It was nearly three years ago that I wrote the words below and posted them to a blog which promptly went viral. It was a fiction at the time. A wish in narrative form.
At the time, the Air Force had just come through one of the worst periods in its history. Manpower was short. Pilots were jumping out of the service far faster than they could be replaced. There was too much propaganda and institutionalized waste while airmen were being scolded to tighten their belts. Tempo and family strain were ridiculous. For all of these reasons and myriad others, career airmen had lost a lot of faith, and morale (contrary to the authorized narrative) was in the gutter.
Four years of clownery under Gen. Mark Welsh, his confused sidekick CMSAF James Cody, and tourist-in-chief SecAF Deborah Lee James (thanks, Obama) left the rank and file hungry for a change at the top. More focus, more straight talk, and a leadership team capable of instilling pride. Most of all, airmen wanted to be able to trust their leaders again.
It was at this elbow in USAF history that the words below struck a chord. They were a fantasy of what many of us hoped Gen. David Goldfein would say to airmen in his first words to them after taking command of the service. They were a reflection of the belief that a leader whose perspective had been forged in combat and who had always found a way to succeed without selling out would find a way to exercise moral courage in the notoriously difficult position of Chief of Staff.
In addressing you today, my objective is simple: straight talk about where we are and where we’re going. Not only because you deserve honesty from your leaders, but because we can’t go anywhere together unless we can agree on where we are.
It’s time we admit that “where we are” is not a very good place. We’ve allowed ourselves to fall into some of the traps that tend to spring on organizations under acute pressure on a chronic basis over an extended period of time. That’s not an excuse, but a statement of reality. We’ve been on war footing for a quarter century, and it shows.
We don’t have nearly enough people. As your leader, I recognize that. We’re tens of thousands of people short of a sustainable baseline, which means we either need less mission, more people, or both. Up to now, we’ve allowed you to absorb the pain of this mismatch because we thought it was temporary and the lesser of evils. We’re not going to play that game any more. I’ll be communicating to Congress and the Secretary of Defense in the clearest and simplest of terms that we cannot continue like this. Not only because it places the nation’s defense at risk, but because it’s just wrong.
But while we press for relief from our civilian leaders, we’ll do everything we can internally to free up people to move where the mission needs them, and to free up authorizations so they can be re-purposed to core mission areas rather than frills. This means some sacred cows will need to be slain. We will have one band. We will have zero show choirs. We will slash the number of Air Operations Centers we operate by two thirds. We will close redundant staffs and offices. We will return human resource management functions to commanders and liquidate most of the Air Force Personnel Center, sending those billets back to the field to advise decision makers rather than conducting redundant staffing actions. Through these and other actions, we’ll make the most of what we have and take pressure off squadrons.
The trappings of executive leadership must also go. No more protocol staffs except in select locations where foreign and domestic dignitaries are regularly hosted. Executive officer authorizations will be reduced sharply and have top-level scrutiny. Travel budgets will be cut in half for all general officers and by more in many cases. Executive airlift will be cut accordingly, with the spare resources rolled back into core mission and manpower. Base visits will be closely scrutinized at the 4-star level, with every day and dollar justified in terms of direct mission impact and direct mission disruption. We will once again trust commanders in the field to do their jobs and promote them according to the results they produce rather than the impressions we get during executive touch-and-goes.
We will no longer tolerate a culture of additional duty in our Air Force. Everyone will have a job and focus on that job. Some of us will have multiple roles to play simultaneously, and we’ll play them to the best of our ability because that’s what we get paid to do at certain levels of responsibility. But as a service, it’s time for us to get back to a mentality of having a job and being excellent at that job, which means we have to provide the resources, support, and the time to let you commit yourself to that excellence.
It’s neither fair nor smart nor sustainable to expect our airmen to spread themselves across multiple functions and still be excellent in all they do. I empower commanders at all levels to stop supporting anything that clearly has nothing to do with the mission, and to email me personally if they get any push-back from anyone about that. I also expect commanders at all levels to go about methodically and swiftly dismantling the superstructure of additional duties and volunteer/self-improvement expectations we’ve built over the years. Our airmen will grow and improve consistently without being coerced, and that improvement will benefit them and our organization in the best way when it complements strong focus on duty performance rather than competing with that focus. In the weeks ahead, we will remove volunteerism and self-improvement from enlisted performance appraisals, and my expectation is that for both officer and enlisted airmen, written mentions of non-duty-related performance will be sparing and reserved for truly exceptional activities and contributions. Medals and award programs for volunteer and community service activities will be closed down. Units are free to celebrate community service contributions in their own way, but we will not, as a service, maintain formal award programs in these areas at the steep bureaucratic cost currently entail.
Finally, we will not continue to deploy our people simply to demonstrate we’re involved or to feed a deployed command or staff appetite for manpower. Deployments are not only a steep expense to the taxpayer, but a hardship for our people and their families. Every one of these must be justified in cost/benefit terms. I will send a team to review and audit every deployment on the books. Those falling short of justification on a standard of strict cost-benefit scrutiny will be non-supported, and I will have the task of communicating this new posture to the joint force. Many deployments are valid and will continue, to be sure. But as a rule of thumb, we’re not going to send someone to the desert for a year to do something they can do from a computer terminal at their home station … and certainly not to do something that is not a valid military function. If you’re a commander at any level with pending deployment bills you feel are questionable, I empower you to raise the issue directly to the first general officer in your chain of command, and Cc me on your message. We’re deploying the speedbrake on this issue immediately.
Speaking of the chain of command, we’re going to be making some changes there too. No more having multiple wings at a single base with multiple command staffs competing with one another for the same pool of support resources. That goes against everything we know works in a military organization. We will be returning to a “One Wing, One Base, One Boss” concept, and the central duty of the wing commander will be to harmonize the efforts of all agencies to best support the mission, our airmen, and their families. Operational commanders will no longer outsource support functions to other organizations. They will take ownership of support agencies and make sure everyone understands his or her place in the bigger picture … who they support, who supports them, and what their contract requires. We’ve stopped expecting excellent support of our operations, and without it, we can’t even hope for mission success in the wars we’re currently fighting … let alone the war that waits inevitably around the corner.
But our problems are unfortunately not just structural and cultural. We also have a problem with how we define and exercise leadership. We’re going to fix that problem. If you’re a leader at any level, pay close attention, because your future in the Air Force depends on your ability to adapt to a new direction. I expect you to get in step rapidly.
Leaders have a sacred charge: to take care of people so those people can take care of the mission. This doesn’t mean “going easy” on your people when they drop below standards. It means giving them the resources and support and example to enable them to meet and exceed those standards … so you can measure them against those standards without reservation.
Your duty as a leader is to work tirelessly to clear obstacles between your people and their mission. Whether this means burning red tape, providing additional training, mentoring individuals through difficult personal and professional challenges, or administering “tough love” … it’s your job to determine what is needed and then cause it to materialize. That’s the job, and if you’re trying hard to do that job, you’ll be given a chance — maybe even multiple chances — to get it right. If you’re not interested in leading … if you’re more interested in status, prestige, power, position, or any of the other various illusions that are mistaken for organizational leadership … you’re in the wrong business. This is a team sport.
If you’re a leader, it is not your job to simply make up and enforce rules. If we’re doing things well, we won’t need many rules and we certainly won’t need a robust enforcement mechanism. Your job is not stalk your airmen on social media, to tell them what personal opinion they should possess, or to suggest how they spend their time away from the line. This is not “just a job” … but it’s also not indentured servitude. Our people need and are entitled to space and privacy and individuality. They are Americans. Remember that, and concern yourself with optimizing their duty performance. Leave the rest alone unless you are presented with clear and convincing evidence that there is a mission-related reason for you to get involved. If you’re functioning well as a leader, you should not have time to micromanage anyone. You should be too busy identifying problems plaguing your airmen and working on solutions to clear them out of the way. You should be too busy thinking about how to unleash their performance potential, and processing the results of their performance as you carefully assess how to develop them. None of that involves controlling their non-duty-related behavior or encumbering them with mindless rules that make you feel more important at the expense of their morale. If you’re doing this — whether you’re an E-5 or an O-10 — knock it off and change course now … or you and I will be at odds.
I will hold all leaders at all levels sternly, swiftly, and transparently accountable for moral and ethical lapses. Abuse of power will not be tolerated. Relieving someone or disciplining someone without proper cause will be the end of your career. Excessive punishments for minor infractions involving otherwise solid airmen are not consistent with a warrior ethos and do not reflect what we’re about as a service. If a subordinate is underperforming or making mistakes, your job is to get them on-track. If you can’t get them on-track, sideline them while you figure out how to develop them or declare to the system that they have reached their potential, but only after you’ve given your best effort to extract from them the performance other commanders who comprise the system saw possible.
And this leads into my final point. We must restore trust across the board, which means we have to start seeing the best in one another again. We have to stop, as a service, looking darkly upon one another. We must return to a culture that presumes good intentions and honorability unless and until evidence to the contrary presents itself. Trust is critical in our business. We go to war together, and without trust in one another as wingmen, victory is not possible. War doesn’t permit constant monitoring or verification. It doesn’t afford needless redundancy. It doesn’t allow for individuals who act in their own interest rather than adopting a team mentality because they refuse to trust their teammates. This is especially true of our career force. While airmen and officers in their initial service commitments are still determining whether they want to be part of our team for the long haul, those who have reenlisted or incurred additional service commitments have made a crystal clear statement that they are with us for good. We can’t afford to alienate them by refusing to acknowledge that they have earned a special and long-term place on our roster.
As you consider this message, think about what it means to be in our Air Force, and what it should mean. It’s a privilege to serve, but that reality — often stated as a platitude — isn’t enough. We should be so much more. Serving should be an uplifting and inspiring way of life. It’s traditionally been a superb profession, and we must make it a superb profession again. We will do that together, and I’m committed to making it the central focus of my leadership strategy for as long as I have the honor of this role in our organization. I ask you to join me in committing to a new direction … one characterized by what I’ve said here today and much more we’ll discuss in the time ahead. Adapt to the spirit of it, and make your own inputs. Together, we’ll get our Air Force back on vector.
These words were my fantasy about how much Goldfein loved the Air Force and what he would commit to doing while at the controls. People really loved these words and this fantasy. It was like an oasis in a desert of bad leadership. Everyone read it, shared it, and commented.
While it would be an overstatement to say Goldfein has brought every element of this to life, the essence of what was hoped for in these words has been squarely attacked. In some cases, made real.
Since these words were written, the Air Force has:
- Added contract positions to flying squadrons to free aircrews up for primary duties (though these positions have not all been filled yet)
- Authorized up to 1,000 retired aviators to return to active service for up to 4 years to take pressure off the active pilot force
- Added 1,600 admin positions to Commander’s Support Staffs to relieve admin pressure on aircrews and decrease additional duties
- Increased bonus pay to retain as many aviators as possible
- Reduced 365-day deployments by 29% in 2018 and converted or transferred to CONUS an additional 125 positions
- Incentivized AFPAK Hands assignments in various ways to the extent that positions are expected to be exclusively filled with volunteers
- Committed to reducing 180 deployments to 120 days where possible
- Restored advance assignment notification for commanders
- Eliminated consideration of Distance Learning PME in residence selection
- Cut, consolidated, or eliminated additional duties, ancillary duties, and unnecessary training where not limited by law
- Committed to slashing regulations and instructions that are not adding value
This is more than the prior leadership team achieved by a ratio of whatever it is to the square root of nothing. For four years, airmen begged Mark Welsh for even a morsel of this … and he provided nothing while telling Congress morale was “pretty darn good.”
But more than this, the Goldfein Air Force has invited open debate, demonstrated transparency, and encouraged commanders to attack issues without waiting for headquarters guidance, signaling a reversal of the top-down psychology of the prior regime.
Under Goldfein, lethality has become the yardstick. If a thing does not contribute to it, that thing is not adding value. This simple but powerful way of thinking about service is the key to a combat orientation and a narrow enough focus to keep airmen bound together, unified in purpose, and inspired. Gone are the days of a confused, support-esque mentality that leaves combat airmen self-doubting and under-appreciated. Goldfein’s command element has its priorities straight, and that is the gold standard of leadership.
Perhaps the crown jewel of the Goldfein era is this masterpiece video reinforcing that we are a combat service … and that we recognize the critical, central, primary role of those who do our fighting for us.
Some Chiefs of Staff come to the role and let their staffs or colleagues or even their subordinate dictate priorities. Some wander or even wallow through the job, inviting sympathy for the political-military-legislative-commercial needle they necessarily thread to keep our USAF on track.
But the great ones take the controls with clarity about what matters and what they need to accomplish to keep us on track. “Fingers” is this sort of CSAF. Like no other boss since Ron Fogleman, he has regained the trust and confidence of his officers and airmen … without alienating Congress or industry.
We’re about to salute goodnight to the best CSAF in a generation and one of the best we’ve ever had. Don’t miss the chance to reflect … it is unlikely things will get better from here.
Tony Carr is an American writer, manager, veteran, and strategist. He is a former combat pilot and squadron commander with an M.A. from George Washington University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Tony is the founder of The Colosseum Blog and writes from Manchester, United Kingdom.