A Few Thoughts on the Air Force Suicide Problem

In the year 2019, we’ve reached an unprecedented rate of suicide across the US Air Force, and our leaders are at a loss. They have taken on a tone of helplessness, asking in sincere, quiet videos and speeches for some idea of what to do. In one particularly somber video, Command Chief Master Sergeant of Air Force Space Command, Chief Roger Towberman, with a tone of humble, candid confusion said, “What we’re asking for is feedback, because what we’re doing isn’t working.”

From my perspective, this admitted lack of clarity from Air Force leaders stands in stark contrast to what I had hoped was a burgeoning trend towards a closer, more connected form of leadership, embodied by the universally beloved Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Chief Kaleth Wright, who consistently demonstrates and advocates a more connected, humble, human-centered approach, leading our NCO corps by example. So how are we growing less aware? How can an Air Force with Chief Wright at the front be struggling to connect with our Airmen?

I see similarities between this sad conundrum and what is happening in the Air Force and other branches with efforts to incite a broader culture of innovation. There as well, our highest-level leaders demonstrate a firm grasp on the value of a new approach, calling for those with ideas to step bravely forward and innovate, asking for leaders to temper their risk-aversion and deconstruct the barriers to divergence, discovery, and progress; yet the experience of service-members at the ground-level, with their supervisors and immediate leaders, doesn’t reflect the cultural shift we need. No amount of encouragement from General Goldfein or Chief Wright will get those ground-level gatekeepers protecting the ‘Air Force of the past’ to stand down.

It is remarkable how the highest levels of an organization can buy into and proudly preach a new gospel of leadership and advocate a culture of innovation, yet it doesn’t do anything to change the ingrained habits of norm-enforcement at the level of execution. Norm-enforcers in leadership roles throughout the institution are aligned to a set of values with far greater influence than any senior leader. Getting those leaders in the “frozen middle” to realign themselves to new, values-driven, outcome-based habits of leadership takes a lot more than mere commands from the top.

The branches of the military, like most government institutions, remain locked in the narrow, impersonal confines of an industrial-age management mindset, which views individual employees as mere complicated machines whose productivity and efficiency must be optimized. This leadership approach seeks to calibrate parameters for maximum output. Motivation is derived from proper doses of punishment and reward; and managers are chemists, adjusting the levels of mysterious liquids to a perfect, prescribed balance. That approach, strange though it sounds, made at least some sense in an industrial-age, manufacturing-heavy world where profits were driven by workers repeating uniform tasks, at the quickest rate possible, with the least variance and error.

In the book One Mission, author Chris Fussell deconstructs the transformation of the Joint Special Operations Task Force from that same factory-grown, Taylorist paradigm to the “team-of-teams” construct that he helped implement as an officer under General Stanley McChrystal. In both of their books, Fussell and McChrystal describe how an archaic, hierarchical structure rendered U.S. forces helpless against a more agile, decentralized enemy network in Al-Qaeda in Iraq and their affiliates, prompting the Joint Task Force to undergo a complete organizational transformation. What Fussell provides in his follow-up to Team of Teams is a clear prescription for any organization in any sector to similarly transform into an agile and responsive team-of-teams. Within it, I found some useful insights that the Air Force could take to the fight to keep our Airmen alive.

Something that struck me early on in One Mission was the fact that General McChrystal’s oft-repeated equation that served as the basis for the Joint Task Force’s aligning narrative included “relationships”:

Credibility = Proven Competence + Integrity + Relationships

Relationships, it turns out, are absolutely integral. In One Mission, Fussell describes the steps that other organizations can take to become a team-of-teams to gain agility and resilience in an increasingly complex environment, and each of these steps serve to turn an institution limited by “solid-line” hierarchical, bottlenecked networks of administration into one where the distance between information and action is shortened through an instant and active network of “dotted-line” connections, which are facilitated by relationships.

The critical steps to creating a team-of-teams depend on:

1. Orienting around an aligning narrative.
2. Adopting battle rhythm, habits, and systems that cultivate relational, dotted-line connections that span boundaries and connect silos.
3. Granting decision space to leaders at the lowest levels.

The Air Force as a whole, and every unit I’ve ever belonged to, could use some serious work in all of these areas; but we can focus in on the first, Orienting around an aligning narrative, to get to the heart of our current cultural malady and the root cause of isolation among Airmen.

Here are the Air Force core values:

Integrity First
Service Before Self
Excellence in All We Do

Those three tenets constitute the Air Force ‘s aligning narrative, the decided principles that will guide us, regardless of what Air Force leaders attempt to advocate. It should strike us as shockingly unacceptable that our core values only mention the individual to say that they are not as important as the mission.

Core values are more important than we realize. They can be a powerful instrument to grant decisive autonomy to leaders at lower levels, because they place guard-rails that define the boundaries within which any leader’s actions are preemptively sanctioned. In the case of “service before self”, what we have sanctioned is the relative unimportance of people in comparison to the function they serve. Though intended to be in praise of sacrifice, in practice it diminishes the value of individual experience, and the resulting draconian, industrial-age view of the individual is our aligning narrative; and it allows us to believe that people don’t matter. I am well aware that this is a perversion of what many think “service before self” is intended to mean, but the point here is that outcome matters significantly more than intent, and the power of core values lies in their clarifying simplicity. If historical background and caveats are required to understand a core value, it will not serve its aligning function well.

Throughout my career, I have seen the core value of “Service Before Self” employed casually as a bludgeon by NCOs, to justify the needless suffering of their charges, to give reason to the pointless sacrifice of families, and to excuse their own tendency for toxic, reactive, punishment-first, norm-enforcing, variance-minimizing leadership. They exercise autonomy in their negligence and cruelty, within the bounds of a value-system that encourages suffering.

The human social environment is highly complex–the complexity of psycho-social dynamics compounded by the complexity of each person’s internal emotional state- and within that environment there is significant noise. It takes a type of ‘”weak-signal detection” to identify when a person is spiraling into a quiet, internal crisis. That detection is not just a skill that leaders can learn. It is a function of the distance between us and the amplitude and frequency of the suffering individual’s cries for help. To draw any closer than arms-length, let alone express vulnerability over the cacophony of the environment we cultivate, the suffering individual has to feel they are absolutely safe. But Air Force leaders are so often kept at a distance, because they are not trusted, because they value our function over who we are, in concert with their core values.

Quite simply, you can’t trust anyone who cares more that you look ok than that you are ok.

What we are missing in so many of our leaders is that thing that author Kim Malone Scott calls “Radical Candor”, that Amy C. Edmonson calls “psychological safety”. We are missing these competencies in large part because the importance of people and relationships appears nowhere in our aligning narrative. The human-centered leader, at every tier, exercises objective-driven autonomy in how they interact with their charges. They create an environment in which anxiety can be detected and responded to. They sense before responding, adapting their response to what will create the desired outcome, and that outcome is informed by fundamentally valuing the well-being of every individual in their care.

That is not the type of leadership exercised by supervisors who uniformly give out paperwork for every minor infraction, who intimidate to motivate, who punish reflexively and without regard for the damage that reckless punishment does to trust. It is not the type of leadership exercised by those who protect the leaders above them from the suffering of those below. It is an alien approach to norm-enforcers, to the apathetic, to those who are ego-driven and unwilling to be vulnerable themselves.

Even beyond the recent scourge of suicides, the absence of any mention for people or relationships in our core values holds further consequences. General McChrystal’s aligning narrative didn’t include relationships simply as a measure to prevent suicides. The principle of personal interconnectedness is central to how we make an organization and all of its members agile, innovative, responsive, and resilient. The culture that facilitates openness, candor, psychological safety, and positive divergence pays dividends not just for individual well-being, but for efficacy and progress as well.

What can we do about it?

I propose we take bold action to address what is clearly a cultural malady, which pulls us apart and isolates us, saps our creativity and inhibits innovation, renders our institutions unresponsive to change and its adherents hostile to divergence, which strips us of our sense of safety and belonging, which is leaving in its wake a devastating chain of deaths.

I propose we begin with that aligning narrative- our core values- the first thing we learned about the Air Force when we arrived at basic training. The first step is to put that cornerstone in place for the culture that we need. I believe we need to make a change to the core values, ensuring that they include, without ambiguity, the importance of our people and relationships.

From there, we have a long road of transformation ahead of us for how we all lead and develop leaders, but it’s a transformation to an approach with which our current highest-level leadership is already competent. If the words they say are any indicator, leaders like Chief Wright and General Goldfein recognize the power and importance of personal, relational, outcome-driven leadership. It is simply going to take a lot more than a day of discussions and some additional training to transform our ingrained culture of leadership up and down the chain of command. It is past time we started taking the difficult steps needed to create a culture of connectedness, transparency, positive divergence, and values-driven autonomy, driven by the power of relationships.

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