In today's post he addresses the issue at the heart of the military; the trust and confidence between and within the officer corps towards their senior leadership.
You can read the referenced report, the NPRS&T, in summary at the bottom of the post.
Now, over to our guest.
“When the Tailhook investigation began, and certain political elements used the incident to bring discredit on Naval Aviation as a whole, and then on the Navy writ large, one is entitled to ask, on behalf of those magnificent performers who have never failed their leaders, where were their leaders?” As Naval Aviation leadership begins to face one of the worst retention crises in its history, readdressing this question, originally posed by former Secretary of the Navy James Webb at the Naval Institute’s 122nd Annual Meeting and sixth Annapolis Seminar in 1996, may help explain why some of aviation’s best and brightest have decided to leave.
Naval Aviation leadership is currently struggling with the real threat of not having enough pilots to fly the aircraft on its flight lines, and it’s not solely due to cyclic and predictable factors (economy, OPTEMPO). The more insidious problem, going largely unaddressed, is one of trust and confidence; more accurately, the fleet’s loss of trust and confidence in its senior leadership. This breakdown in trust has spread well beyond junior officers reaching their first “stay or go” milestones. Large numbers of post-command Commanders are electing to retire, instead of pursuing further promotion and increased retirement benefits. In both cases, officers are saying “no thanks” to generous amounts of money (for some, as much as $125,000), choosing instead to part ways with an organization they competed fiercely to join; one that, at some point, provided tremendous satisfaction.
The Naval Personnel, Research, Studies and Technology (NPRS&T) group recently conducted a survey of Naval Aviators from the ranks of Lieutenant to
Commander. All groups suggested availability of resources and workplace climate should be top priorities for senior leadership. These two factors go a long way towards explaining the larger problem of lost trust.
The NPRS&T survey solicited open-ended responses and provided selected examples in their summary. With respect to availability of resources, the underlying theme was, “stop asking us to doing more with less.” Whether the “less” applies to flight hours, qualified Sailors, or materiel support, squadrons are routinely asked to meet increasingly demanding operational requirements with less of each. Worse, they’re being told to do so by flag officers who wear flight jackets adorned with multiple 1000-hour tabs and Centurion patches, symbolizing aviation milestones which have become almost entirely unattainable to today’s aviators. Squadrons are regularly sent on 10-month deployments with just-in-time parts delivery, artificial readiness, and aircraft that saw their best days when our flag officers were using them for a BAGEX.
NPRS&T also accepted open-ended responses pertaining to workplace climate. Many of the ill effects described above spill into this arena, but there are additional issues that must be addressed. Not surprisingly, some of the key words provided in the responses include race, gender, SAPR, micro-management, and GMT. It is also no surprise that the manner in which our leadership has chosen to address these issues also serves to erode trust.
Many of the cultural and climate issues that are alleged to plague our current force were accepted – nay, fostered – by today’s admirals when they were swashbuckling junior officers. We’re being asked to undo and “fix” the problems they watched develop.
We’re told to de-glamorize alcohol even as we hear legendary stories about the Miramar O’Club. We’re required to complete mind-numbing Trafficking in Persons training, yet hear frequent reminiscences about Subic Bay and Pattaya. We watch good officers publicly shamed and relieved for offenses that the relieving flag officers themselves were guilty of, but in an era absent Facebook and Twitter. We see the fervor surrounding the military’s alleged sexual assault crisis, while time and again, our flag officers fail to recognize the 99% of us who find such crimes equally reprehensible. Instead, we’re subjected to yet another NKO training to make sure we remember that rape is wrong. And we’re conducting this training at the expense of executing our primary mission – flying our aircraft and preparing for war. With this description of our “workplace climate,” is it any wonder that Lieutenants and Commanders alike sense an ever-decreasing amount of trust from our leaders? Is it any surprise that talented and highly competitive officers are turning down bonuses and voting with their feet?
So what’s an admiral to do? First, our leadership must stop talking to us like we’re suits at an annual shareholder’s meeting. Speak to us honestly, frankly, and with words that don’t betray your brown shoes. Don’t speak to us about best-practices, enterprises, or stake-holders. Remember that we’re a sharp and incredibly discerning audience who knows a bad deal when we see it. Stand up and own the problems that you’ve charged us with fixing. Accountability still matters in this profession. Second, stand up and serve as advocates for the over-whelming majority of us who are doing it right. There is very little faith among us that our leadership will stand up in the face of outside scrutiny to defend any officer who is unfortunate enough to end up on the wrong end of an investigation – for anything. We don’t believe you have the ability, or the willingness, to pump the brakes before pulling the trigger. For many, the professional satisfaction that may come with command at sea just doesn’t seem worth the risk of having our careers, reputations, and families drug through the bilges on the basis of allegations.
Our leaders are seeing the effects of their “do as I say, not as I did” message manifested in decreased retention, lost trust, and waning esprit de corps. James Webb asked, “Where were their leaders?” Today they are scrambling to piece together financial solutions to problems that can’t be monetized - at least not until they can figure out how much our trust is worth.