While the Department of Defense was racing against time to respond to the 9–11 attacks, to locate Osama Bin Laden, and to protect our country against further terrorism at home and abroad, U.S. military leadership was supporting and promoting campaigns to dismiss skilled service members with the ability to help. It should bother you to know that, in some cases, the reasons for their dismissals had nothing to do with their abilities to perform their jobs.
“This article isn’t about one instance of unfortunate circumstance; it’s about a system that cowers behind false claims of “fairness” and “uniformity” in order to excuse a lazy and irresponsible leadership style.”
Some of the most impressive minds in the world gather and disseminate national intelligence from their cubicles inside the National Security Agency (NSA). As with any other profession, some of the people who work there are more effective, and some of them are less effective. There are the superstars, and there are those who somehow slipped through the cracks and don’t have the ability to contribute as much.
One of those superstars — one of the smartest and most talented linguists I’ve ever met during over a decade in that field and over multiple decades with ties to it — was dismissed from his job for having too high a body fat percentage. To clarify, he spent (more than) eight hours per day, five days per week, sitting in front of a keyboard and a computer monitor translating one language into another and writing electronic reports based on what he had learned. A keystroke was the most strenuous physical activity his job required.
Yet, because his body mass index was outside of the acceptable range, he was deemed unfit to do that job. He sat at home while his specific area of expertise floundered.
“What they have failed to do, however, is to recognize that priority should be given to the accomplishment of the actual mission over adherence to some marginally related or completely unrelated policies.”
After he was forced to leave, the burden of his workload fell on the next best person available for that role, and there was a significant and obvious degradation of the quality of the intelligence coming out of that office. The effectiveness of national intelligence had diminished noticeably, and the only perceivable “gain” to be found was that the average weight per person in his office dropped slightly.
That man was a huge benefit to national intelligence at a bargain basement cost. He was a low-ranking enlisted military person filling a position that could have and would normally have been staffed by a government employee being paid a more than a comfortable wage for living in one of our nations priciest local economies. He was a pleasant and charismatic man who wanted nothing more than to serve his country until retirement and raise his small, warm family.
This article isn’t about one instance of unfortunate circumstance, though; it’s about a system that cowers behind false claims of “fairness” and “uniformity” in order to excuse a lazy and irresponsible leadership style.
The military has long made irrational and indefensible claims about their leadership methods that even they, at times, have been forced to acknowledge were bogus. Forcing a service member to do hundreds of push-ups does not make it easier for that member to learn military history. Putting them on trash collection duty does not give them straighter aim with a weapon. In some cases, the military services have accepted and applied the idea that corrective measures should actually be corrective and not randomly punitive.
What they have failed to do, however, is to recognize that priority should be given to the accomplishment of the actual mission over adherence to some marginally related or completely unrelated policies. Too often, they cobble together flimsy justifications for how an undesirable quality could theoretically and improbably undermine a mission that in reality is not being compromised at all.
In essence, the ability to translate Chinese into English does not change when one’s body fat percentage fluctuates from 17% to 18%. A service member’s ability to load a cargo plane is not decreased by their sexual preference. A technician’s ability to navigate is not negated by the wrinkle in their shirt. A war-fighter’s ability to execute a tactical maneuver in hostile territory is not forfeited because one of his children left the porch light on during the day at his home while he was away (I got written up for this one myself). Military leadership would and does argue that hypothetically they all could be.
You might wonder why the military would even consider jeopardizing their own larger missions in order to make these obviously minor inconsequential points. The answer, to be fair, is that they don’t even consider it. Due to an outdated, overly simplistic, and just plain lazy insistence that all military members (of the same rank) be treated exactly the same way in far too many areas, military leadership relies far too heavily on zero tolerance, blind follower-ship, and irresponsible leadership methods.
The truth is that the military uses blanket policies and over-generalized regulations because it takes too much thought and effort to effectively tailor leadership to specific cases of specific service members in specific situations. A supervisor would have to use judgment and weigh real-world factors in order to make the most logical and effective leadership choice in a given scenario, but the military doesn’t want that burden themselves, and they don’t trust their managers with it. They would rather put it all in writing once from afar and then apply it indiscriminately thereafter.
It’s about “fairness”, they claim; it’s about “uniformity” and “standards”. The man mentioned above spent 63 weeks in an intensive 40-hour per week foreign language training program with a monstrous student failure rate, and he worked hard enough outside of class during that time to pass with an impressive proficiency rating in one of the world’s most difficult languages to learn as a non-native speaker. Meanwhile, some of his military colleagues spent 6 weeks learning to file documents and to properly format emails. Where’s the equality in that?
There are men and women required to spend months or even a year at a time oceans away from their families while some service members never leave the country, the region, the state, or even a single base. Why isn’t military leadership concerned about the fairness of that?
Admittedly, a fictional movie is generally a pretty weak source to cite in a debate of real-world circumstances, but some valid points with which we can all identify were made in the movie “A Few Good Men”. The character Lt. Daniel Kaffee, for instance, makes a similar point about the inequality of different military roles and the need for different management styles, even though he disagrees with Col. Jessup’s methodology: “We have softball games and marching bands. They work at a place where you have to wear camouflage or you might get shot!”
These differences are necessary and unavoidable, and I’m not suggesting that they be eliminated in favor of “fairness” and “standardization”. I’m suggesting that military leadership take a more responsible role in recognizing that, even within the military, different individuals in different individual circumstances need to be managed in different ways. “Fairness”, “uniformity”, and “standardization” need to take a backseat to “the mission”, “reason”, and “responsible leadership.”
I’m asking that they acknowledge and account for the fact that requiring one service member to keep their hair trimmed and their boots shined may not actually be the same as requiring another service member to do it. I’m asking that military leadership actively and reasonably consider what outside factors realistically affect a service member’s ability to do their assigned task, not every unrelated task in the military.
The bottom line is that some military professions are specialized these days. It’s not just a group of guys each grabbing a bayonet and jumping into a foxhole, anymore. The service member who is protecting your electronic data from foreign hackers needs to spend their time getting better honing those skills, not at improving from 68 to 72 sit-ups in a minute or making sure they have a stiffer crease in their pant leg.
The military is constantly pouring a torrent of veterans with “years of management experience” into the civilian workforce, but the way the military is modeling leadership could not be further from a truly effective real-world leadership style.