Air Force Will Continue to Lose People Until it Deals with Toxic Commanders

CAP Maj Gen Joe Vazquez, SecAF Deborah Lee James
CAP Maj Gen Joe Vazquez, SecAF Deborah Lee James

By John Q. Public

[Editor’s Note: An AuxBeacon Reader shared this JQPublicBlog story with us a few days ago. Thank you for your contribution. The U.S. Air Force and its auxiliary are losing good personnel, with the corrupt remaining only to accelerate the death spiral.]

The Air Force is losing its people. They’re bailing out. The generals are asking how they can reverse this flow and once again make the service a place people want to stay.

Part of the answer is that it must deal seriously and swiftly with toxic leadership, and make it clear the Air Force is no place for professional bullies. Not getting at this problem has been the major failure of the last decade.

Before the problem can be solved, we have to change and complicate how we think about it.

First, we have to stop using the term “toxic.” It’s too vague, which leaves room for rationalizing that someone is or is not toxic. Abusive is what we really mean, and that’s what we should say. Abuse of people, position, or power cannot be permitted among commanders.

Clear examples of abuse of people include public shaming, collective punishment, and personal attacks. In all cases, these are wrong no matter what is motivating them. More subtle examples might include weekend recalls, mass liberty restrictions, mass drug tests, and uniform policies or inspections. These are not always abusive. It matters what is motivating them. If they’re done to everyone as a response to frustration over the conduct of one or a few people, they’re abusive.

Abuse of position is all about pretext. Under the guise of doing something legitimate, a commander uses the special trust and confidence that derive from his position to concoct unnecessary rules, to devise over broad or extreme control and monitoring schemes, or to develop inappropriate leverage to distort bargaining power or smother individual agency. This is tough to spot and even tougher to prove, precisely because commanders are presumed trustworthy and because there are always legitimate rationales that can be used as cover to conceal the pretext.

For example, if a commander insists on straight rather than curly apostrophes because, he argues, it is part of creating the most excellent performance reports, he is likely abusing his position to enforce a personal preference under the guise of a legitimate purpose. If a commander outlaws electronic cigarettes in tent city because, he argues, the batteries used to power them pose a particular fire hazard, he is likely abusing his position unless he also outlaws cellphones that use similar batteries. He obviously just doesn’t want people vaping. The same logic extends to General Order Number One, which has long been used to enforce the personal preferences of senior officers and to help make their jobs easier rather than for any legitimate military purpose.

Wherever you see the phrase “good order and discipline,” be alert for abuse of position. This is the calling card of the master bureaucrat, who by his very nature hijacks the rule book and uses it to fulfill illegitimate and usually unstated purposes. In today’s Air Force, the rules are used to create appearances that gain the Air Force political and budgetary favor, with the dignity and agency of the airmen subjected to those rules not even registering as afterthoughts.

Abuse of power is the most serious form of abuse, and that which can have the most disproportionate and lasting effect on the morale and discipline of the Air Force, which are inextricably linked.

The nature of power is that it cannot be meaningfully resisted or challenged. It is exerted with impunity, which means that the only constraint on the wielder is that person’s commitment to its responsible and ethical exertion.

In the Air Force, commanders are given considerable powers impacting the lives and livelihoods of fellow airmen. The powers to punish, prosecute, investigate, and relieve are most prominent among those. Improper exertion of these powers is abuse, as is the failure to exercise these powers when it is appropriate to do so for the sake protecting a crony, a tribe, or one’s own image. When one airman is less subject to the exertion of power than another because of an improper motivation, abuse is present.

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