The Secretary of Defense (SECDEF), Leon Panetta, should be ‘removed for cause’ immediately. We call it a ‘no band change of command’. This will obviously never happen because his commanding officer is as inept a leader as he is. But I can say without a doubt that ‘We the People’, in particular the men and women of the armed forces of the United States, have last ‘faith and confidence’ in his ability to lead.
One of the first leadership lessons I learned as an officer in the United States Navy was to never give an order to your sailors or Marines that you would not execute yourself – especially in combat conditions. Otherwise, you’d look like a coward and your ability to lead evaporates immediately.
If your sailors and Marines know that you will or would be right there, leading them up the hill under withering fire, then they’ll do anything for you.
2 recent leadership failures have brought us to this point. I do not make this call lightly; however SECDEF simply cannot lead the men and women of our fighting forces. Period.
Strike One – on Friday 30 March SECDEF gave a speech to sailors and Marines of the coast of southern California aboard USS Peleliu. It was at best, to use one of his words, ‘stupid’, and at worst insubordinate.
He called pending defense cuts ‘stupid’ and ‘irresponsible’ – cuts that were the result of President Obama’s failure to get a budget, any budget, through Congress. On April 29th it will be 3 years that our country has operated without a budget. Absolutely incredible. ‘Taxmeggedon’ is coming 1 January 2013 and will make the financial tsunami of 2007-2008 look like sun shower. SECDEF said the President and Congress, who oversee our civilian control of the military, “put a gun to their heads and the heads of the country” by forcing automatic cuts in defense spending if no budget deal was reached.
It makes sense of course, at least to this administration, to gut defense - at the time we couldn’t find our credit rating from a hole on the ground, we were fighting 3 wars, 2 legal, 1 illegal (Libya), not to mention worldwide operations against terror and, oh yeah, North Korea Launching a bottle rocket every once in a while. Not to mention the ‘Blue Water Navy’ China is beginning to filed, with aircraft carriers that will operate freely off the coast of D.C. and San Diego. It also makes sense for Obama to gut defense and make it worse than Carter’s hollow military because, the military can’t say a word.
We salute and we execute. We’re not the Department of Energy, full of thousands of federal union employees (read democratic voters) who can wank, whine, and have their union and special interest groups force gutless ‘leaders’ in D.C. to make cuts go away, leaving them time to focus on great investments in bankrupt solar companies.
SECDEF committed a grave leadership sin – he vented down, not up.
Vent up, not down
If a leader has something negative to say about the policies or procedures initiated by the chain of command above him, the criticism must in all cases be expressed “up,” not “down.”
Voicing concerns about strategy, policy, or criticizing procedures even within earshot of subordinates is not only unprofessional, it’s extremely demoralizing. Make an appointment with your boss and formalize it. Don’t do it in front of your personnel or team or spur of the moment in the hallway or aboard a ship.
A tech director in a trading firm I worked for exemplified this in the business world. I noticed morale in his department was especially low and wanted to know why. I had heard grumblings among his personnel directed at C-level executives and Partners that could only have come from a single source: the tech director himself. The senior executives he complained about were more or less strangers. I confirmed my suspicions when I sat in one of his morning briefs. He was dropping the dime on everyone but himself. In essence, saying, “It’s not me, I’m not the reason things aren’t working well. If I had my way, we’d be doing it differently.” He was gone shortly thereafter.
Criticizing your superiors (The President) or those you report to (Congress) in front of your troops is not only disrespectful; it’s a double-edged sword with often-unintended consequences. Blaming your superior’s knocks their legs out from underneath them and compromises their ability to lead as well. However, it also impairs your ability to lead because it suggests you’re not truly in a position of authority; you’re not in control or command. Why should your people listen to you? You’re obviously powerless. So you tar those above you and destroy your own ability to lead. Hardly desirable results and not a characteristic we want in a SECDEF.
A leader owns decisions, even if they originate from above.
In the squadron, bad news always came from the CO (Commanding Officer). It didn’t come from the Admiral or the CAG (Commander of the Air Group), even though we may’ve known or suspected differently. The CO couldn’t in any circumstances say, “I think this is BS, guys, but we gotta do it anyway.” Everyone suffers. The ‘heavies’ lose credibility; the CO looks weak; we don’t put our hearts into what we’re being told to do because we know he doesn’t agree, either. In the military, this can have deadly consequences.
What happens when CAG wants all the aviators in the Air Wing to stay above 15,000’ over enemy territory because of a suspected surface-to-air threat? Our skipper doesn’t agree and badmouths the decision in front of his pilots in the Ready Room. The next flight over bad-guy country, one of the new guys blows off the 15,000’ rule because he knows the CO doesn’t agree with it and ends up getting shot down. Not good.
Venting down is unprofessional. It destroys your ability to lead, and I saw this firsthand on more than one occasion. Here’s a telling example from the frontlines.
We were short on department heads during my second deployment onboard the USS Kitty Hawk. A Hornet squadron normally has four department heads who are Lieutenant Commanders, in charge of maintenance, operations, safety, and administration. The CO selected me to be our squadron’s Safety Officer. This was a big deal. I was still a Lieutenant, and this was a big increase in responsibilities.
The squadrons in the Air Wing rotated the responsibility of overall Air Wing Safety Officer on a daily basis with a position called Safety Officer of the Day (SOOD). An important job was leading the efforts to clear the flight deck of FOD (foreign object debris), that could be ingested into jet engines. If a jet engine ingests small pieces of metal such as screws or bolts, it can have catastrophic, even fatal consequences. A ten-cent washer can result in the crash of a forty-million-dollar fighter jet.
Another equally important job of the SOOD was monitoring flight deck procedures to ensure they were in accordance with standards. What you didn’t do was call a flight deck petty officer “not too bright” for trying to park jets so close together that he nearly crunched a couple of forty-million-dollar aircraft.
To gain an extra couple of inches, which is premium on the deck of an aircraft carrier, the petty officer signaled a pilot to move his stick aft to deflect the large horizontal stabilizer. This way he could swing the nose of another Hornet underneath the “stab,” parking it even closer and saving more space. There are a number of things that could’ve gone wrong; bottom line, he could’ve put two Hornets out of commission some time, costing tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.
I detailed the incident in a report at the end of the day, which didn’t go over well with the heavies. Or that’s what my CO initially led me to believe. He wrote in red ink on my report, “The Captain of the ship is mad as hell at your ‘not too bright’ comment and so am I.” Well done, Whiz. Talk about a short career as a department head.
Time for damage control. I found my skipper and apologized. He chalked it up to a junior officer’s “zeal for safety.” I then decided to make my way up the chain of command, making my apologies. The Air Boss actually admitted to me that the “yellow shirt” was in fact operating on the edge, if not over it. “But that’s how we have to do it.” Uh huh…got it.
I went to see the Captain of the ship next, but had to find my “cover” (Navy for hat) so I could render proper honors by saluting. Easier said than done, since I couldn’t remember the last time I’d worn it. I eventually dug it out of some remote corner of my stateroom and made my way up the seemingly endless ladders to the bridge. My first, and hopefully last, visit. So this is the real Navy, I thought to myself, out of breath from the workout.
I quietly approached the Captain, sitting in his oversized elevated leather chair overlooking the flight deck, reading over a stack of papers. I felt the searing eyes of the boat drivers as I made my way past them. A flight suit? An aviator on the bridge? What did this guy screw up?
I saluted and identified myself. The Captain looked up and seemed relieved that the perpetrator of this interruption was, in fact, a fellow aviator instead of the boat drivers he dealt with most of the day. Unlike every other ship in the Navy, an aviator commands an aircraft carrier. I explained who I was, what I had done, and that I was sorry for my incorrect use of the English language on my SOOD report. I told him it wouldn’t happen again. He gave me a puzzled look.
“Oh, I think I heard about that. Didn’t read it though. Do you have a copy?”
Didn’t read it? Well, that was interesting. “Ummm…yes, sir.”
I handed him the copy of the report my CO had hemorrhaged red ink all over. The Captain actually laughed a couple of times as he read it; I had forgotten the other zingers I had sprinkled throughout the report. If I expected all hell to break loose, I was wrong. In fact, he looked up at me and said I was right. He even said my language was appropriate for the situation. I almost deflated and flew out the window. He told me that he was going to make some changes.
“We can’t afford a mishap. This was a great catch. Nice job, Whiz. Thanks.”
I saluted, backed out of the bridge, and felt a wave of redemption.
A few minutes later, I bumped into my CO in the passageway outside of our Ready Room and told him I had spoken to the Captain. His faced paled. You did what? He obviously didn’t think I would go through all the trouble of seeing the Captain, but if I did something that offended a heavy, I was going to take responsibility, apologize, and make sure it never happened again.
I ducked as the boomerang hit my CO in the head as he walked away speechless.
Here’s the moral of the story: my CO didn’t have to tell a white lie about how upset the Captain of the ship was in order to let me know something I did bugged him. All he had to do was say so himself. That he hadn’t taken this approach lowered him a couple of pegs in my mind.
We respected our leaders more when bad news came from them. A good leader “owns” bad news and any decisions that come with it.
Let’s look at a final example of venting up in the front office. At the end of each year, I submitted bonus recommendations to the Partners of a firm based on how my company and individual employees performed. I had to go in front of the Compensation Committee and fight for my employees, and did it with pride. I knew exactly how they performed throughout the year and why they rated what I recommended. But ultimately, the Committee would decide on the award. Sometimes, I didn’t agree with the numbers that came back and I would try to fight some more. But when told the numbers were final, I saluted and carried on.
When I met with individual employees to present their bonus awards, the news came from me and no one else. If I didn’t agree with the award, if I thought it was too high or too low, my employee would’ve never known. Any disagreement I may have had always went “up” and never down. I supported my Partners no matter what. I would’ve failed as a leader if I sat there and said, “I recommended you for a higher bonus, but they didn’t agree,” or “If I had my way, it would’ve been more.” I may’ve felt better by passing the responsibility off on others, but that would be short lived. No longer would this employee look at me as a leader. “If you didn’t decide this bonus, why am I talking to you? Who’s in charge? Who do I need to talk to?” Venting down would’ve been fatal to the leadership of the firm, made me look like I was a piano player in the bar and not the manager, and destroyed morale in my company. As a leader, own the decisions, and if you must vent, vent up, not down.
Strike Two – this one will be brief.
Mr. Panetta said the other day that he regretted the costs associated with his near constant travel back his home to CA on weekends. The only thing he regrets is getting caught.
Trying to explain away these exorbitant costs, he again shifted blame up – ‘this was part of the deal in me taking this job’. Oh really? A deal with whom? It certainly wasn’t with ‘We the People’ or the men and women who serve under you who spend months, sometimes years overseas in hostile environments away from their families.
Are you serious sir?
And for all of you Bush haters, the 2 previous SECDEF’s did not do this. Secretary Gates wife remained in WA state and he rarely traveled back to see her – he stayed in D.C., where he was stationed and where his tour of duty was. SECDEF Rumsfeld lived in D.C., where people were free to picked his house.
During a time when this nation is bankrupt, your own department is facing cuts that will devastate our nation’s defense, and our personnel continue to be killed in faraway lands it is an absolute disgrace for you to flaunt your travels home each weekend to ‘unwind’ and ‘decompress’. Why don’t you grab a rifle, stand a post, and see what stress is really like.
Anyone remember the Commander in Chief for excoriating CEOs and ‘their private jets’? I do. Careful throwing rocks in that house sir, your own CEOs aren’t listening to your hollow words.
Strike Three – there is no Strike 3. He’s out. In the department Panetta ‘leads’, there is no strike one. Strikes get you killed.
Firing Line: SECDEF Panetta either needs to step aside and make room for someone who can do the job without the ‘I’m a commuter clause’ or he needs to go to the DOE and borrow a Chevy Volt and drive home if he wants to see his family. Maybe after it catches fires halfway through the former fly over states he’ll get to see a little of the stress our troops, the troops he’s supposed to be leading, see firsthand every day.