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If you want to be a successful disruptive thinker, I’ll give you a little hint: if you humiliate your supervisors in front of their own bosses, make people cry, and get called behind closed doors for a dressing down, you’ve probably failed.

Yes, it really was that bad.

Let me give some background first.  First, I am a hard INTJ in the world of Meyers-Brigs personality types, meaning that I have a compulsive need to improve everything I come in contact with.  As you can probably imagine, that is a double-edged sword.  Second, before I began Arabic studies at the Defense Language Institute, I had been working as a Flying Safety Officer at my C-17 base.  That meant my entire job was dedicated to continual improvement.  My colleagues and I were constantly tweaking base processes to ensure maximum safety for aircraft operations.  If a mishap occurred, we ran investigations, identified causal findings, and made specific recommendations to reduce the chances of a similar mishap ever occurring again.  My entire job consisted of identifying areas for improvement, then making constructive recommendations.  Nothing about that, I thought, would be controversial in an organization that valued its own improvement.

When I began at DLI, the Arabic program was a work-in-progress.  The school had tripled in size since September 11th, and it had growing pains.  My classmates and I were appalled to discover that the pass rate at graduation was only 14%–so low that the DOD had to re-evaluate its Arabic DLPT.  Because teachers received merit pay linked to student DLPT scores, the entire school–from the lowest students to the highest administrators–was in a state of constant panic.  Methodology seemed to change every week or two.  Students were failing out left and right because they couldn’t handle the stress.  As for our curriculum, it was an experimental monstrosity of more than ten volumes that had just come out of production and had cost more than a million dollars.  It was terrible.

I though the administration might value some feedback, so I did exactly what I’d done as a flying safety officer: typed up a lengthy list of detailed concerns.  For each of them I listed specific, actionable recommendations that would mitigate the concern.  Nothing about this seemed controversial to me, and I ran it by my classmates before sending it up.  We focused our comments specifically on the curriculum, not on particular teachers or administrators.  I provided my feedback to our Military Training Leader, an NCO embedded within the mostly Arab, civilian faculty.  We all felt pretty good about ourselves for trying to make the organization better.

A few days later, I was stunned when I was called into our head teacher’s office–a wonderful mother-bear of a woman who loved us like her own children, but was as vicious and demanding as a drill sergeant.  She was crying.  “Yacoub,” she choked, using my Arabic name.  “What’s this?”  Then she held up a copy of my paper.  “I thought you liked us, Yacoub.”

Oops.

We suffered through a horrible day, as each of our hurt, confused teachers interrogated us about our “complaint.”  Later that afternoon, the administrator who supervised our teachers paid his first-ever visit to our class… to berate us for violating our chain of command, and complaining to the higher administration without coming to him first.

Here’s what had happened: the NCO had taken our feedback directly to the Dean, the head of the entire Arabic school.  The Dean had then called up his subordinate administrators, wanting to know what this was all about, and they were completely blindsided.  The NCO had also left a copy somewhere on the shared drive where, by complete coincidence, my teachers had stumbled across it. Even as the administration was exploding, the teachers were passing around copies of our “secret” complaint.  Everybody felt betrayed.  Even though our critique was focused on the curriculum, our teachers felt that we were complaining about them.  Both they and the junior administrators were humiliated in front of their bosses.  Even though we had intended our feedback as an impersonal means of organizational improvement, few of the civilians understood that.  This was also my first exposure to how complicated cross-cultural relationships can be.  These were teachers from cultural backgrounds in which personal honor was everything, and shame was an unbearable fate.

Damage control took weeks, and some relationships never recovered.  None of our recommendations were put into effect, although to her credit, our lead teacher tossed out the curriculum and began working late every night to create her own.

Epic, disruptive failure.

This was one of the most illuminating experiences of my life.  The INTJ profile says that we “do not readily grasp… social rituals”, which is extremely harsh but also–just maybe–a little bit true.  At the time I dwelled in a world of ideas, and naively thought that good ideas would stand on their own merit.  The inevitable response to our constructive critique, I thought, would be gratitude and implementation of our ideas.  Not so much.  We weren’t dealing with neutral ideas, I realized; we were dealing with people and feelings and careers and pride and shame.

In my SWJ article, the #1 principle for disruptive thinkers is this: “The goal is persuasion.”  That flows directly from this experience.  My classmates and I were in no position to implement our own recommendations.  We needed buy-in from teachers and administrators, so our goal should have been to persuade them.  That meant presenting them with good ideas, but it also meant constructing positive, trusting relationships in which we could sell our ideas as win-win opportunities.  Our failure to do that (which was largely my failure) led to one of the most awkward situations in my career.

I wish I could tell you I changed forever after that, but I’m not always the fastest learner.  In my next post in this series, I’ll share one more story.  Then, right around the time I’ve convinced you that I’m a hopeless idiot, I’ll share some of my positive experiences with creating change.

To complement my article Finding Common Ground: Harnessing Disruption for the Good of the Service, I will be writing a series of posts about my own personal efforts at “disruptive thinking” within the military.

I wish I could tell you that all my advice for disruptive junior officers is born of my own innate wisdom.  Alas, that’s not the case.  I learned most of these lessons the hard way.  In the coming posts, I’ll tell it all.

Only a few minutes after I commented sympathetically on Last Wishes of a Dying General, I read Crispin Burke’s devastating takedown.  The subsequent online discussion about both these pieces has given me a lot to think about.  Although Carr’s essay was received quite well among his readers and colleagues, Crispin’s critique resonated with many other officers, who see Carr’s piece as an arrogant, angry rant.

Because I know Carr and what he stands for, I didn’t read his piece that way.  I think a lot of his frustrations are legitimate, and believe he speaks for a lot of Air Force officers.

But as the discussion has continued, and I’ve had more time to reflect on it, it looks to me like Carr’s piece–and the reaction to it–exactly fits the unproductive cycle that I described in Finding Common Ground.

The essay violates several of the principles I suggest for disruptive officers who want to make a difference.  Its biggest fault is that it’s too personal, severely undermining its legitimate points.  It focuses on problems without proposing specific, actionable solutions.  Finally, it is written in a tone and manner that is not likely to persuade senior leaders.

On the other hand, I haven’t been impressed by some of the reactions from older, more senior officers.  I have seen little engagement with Carr’s concerns, or acknowledgement that these concerns are widespread in the Air Force.  Instead, I’ve seen assaults on Carr’s character, statements of good riddance, and dismissals of his critique on the basis that the private sector is worse.

All of this is quite disappointing, so once again, I point to the suggestions for both junior and senior officers in my essay.  These debates need to move forward in positive, constructive ways and I see responsibilities on both sides.

My friend and former Air Force colleague Tony Carr has written a thought-provoking new piece about dysfunctional Air Force culture, titled Last Wishes of a Dying General.  Tony was a Major when I was a young captain and one of the fastest burners I’ve ever seen in the Air Force.  Air Force Intern program, weapons school, SAASS, you name it… he’d done it all, and anyone who knew him would tell you that he was going to be a general, probably with more than one star.  Then, after completing his squadron command, this would-be general stunned everybody who knew him by separating.  This article explains why, and it has everything to do with the ongoing “disruptive thinking” and “bleeding talent” discussion.

In my recent essay Finding Common Ground, I wrote that it’s not especially helpful to talk about the “best and the brightest” leaving in frustration.  However, this really is an example of the best and brightest leaving in frustration.

I won’t repeat Tony’s points here–you should read his essay for yourself–but I want to hit on a couple tangential issues.

First: most of these frustration/disillusionment discussions have focused on the U.S. Army.  I thought it was obvious that these issues are common to the services, so I was shocked to hear a recently retired Air Force general tell me that this was an Army-only issue.  When I pressed him and offered up numerous stories from my own experience, he told me that I was guilty of projecting my own narrow perspective, then finally suggested that perhaps Air Mobility Command was this way, but we’re oddballs because we have such good career prospects on the outside with the airlines.  I couldn’t believe he actually thought that.  The Air Force is boiling with frustration, and Tony’s essay–and the extensive commentary on it–gives us a glimpse of what personnel are talking about across the Air Force on their lunch breaks or at Flight Level 350.

Second, senior leader response.  Shortly after its publication, this article appeared on an e-mail discussion list that I participate in, one which has many senior military leaders.  Only one senior leader (retired) responded, with a disparaging comment about how if Tony really cared about the Air Force, he would have stayed in to make a difference.  On the one hand, I was once again dismayed by how many senior leaders are content to blow off the exodus of talent–one of the primary reasons I wrote my essay.  On the other hand, I recognize the importance of this point.

Somebody raised this same point in the comments section of Tony’s blog: why don’t you stay in so you can be part of the solution?  Tony’s response is one of the best I’ve seen.  I’ll post it in its entirety:

The reason I ran a 9-yard route is pretty simple. I took a look at what my boss was doing and realized I had zero desire to do it. Then I looked at what his boss was doing and realized I had even less than zero. The problems outlined in this post (and many more not in this post) were so intractable, and the authority to address them at my level and 1-2 echelons above so limited, that I could see very little prospect for “difference making” in the next 5-10 years. My career was always driven by making a difference, which most successful careers are. Thus, it was simple to me … if I can’t make a difference for the next decade in this system, it’s too broken to ask my family to endure what that decade would mean. Most people willing to stay under such conditions are the type who don’t think they can do anything else with their lives … hence the dynamic you describe.

The notion of unfinished business will always haunt me. But I concluded I could probably make a bigger difference from the outside than from within. Many others have felt the same and acted accordingly. I’ll tell you what might make me different … had I been free to write an article this vocal (or speak these words in a boardroom this clearly) without being either professionally ostracized or cast aside as a malcontent … I would have been much more likely to stay. Behind all of this dysfunction is a drive for mental conformity that prevents us from talking openly about, let alone solving, our problems.

At the risk of being labeled a malcontent myself, these paragraphs literally make me ache because they ring so true.  I am driven by that same impulse to make a positive impact on the world, but when I look ahead, I feel despair at the prospects of making a difference within the existing system.  Tony is exactly right: the argument that “you should stay in to make a difference” breaks down, if the system is so rigid that it can’t be changed except from the very top.

As for me, I’m still young and plan to stay in for a while.  I owe the Air Force a lot, especially because it’s entrusted me with a spectacular education.  But the Air Force isn’t making it easy for me, and I earnestly hope that senior leaders somewhere are reading essays like Tony’s and paying attention.

My new article is now available on Small Wars Journal, Finding Common Ground: Harnessing Disruption for the Good of the Service.  It is about how disruptive junior officers and their senior leaders can work together for the continual improvement of their organizations.

If you are visiting Building Peace for the first time from SWJ, welcome!  I began this website to chronicle my time as an Olmsted scholar, and multiply the impact of my education.  Although Olmsted is now behind me, this site continues to follow my ongoing education as a student of war and peace… and whatever else catches my interest.

The first time I heard of Gene Sharp was during the early weeks of the Arab Spring, when the masses were filling Tahrir Square in Cairo.  I heard about how-to pamphlets going viral among the demonstrators, written by an obscure writer in his mid-80s who had never really found a home within formal academia.  Writing out of his basement and a minimal organization known as the Albert Einstein Institute, Gene Sharp had somehow earned a reputation as the “father of nonviolent revolution” and inspired nonviolent activists from Burma to Egypt.  He’d even been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, and is now the subject of a documentary called How to Start a Revolution.  Once I knew who he was, his name cropped up repeatedly.  On one occasion, a military strategist with COIN experience in the Philippines recommended studying his work.

Most of Sharp’s work is available for free on the Albert Einstein Institute website, so I loaded up my iPad before my most recent C-17 mission and spent my crew rests engaged with titles like From Dictatorship to Democracy, Self-Liberation, and There are Realistic Alternatives.

Taken together, Sharp’s body of work is based on a simple premise: dictators only function because frightened, demoralized people believe in the dictator’s power and grant their consent.  If they remove their consent, even the most brutal authoritarian regime will weaken and possibly even crumble.  Using violence against such a regime–whether direct or indirect–is dangerous, because it attacks the regime’s strength and is likely to end in violent tragedy for the revolutionaries.  Even if the revolutionaries find victory, the power distribution in the country remains the same and there is a risk of continued authoritarianism under the new government.

Nonviolent action is far more likely to bear fruit, Sharp writes, because it attacks the regime’s vulnerabilities and simultaneously sows the seeds for the thriving civil society and democratic mindset that will hopefully lead to better governance once the dictatorship ends.  Much of Sharp’s work is practical, helping would-be revolutionaries analyze their unique circumstances, plan strategy, and choose appropriate tactics and methods to enable those strategies.  He often references a list of 198 methods of nonviolent action.

Skeptics of nonviolent action need to understand something: Sharp’s nonviolence is not about cowering, spineless submission to tyranny.  It is not about “negotiating” deals with dictators and calling the resulting absence of bloodshed “peace.”  It is not about turning the other cheek.  Sharp’s nonviolence is about deliberate, courageous, and defiant effort to exercise power and undermine the pillars of a dictatorial regime.  Such nonviolent action is hard and exceptionally dangerous, and will probably be met with brutal repression.  Nonetheless, it can transform societies and governments.

It is fascinating reading Sharp’s work two years into the Arab Spring, because there is so much evidence to consider when evaluating his theory.  On the whole, Sharp’s theory seems to fit the facts quite well, with a couple notable exceptions.  I’ll comment on just a few points.

First, nonviolent action is indeed capable of leveraging tremendous power against a regime’s vulnerabilities.  Nonviolence can even be more powerful than violence.  The initial uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, which culminated in the hasty departure of both dictators, seem to confirm Sharp’s overall thesis.  Nonviolent action collapsed both regimes within weeks; I dread to consider what revolutionary violence would have led to. One might argue that Egypt would never have “flipped” without the backing of the Army, but this doesn’t necessarily contradict Sharp’s thesis.  He often notes the importance of institutions like the police and Army, and urges revolutionary strategists to consider ways to bring elements of these organizations to their side.  Also, the role of the Egyptian Army  illustrates Sharp’s point that a dictator depends on the consent of his people for survival; if that consent is withdrawn, the regime has nothing.

Second, strategy is essential.  Sharp laments that most revolutionaries and democratic activists have no grasp of strategy and no long-term plan for their actions, and warns that isolated use of nonviolent action will seldom bring real change.  I can’t think of a better example than Jordan, where a vast array of activists have engaged in countless demonstrations, sit-ins, grassroots campaigns, and online efforts.  These efforts–while often admirable–are characterized by a lack of higher organization and strategy, weak cooperation or outright conflict between groups, ambiguous goals, and a lack of sustainment and follow-through.  The result is frustration, burn-out, and a demoralizing failure to achieve tangible gains.

Third, nonviolent strategy must incorporate steps to prepare the society for what’s to come after the dictator departs.  To successfully transform from a dictatorship to a democracy, Sharp writes, a country’s power distribution must change.  People must feel empowered to speak and contribute to their future.  A lack of adequate planning is likely to result in the hijacking of power by a small group, perhaps even a group that didn’t play a central role in the nonviolent campaign.  It’s hard to think of a better example than the current situation in Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood.

Fourth, it is very dangerous for nonviolent strategists to count on foreign assistance.  Sharp argues that there are no guarantees a foreign power will intervene on behalf of nonviolent activists, and even if they do, that intervention could lead to a host of new problems.  Although Syrian revolutionaries are not waging a nonviolent campaign at this point, it’s perhaps worth mentioning here, because the Syrian effort has depended from the beginning on foreign assistance that has failed to materialize.

If anything from the past two years appears to undermine Sharp’s work, it is the examples of Libya and Syria.  Qaddafi and Assad took a lesson from Ben Ali and Mubarak: if you want to survive, don’t capitulate when consent is withdrawn from your rule.  Instead, respond with savage violence.  That strategy seemed to work, and it ultimately took violent foreign intervention to end Qaddafi’s rule.  In Syria, initial efforts at nonviolent action were met with so much violence that the situation devolved into civil war.  I am still reflecting on what these examples mean for Sharp’s work; is it possible to imagine alternative histories, in which sustained nonviolent action would have worked despite the level of violent suppression?  Or is there a threshold at which nonviolent resistance is destined to fail?

Such questions deserve more scholarly attention, and I hope to find more good writing on the subject.  However, despite such questions, Gene Sharp’s work is important and needs to be read by anyone who cares about democratic activism or about strategy in general.

Yesterday I discovered a pretty impressive website called Syria Deeply, an alternative journalism project dedicated to the Syrian war.  It apparently launched on December 3rd, and I only learned about it yesterday from this article at Fast Company, which described the innovative site as a:

“story monitor” and “news dashboard” dedicated to reporting on a single beat, a redefinition of the “beat” focused on covering one continuous, chaotic storyline and the communities involved, rather than covering a broad topic or genre.

That’s a pretty good description of the site.  I’ve spent the past 600+ days trying to make sense of the war from news stories and op-eds, but as the Fast Company article put it, “the user experience of the Syria story sucked.”  This site is a marked improvement and worth checking out if you’re interested in the conflict.

Heading to SAASS

December 30, 2012 — 2 Comments

Gandalf in Library

Well, folks, I have a new assignment.  If AFPC doesn’t change my orders again, I’ll soon be neck-deep in books about strategy and airpower.  I’ve been selected to attend SAASS, the Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, starting in July.  The school’s mission is to “produce strategists through advanced education in the art and science of air, space, and cyberspace power to defend the United States and protect its interests.”

The SAASS recruiters try to scare prospective candidates by telling them they will spend an entire year reading a book a day.  My reaction: you mean you will pay me to read a book a day?

So come July, I expect to be crashing Goodreads‘ servers and sharing a fascinating new chapter of my education with you all.

A Kind of Glory: Part III
In part I of this series, I quoted John Steinbeck’s beautiful essay from East of Eden celebrating the majesty of the individual human mind and its creative power.  In part III considered why it is hard for those in large bureaucratic organizations like the U.S. government to “find the glory.”  Modern economies depend on the division of labor; bureaucracies can undertake epic projects by distributing the load across a vast workforce, but the downside is that most employees will only ever deal with a tiny fragment of the finished project.  That can make job satisfaction elusive.  Employees must also suffer with all the bureaucratic minutiae that large organizations inevitably spawn.  Both these factors are all too present within the U.S. military and government.  They drive a lot of good people away, and create endless frustration for the good people who stay.

In part III of this series, I want to speculate about whether or not it needs to be this way.  Can we make it easier to “find the glory” for those serving in a large bureaucracy like the U.S. military?  Is it possible to bring the work and the glory closer together, even to put the glory to work for us?

Most people have passions in life, activities they wish they could do for a living.  The problem is that our passions seldom completely align with our jobs.  We don’t know how to make money off of them, or we think it’s not possible to make money, so at some point in our lives we make the decision to “grow up” and study something useful.  The passions are still there, pleading for expression, but they suffocate under the demands of tomorrow’s staff meeting and the next mortgage payment and finding a good health care package.  Nearly every artist in the world knows what I’m talking about.  Many people wither away in jobs they despise, then die filled with regrets.

Every once in a while, we find those who miraculously reinvent themselves midway through their lives.  They quit the secure job, forsake the regular paycheck, and take a daring plunge into doing that one thing they’ve always dreamed of.  Stunned relatives think they’re crazy, and for a while they’re living in an apartment again and burning through their life savings, but they do it: they find their footing, and in a few years they’re making money at something they love.  They write inspirational books and give motivational speeches, and we love these people, because we wish we had the courage to make that same plunge.

My dad did this.  He gave up a comfortable job managing a successful boat store because every evening after he work he built models and R/C submarines and boats and cars, and he’d always dreamed of opening a hobby store.  After a near-fatal car accident led him to do some deep thinking, he acted.  Eleven years later, he sold what had become the most successful hobby store on the West Coast and he was nationally known in the hobby retail community.  Now he does decidedly ungrown-up things like building completely functional replicas of R2-D2 and doing occasional contracts with Lucasfilm.  Wow.

If there is one thing that drives dissatisfaction with work, it is this gap between our work and our passion.  Smart companies nowadays are trying to close that gap.  Google popularized the idea of the “20% project.”  Employees are only expected to work on their primary project 80% of the time; they can commit the remaining 20% of their time to pet projects.  This policy lets a bunch of software geeks do the thrilling, Red Bull-pounding, frenzy of coding that they did in their garages as teenagers–in other words, fulfill their passion.  But more importantly, it has brought huge dividends to the company.  Many of Google’s leading technologies like gmail and Google Talk are a result of 20% projects.  The policy has helped Google employees find a little bit of glory, and simultaneously put that glory to work.

So let’s bring this back to government service and the military.  We aren’t a company; our work is quite different, and compared to the corporate world, it can be pretty exciting.  I’m fortunate to do something that is a passion, something that is a dream for many young Americans: being an Air Force pilot.  I’m certainly not complaining.  The problem, though, is that being an Air Force officer entails a whole lot more than flying airplanes, and just like in corporate America, the passion and the work can diverge.

In the military’s archaic personnel system, we are largely viewed as interchangeable parts and can be reduced to a handful of numbers on a single-sheet career summary.  The system can barely account for our actual skills, let alone the things we care about, are passionate about, and want to do for the rest of our lives. Our careers move on rails, and the system is so rigid and centrally-directed that it is ill-equipped to handle the unique contributions that talented individuals can make.  It can’t harness the glory.

I’ll share a few examples of missed opportunities:

1. Plenty of my fellow pilots have no interest in commanding a squadron, and are content to let the all-stars have the job.  They really want to do just one thing for the rest of their careers: fly airplanes.  But in an up-or-out promotion system, that is the one thing they can’t do.  In fact, there is only one place where they can do that and still wear a uniform: the Reserves.  So shortly after they hit Major, many of our most talented instructors and evaluators “cross the street” to the reserve squadrons.  The Air Force spends a vast amount of money on signing bonuses to staunch the flow.

2. I have another colleague who is a strong pilot and excellent leader, who dreams of being a squadron commander.  Serving commanders recognize that he is a natural pick, but his paper record probably isn’t strong enough because he missed opportunities as a lieutenant and young captain.  To cite a hypothetical but typical example, his record is weaker than a guy who got a #1 stratification as a Lieutenant for planning the squadron Christmas party, and whose record snowballed from there.

3. A colleague of mine is skilled at mobile programming, and was working on iPhone apps for our Wing.  He got a by-name request by a general officer to do software projects, but was denied by his assignment team because they needed a body to fill a modest staff job that required no special talents.

4. At a time when fuel cost savings is a top priority for Air Mobility Command, our pilots rage at inefficiencies in the U.S. global logistics system.  We routinely fly empty or half-empty jets from place to place.  I have friends who earned Master’s degrees in subjects like Logistics Management and Operational Research, who could offer so much in this area, but our personnel system is blind to the content of degrees and is not equipped to capitalize on their experience.

I could go on, but you get the idea.  The rigid, centrally-directed, up-or-out promotion system limits how much officers can maneuver within their careers.  It makes it very difficult for officers to do that one thing that they really dream of doing with their lives, or are uniquely suited to do.  How many opportunities are we missing?  How much stronger would our squadrons be, if we let our best instructor pilots fly out their remaining years instead of driving them to the reserves?  How much innovation could we harness by recognizing bright officers who have great ideas, and letting them work in environments where they could bring those ideas to life?  How much better would our staff work be if we could actually look at what officers studied in their Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and let them work–to whatever extent possible–in related staff jobs?

I’m also intrigued by the idea of offering sabbaticals.  We have an all-volunteer force, but after a decade of continuous war we have burned out and ground down too many of our volunteers.  We also expect our volunteers to serve in one non-stop burst, from the day they show up to basic training to the day they separate.  During that time we push them relentlessly, which has a perverse side effect: our professional military education (PME) assignments, those times when we are supposed to be learning and stretching ourselves to prepare for higher-level service, are often viewed as our only chance to rest. That doesn’t help our collective performance in these schools.

Is it possible to give service members voluntary sabbaticals, in ways that wouldn’t hurt their chances for promotion?  Imagine what it would do for retention, if tired mid-career officers could take a year to find the glory… whether that’s working on a doctorate, traveling the world, or just spending a quiet season with their families.  And imagine the potential payoff to the military and government, from officers who choose to broaden themselves through more study or civilian work during these periods.  I know exactly what I would do, if I had a year sabbatical; I would move right back to the Middle East, and spend a year immersed in the countries I was never allowed to visit because of the DOD’s ludicrous travel restrictions.  I can guarantee the government would benefit when I got back.

They two keys to these various suggestions are flexibility and choice: enough flexibility in the career ladder that jumping the rails doesn’t guarantee the stagnation or end of your career, and enough choice that passion and job requirements have a fair chance at aligning.  That means letting individuals seek out the jobs that excite them, and giving supervisors the freedom to hire uniquely talented individuals who bring more to the job than a good stratification.

These aren’t easy issues, and no doubt any change to our personnel system would invite a rash of second and third-order consequences.  Perhaps that is why no one has dared to try to change it.  Choice can only go so far, in a profession filled with undesirable billets that absolutely must be filled.  A commitment to duty and service before self will always matter.  And it makes sense that an organization like the Air Force wants its commanders to have a certain breadth of experience before taking the job.  I have no background in organizational management, and am not qualified to put forward specific suggestions.  This post is about speculations, not concrete proposals.  However, it is clear to me that the military’s personnel system is showing its age and is increasingly out of synch with the approaches taken by modern companies.  I do think there is a place here for real reform, and I think the biggest winner of all would be the organization itself.  If the organization can harness the glory, it will be that much stronger.

 

A Kind of Glory: Part II
In my previous post I shared one of my all-time favorite passages from literature, an essay embedded in Steinbeck’s East of Edenthat celebrates the glory and the creative power of the human mind.  If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to read it now.

Today I will consider the challenges faced by public servants who equally cherish the glory of the individual mind.  If Steinbeck’s words mean as much to you as they did to me, if they awake something deep within you and make you yearn for the glory about which he writes, then I’m talking to you.

Steinbeck praises the boundless energy, dynamism, and creativity of the individual human mind.  He worries what will happen when the logic of mass production enters our economics, our politics, and religion.  Then he writes lines that should sound grimly familiar to anyone who has experienced Basic Training: “And now the forces marshaled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on that preciousness, the mind of man.  By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning, the free, roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged.”

Steinbeck closes with a rousing affirmation of the individual human soul: “And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.  And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.  And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government that limits or destroys the individual.  This is what I am and what I am about.”  If the glory can be killed, he writes in closing, we are lost.

Military service–and really, employment in any large bureaucracy–requires conformity and the subservience of the individual to the organization as a whole.  No surprises there.  Organizations need to steer the efforts of their diverse employees in the same direction and for the same purpose, and militaries in particular need to ensure obedience to orders in the most stressful conditions imaginable.  Basic training and subsequent courses are designed to reinforce group loyalty and conformity to organizational culture.  These are not bad things.  Fortunately, the “repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning” fade after our first weeks of Basic Training, and we discover that we are still individuals.  Our hair grows back, we dress how we want on the weekends, and we gradually reclaim the time to pursue the relationships, interests, and hobbies that we’re passionate about.

Still, there is a deeper level of soul-crushing “mass production” at work in any large bureaucracy, and I think this is what Steinbeck has in mind: the simple logic of division of labor.  When I was a cadet at USAFA, I studied astronautical engineering because I dreamed of the future.  I grew up reading and writing science fiction, living half my life in imagined worlds.  I built robots in the garage with my dad.    I wrote software, turning abstract visions into concrete products.  So it only seemed natural to study a subject that would allow me to design spacecraft that would sweep future pioneers to new worlds.  But I came to a sad realization along the way: an engineer in today’s world doesn’t design a spacecraft.  He designs a particular circuit in a particular computer that communicates with five other computers to provide the inertial guidance for the spacecraft.  If he is an engineer in the Air Force, he likely manages contracts for the civilians who design those circuits.  That is how engineering now works; thousands of individuals, each crafting tiny fragments that will eventually add up to a reality far removed from their personal experience.

It’s no different in any other profession.  Few Americans plant their own crops and see them through to a harvest; our food reaches us via a production and distribution chain so large we can hardly envision it.  We have lost something, which is why it’s so satisfying for me to eat an orange from my backyard tree or build something with my own hands.  One summer I slaved over a new backyard patio.  I’m terrible at home projects, and nearly wrecked the entire thing on more than one occasion, but eventually I got there.  I still savor the memory of sitting in a lawn chair on that newly finished patio, wiping sweat from my eyes and downing a beer in the warm afternoon sun.  A small glory, but a glory nonetheless.

Which brings us to those who serve in the military or government, who are tasked with addressing problems on a global scale.  We are a vast bureaucracy, as vast as the world we inhabit.  The meaningful work–winning wars, negotiating alliances, developing nations, tackling diseases, growing economies–is sliced and diced into so many little fragments that the whole disappears almost entirely.

If we’re lucky, we can at least glimpse how our piece fits into that whole.  I’m fortunate to be a C-17 pilot, because our missions enable and respond to world events; you can guess what’s on our scheduling board by reading the news.  But not everyone is so lucky, and in my field, flying is only a small part of what we do.

Your average military officer does not spend his days “fighting the war”; he adjusts the font colors on slide 8 to satisfy his commander, so the commander can brief the data to his own boss at tomorrow’s meeting–even though it’s redundant with three other Excel and PowerPoint products, and the boss doesn’t especially care anyway.  Then he gets called for random drug trusting the fourth time this year and goes to pee in a cup, and after that he stays late writing award citations for decorations that are given automatically to soldiers who have valiantly served their country by having a pulse.  Even on his best days, the days when he does his most exciting work, the kind of work he signed up for, it’s often less than he once imagined it would be.

We all know what I’m talking about.  We’ve all been there.  It’s Dilbert in a uniform and a reflective belt, and it’s almost worse for us because we naively had visions and ambitions of international proportions.

Such work robs the soul and kills the glory.  It eats at us night and day, and it drives many of us out the service entirely.  Surveys show that an overwhelming majority of veterans separate because they are frustrated by military bureaucracy.  They hate the risk-aversion that stifles free thought, critical thinking, and experiments in change.  They resent a conveyor belt promotion system, which decouples talent from advancement.  In my own service, we bemoan a system in which fighting the war always seems to be the lowest priority; who has time for that, when there are parties to plan and airshows to host and ASEVs and SAVs and ORIs and OREs and a hundred other inspections to prepare for?  I don’t even need to comment on PowerPoint culture, which is derided in a new essay every 3 or 4 months and unfailingly provokes a flurry of passionate commentary in the blogosphere.

The officers who remain in aren’t staying because they disagree with these critiques; they stay despite their frustrations.  The soul-crushing bureaucracy drives them mad.  Even the best leaders, who are truly devoted to public service, agonize with friends behind closed doors about whether or not they really want to stay in and for how long.  This is as true of civilian leaders as it is of military members.  As much as they love serving, let there be no doubt: for most of them, continuing to serve entails much sacrifice, and a lot of that sacrifice is imposed by our own organizational culture.

That is why, when I first read them, Steinbeck’s words flashed from the page like a lightning bolt.

Here are my questions: does it have to be like this?  Is there a better way to work?  Can we find ways to nurture individual minds and souls within the context of a large organization like the US government, and put all that glory to work for us?  These are questions I will consider in Part III of this series.  Finally, in Part IV I’ll reflect on how we can seek the glory and find the richness in our work, even when the hammerblows are falling.