and wile
I change thee often, as airman’s lives I beguile
I change thee haphazardly, as if I am the night
I change thee with passion put to use
For I have but a short time to make it right
In my ego, and with childlike faith
I change thee with words, oft times out of place,
With promotions, selections, wisdom implied; and if the President smiles
I shall change thee for a longer while.
Don’t get me wrong, there are things that need to change in the Air Force, but with each new administration the Department’s need to bend to a new management style, a new political agenda, or to correct a real or imagined need means the service can never reach efficiency in either its organization or its leadership.
Perhaps I am too old to appreciate the dynamics at play, and it is the easy out to believe that, but I wasn’t too old when the Air Force changed from being led by airman who believed the nuclear bomber was supreme to airman who thought fighters were the only way to go. At the end of the day that transition led the Air Force to carry nuclear bombs from North Dakota to Louisiana without realizing they were on the aircraft. We had a culture change were regulations were no longer regulating, but just kind of giving advice; if you cared to read it. (Kind of like the new SECAF suggests)
I was there when the culture was changed to tell our airman that doing your job was the number one priority, and rated officers should focus on being the best they could be and the rest would be taken care of. I was also there when those same airmen were let go during downsizing, or passed over for promotion because someone else had spent less time flying and more time doing other things that impressed the squadron commander.
I was there when the Air Force management philosophy changed to reflect the current fads in manufacturing. When management styles were defined in a box, quality management was job 1, when everyone should have 7 habits, when evaluation forms had rankings (or not), when officer evaluations needed secret key words, or when the Weighted Airman Promotion System (WAPS) should weigh this or that aspect heavier or lighter based on how many people could get promoted. Because at the end of the day, everything is about promotion, isn’t it?
Break-Break: Just a random thought here. In celebrating the 4th of July, a friend who knew his family history, pointed out one of his ancestors had fought the entire Revolutionary war as a private. He had lived through the winter at Valley Forge and participated as a part of the Colonial Army for four long years without promotion. It was wrong of me, but my first thought was he probably had problems with the Weighted Revolutionary Army Promotion System (WRAPS) testing.
Somehow, I’ve missed the culture change where rated officers in the Air Force actually learn how to lead airman by example from the time they are Lieutenants. For almost all pilots, or navigators/weapon system officers/combat system officers/pick your term, the first time they get to really be in charge of another individual to the point of controlling their life is when they are Lieutenant Colonels with 14 to 18-years of service. Even then if you are a fighter pilot you are in charge of 24 type A personality pilots who want to fly and will avoid almost anything that threatens that choice. Non-rated officers, on the other hand, have to deal with the young kids almost from their first day, but at the end of their careers they will never be the Chief of Staff.
All the previous aside, there are cultural changes that are critical and the question is how to separate them from the politically motivated changes that are never truly embraced by the average airman?
For example, when I entered the service we were learning to embrace racial equality. Although the service had been technically integrated since President Truman’s Executive Order 9981, issued in 1948, the 1960’s had taught us discrimination was still an issue. We had annual training on this issue during the 1970s. Did this solve the problem? Some would say yes, some no, but what I’ve seen is the military services have embraced equality to a far larger degree than civil society because of the need for discipline and harmony within a combat unit far outweighs personal bias.
I believe, despite the changing winds of the political climate, the same will be said for the acceptance of the homosexual communities, unless or until they begin to disrupt good order and discipline.
How do we bring young airman who’ve grown up being sheltered from reality into a culture that demands we face the reality of the world on a daily basis?
As Bob Dillion so eloquently put it, “The times they are a ‘changing.” I wonder how we effectively change the military culture, when the civil culture doesn’t know what right is?