Disruptive Thinking: You’re Doing it Wrong

Grumpy Cat Disruptive

A wise man, erm, rabbit once said that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.  In that case, I’m pleased that an Air Force officer named (Presumably, Lt. Col.) Tony Carr has manage to pen an entire blog post without using the word “disruptive“.  That’s a rare feat in this day and age.  So for that, he deserves a Distinguished Warfare Medal.

Now, for the bad.  In what has become a tired trend dating back to the “Dear Boss” letters of the 1970s, Lt. Col. Carr bids farewell to the US Air Force with the same stale cliche that, “the best and brightest are leaving the Air Force…look at me, I’m living proof.”  Much like pictures of cats with creative captions, these sorts of memes have been circulating for centuries. But they seem to have really picked up steam in the information age with the advent of the Fax machine, AOL chain mail, and eventually, blogs.

But what separates this “Dear Boss” letter from previous letters is that the letter itself is filled with grandiose delusions not seen since, well, six weeks ago when we all discovered Ensign Shannon Ray Anderson’s magnum opus, “Becoming a Fighter Pilot in 2011 and Beyond“.  In a blog entry entitled, “Last Wishes of a Dying General” (presumably referring to Lt. Col. Carr himself), the author uses the sort of melodrama usually reserved for Dawson’s Creek fan fiction.

If you think I’m setting up Lt. Col. Carr as a straw man, I’ll let him do the talking:

Recently, the career of an Air Force officer ended abruptly. This officer, by all accounts, was destined for upper management. He was decorated, educated, and combat proven. He’d had the right assignments, been promoted ahead of schedule, and met the challenge of command successfully. He received glowing reviews to the very end and was almost certain to be promoted early again. But, in a development that stunned and puzzled many of his colleagues and mentors, he voluntarily declined to continue his career, and in doing so killed his lifelong dream of one day running the Air Force. I know all of this because I’m describing my own decision. I was that officer.

What follows is an ill-conceived rant, filled with enough buzz-words, circumlocutions  and mixed metaphors to make Tom Friedman cringe.  Indeed, if Lt. Col. Carr’s article were a drinking game, I’d be slurring by the time he uses the term “suitcase full of accolades” (the new “binders full of women”?), and on the floor by the time I read “Reduce Competition for Cognitive Activity” (you mean you’re “too busy to read?”) Which is good, because I wouldn’t even make it to the word “autobot” (perhaps you mean “automaton”?).  In fact, Lt. Col. Carr’s use of the word “autobot” is so baffling, useless, and poorly conceived, I presume the only Autobot he could be referring to is Perceptor.

I would rather have Go-Bots than Perceptor.

Seriously, I would rather have Go-Bots than Perceptor.

And, PS:  A general can’t give a soliloquy if there’s a physical, real audience actively listening to him.  Soliloquies are reserved for audiences beyond the fourth wall, thus making them applicable only in theater.  Theatre.  Whatever.

Sir, rest assured that, with that obfuscating writing style of yours, you’d be a shoe-in for promotion and attendance at the Air War College.   But enough about style, let’s get to substance and recommendations.

There’s a secret code in your evaluation report.  If you’re the passive-aggressive type, you’ll love writing OERs.  Using phrases like “among the best”, or “groom for command” are just some of the many literary devices a commander can use to curb an officer’s chances for promotion…all without the pesky hassle of putting up with rebuttals and IG complaints.

What promotion boards really look for is clear enumeration (e.g., “my BEST captain”, “top 10%”). The fact that “hiring authorities” (translation: “the private sector”) don’t catch on is irrelevant.  Well, unless you were already planning on leaving the Air Force and looking for a private sector job.  

To be fair, evaluations don’t always set the right people up for the right jobs. As retired Lieutenant General David Barno notes, the best platoon leader in a battalion may not necessarily have the skills to become a strategic leader when he’s a general.  

The problem in our promotion and evaluation system is in selecting those with the qualities for higher command, not necessarily the ones who are the best in their current position.  The language? It’s just a symptom.

Stop Feeding the University of Phoenix. Many military career fields require senior officers to attain advanced degrees. Unfortunately  the expediencies of the War on Terror precluded many officers from attending graduate school–we sacrificed professional military education in order to put more troops in the field.  Moreover, with promotion timelines as tight as they are, many officers find it difficult to balance “key developmental” assignments, such as command time, with educational opportunities, broadening assignments, and of course, deployments and other critical jobs..

The result is that many officers turn to taking online courses in their precious free time–often attaining degrees of dubious use from “degree mills” like the University of Phoenix Online.  Not only does this take precious time, but money as well–especially considering that tuition assistance was one of the first things to be cut during sequestration. Not to mention, promotion boards are not necessarily interested how valuable the degree is, only that an officer has an advanced degree.

Fortunately, the solutions are simple.  Start by lengthen promotion timelines. This allows officers enough time in grade to balance their key tactical assignments with the joint, interagency,  or educational assignments which will benefit them later in their careers. Perhaps we could even allow officers to fit courses such as the prestigious School of Advanced Military Studies into their promotion timelines by allowing them to “bump” back a year group, or by extending their retirement a year farther.

Finally, the author is correct when he mentions that information technology has allowed commanders to micromanage to an unprecedented degree. We’ve covered that here before.

But before you jump ship for the private sector, consider that businesses, much like the military, also preach “decentralized” decision making, but do just the opposite–using information technology to centralize decision making. There’s also toxic leadership.  And yes, business leaders, just like military leaders, do judge your leadership ability by your physical fitness.

Most importantly, even the most innovative businesses (I’m looking at you, Apple) have problems with talent management. In fact, many of Carr’s complaints would not be out of place at your local Apple store.  Of course, you won’t hear too much on this topic. Unlike military officers, Apple employees are forbidden from airing their grievances to the press, much less posting them to their own blogs.  So much for the military not valuing your input.

The fact of the matter is, there are many ways to add to the debate and to change a large bureaucracy.  But it takes humility, it takes patience, and it takes hard work.  Most importantly, it means thinking critically and making recommendations, not just voicing complaints.  But in the end, it sure works a lot better than ranting.

About Crispin Burke

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator qualified in the UH-60 and LUH-72 helicopters. Major Burke has served in the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, and Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras. In what is likely a sad statement on the state of humanity, Major Burke's writings, musings, and irreverent cartoons have been featured at Small Wars Journal, National Defense University, Foreign Policy Online, Wired Magazine, Egremont, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Great Satan's Girlfriend.
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8 Responses to Disruptive Thinking: You’re Doing it Wrong

  1. Pingback: More on “Last Wishes” | Building Peace

  2. 4 Fan Trashcan says:

    As I read your reply to Lt Col Carr’s post, I got the strange feeling that I’d heard your ever-so-subtle scorn for the Air Force before somewhere. Then it dawned on me. Your ad hominem-laden opening is another in the “tired trend” of Army officers taking cheap shots at their Air Force counterparts (General Petraeus’ speech to the Marine Corps Association in 2009 is one example). As for the rest of your response, I must have missed the private sector experience in your biography that qualifies you to speak with such authority on its similarities to the military. Comparing working at the Apple Store to running an Air Force squadron actually made me laugh. But since I think you were trying to be serious, maybe it’s time to try your hand at writing for a sit-com and leave the adult problems to the adults. Or Air Force problems to the Air Force.

  3. TC says:

    Crispin,

    Enjoyed your post. Thanks for adding to the conversation. My response is available at http://www.jqpublic-blog.com/?p=173. Enjoy … and please, my friend, fly safe.

    ~TC

  4. Major Burke,

    First of all, let me tell you that I don’t agree exactly with you nor with that rabbit about the saying “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”. This can be good in some situations but not in all situations (military or civilian). I certainly would not shut up my mouth like a sheeple especially if in a situation that I feel the necessity to make my point of view known to the specific person or group of people, may this point of view can be considered “nice” or not.

    Back to your blog and that of Air Force Lt. Col. Tony Carr (I refuse to refer to him as presumably Lt. Col. because I find it disrespectful and not just right. If he was not a genuine Lt. Col., I’m sure that he would not put his picture nor indicate his real name).
    One thing that I can say is this blog reminds me of your previous blog written on Feb. 25, 2013 and entitled “Disruptive Thinking : There’s no management like Micromanagement”. In that blog, my attention was caught by the survey (Bad leadership drives soldiers to leave).
    Lt. Col. Carr’s complaints are not really that different from the soldiers’ and in particular of what that chief warrant officer deployed to Afghanistan (who asked that his name be withheld for fear of reprisal) was saying.

  5. JDParatooper says:

    I have to say I’ve stopped by occasionally to read your rants. Some I find funny, others not-so-much. This one I have so say isn’t your finest bit of writing.

    I get it, we scorn the Air Force for myriad reasons, they live a rather un-military life at times, and then (like our friend 4 Fan above) get a little hot and bothered when we poke fun at them. For the record, I’ve served in combat with fantastic Air Force operators, but never once cut them any slack because – hey – they’re the Air Force. Even so, I’d go back to the fight with them (especially my combat controllers) anytime because they are still my brothers in arms.

    However, I read your post as well as Lt Col. Carr’s original post and his rebuttal and I have to say, he’s got you dead to rights (if you’ll excuse the idiom). Your argument does seem to echo much of his sentiment, and ultimately I think you’ve only accomplished to beat up someone who might otherwise agree with you.

    Based on your rank, I think its safe to assume that (like me) you’re done with more than half of your Army career at this point. At the end of 20 years I would imagine that (like me) you’d like that service to count for something. This blog is arguably your manifestation to achieve such an impact as Lt Col Carr’s letter was his. And I’m sure that (like me) you wouldn’t appreciate a snarky Major taking out his frustrations with the system on you because you’d finally gotten fed up with the nonsense and said goodbye in manner you thought would best impact the broadest audience.

    Is his initial letter a little self-serving (okay a LOT self-serving)? Sure. But lets be honest, we’re officers and by that metric just about everything we say will come off as self-serving to everyone else but us. It’s the downside to being a part of this little fraternity, we get to be the guys and gals in charge and make the rules while sitting quietly while everyone (above and below) throws rocks at our decisions. I’m inclined to cut our Air Force friend a little slack.

    But then again…he IS in the Air Force…

    (*disclaimer, none of the above applies to loadmasters, you guys can do no wrong as long as you don’t kick my equipment off your planes)

  6. Hi there, just became alert to your blog through Google, and found that it’s really informative.

  7. Good post Starbuck. After reading Mark Jacobsen’s post, and then Tony’s, I was wondering if I was the only one who thought they really didn’t get it. Seems like a bit of “finger in the wind” political maneuvering to advance as “those who get it.” Words, but not a lot of substance. At least that was my impression.

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