Leadership and open blast doors

IMG_8665I don’t usually comment on current events or politics or government; it is a little out of my education-leadership-development role. That being said, I see no reason not to explore some of the underlying psychological and leadership failings that lead to failures in military operations.

For those of you who may not have read about this yet, here is a link to the most recent article about missile crews failing to follow procedure: http://bit.ly/1dgwBdk. This isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last time that missile crews and their support entities fail to follow procedure. There is a long list of incidents that have led to various punishments over the years and, with the lack of carefully considered proactive or retroactive steps to curtail events such as these, there will be many events in the future to look out for.

Since I see this post evolving into a lengthy ordeal, I’m going to go ahead and take this piece-by-piece. I apologize for the article-length post. What you shouldn’t expect from me; what I hope not to promote, is a distrust of our military. Rather, I would that citizens and leaders took a moment to look at the institution in a critical light, rather than blindly waving flags and shouting “support our troops” at the top of their patriotic lungs. I consider myself a patriot. I have the Constitution hanging in my office, I’ve served in an overseas conflict, and I am exceedingly proud of my military service. I served under excellent and awful leaders (fodder for coming blog posts).

My first point: officers should not be automatons. I’ve heard many of my friends and read a lot of opinion pieces on the recent spate of procedural issues surrounding launch control center internal blast doors being left open by missile crews despite the fact that it is a violation of written procedure. It is a great discussion and worth having, but so often the comments fail to address underlying issues. I grow tired of hearing:

they should follow the rules

it is a failure of discipline

“I always closed/pumped the blast door

Rather than sanctimoniously declaiming, perhaps these individuals might critically consider what the underlying problems might be.

One would hope that critical thinking is one of the foundational skills our young officers are taught in their degree and commissioning programs. It seems reasonable to presume that an officer who was not able to think critically by the date of their commission would be drummed out of the service. Going forward, assuming that our officers have the ability to think critically, why were they disobeying a written instruction to close blast doors?

I’m not going to sit here and debate the ethics of obeying an order, however silly that order might be (this is not a blog on ethics). What I am going to do is ask you, the reader, to think for a moment about what you would do.

The blast door being opened or closed isn’t the issue. In fact, there isn’t simply one issue. The fact that the military expects its officers to operate as robots, to do as they are told, maintain 100% efficacy on tests and simulations, that they should run error-free operations or face punishment is tantamount to learned helplessness http://bit.ly/924udH and we owe more to our dedicated men and women in the field than that sort of psychological torture.

I’m not sure what is worse than some of the out-of-control punishments that have been meted out to the chain of command in situations like these. Operations group commanders have fired an entire chain of subordinates (ostensibly to correct failures in leadership that led to an issue). Entire squadrons, sometimes hundreds of individuals, forced to take a physical fitness test last minute. Officers and airmen have been forced to report to duty at 5AM, regardless of their work schedule, in full dress uniform to be screamed at by “leadership.” Career-killing Article 15s and Letters of Reprimand have been issued to officers for “violations” that are commonplace occurrences. This breeds a culture of fear, not one of acceptance and camaraderie.

Take a look at the satire that has been built up around missile operations. The blatant mockery alone should clue you in to the farcical nature of many of the rules and behaviors that have become routine and expected in that career field. Check out https://www.facebook.com/MissileerMemes if you want some amusing, but-all-too-true ideas about the morale at missile bases. Passive-aggressive complaints like these are memorialized in “unofficial crew logs” that are kept in the launch control centers and have a certain synchronicity with The Dilbert Index discussed in Freakonomics http://bit.ly/1iee2Ep.

When was the last time a third party L&D or OD professional took a serious look at the missile structure, training, morale issue? I can’t answer that question, but I can tell you from my own experience that no significant OD or LD changes have been made to the wing structure in the last 10 years. There have been upstream changes to the training side, changing a 69-day course to a 100-day course and the creation of Global Strike Command, which conglomerated nuclear operations under a single umbrella. There was even a push to “enhance” the career field by separating the space and missile operations career fields. Surprisingly, though, no real changes were made at the missile wings. Even the changes mentioned served to further isolate the individuals performing one of the most thankless officer jobs in the US military.

There are easy changes that can be made to mitigate situations like these. It is not too late to follow the training that the Air Force delivers from Air University in the various levels of Professional Military Education. Leadership decisions made at the lowest level, empowering leaders to make decisions affecting morale and welfare, offering counseling in lieu of punishment, ensuring that discipline given is rehabilitative, rather than punitive in nature, working to promote individuals who perform as leaders and operators, rather than relying on cronyism for promotion within the ranks.

In short, a critical eye at the LD/OD environment and a carefully considered and implemented change plan starting at the lowest levels, rather than high-handed, knee-jerk reactions, are required to move forward in the nuclear enterprise.

photo by: Clemens Vasters

6 Replies to “Leadership and open blast doors”

  1. Dr. Ewing,

    A lot of truth here, but you lost me at “…the fact that the military expects its officers to operate like robots.” The bedrock of the military IS discipline, which includes obedience, but not MINDLESS obedience, as the exaggerated complaint often goes. That’s neither asked nor desired. It’s MINDFUL obedience that’s wanted – having the brain always engaged. Leaders would always prefer that their subordinates follow policies not out of ignorance, fear or blind faith, rather studied understanding and agreement. It’s just that when asked, “At what point do (read ‘should’) I deviate from the rules?” a lot of people set the bar too low. Their answer is, “At the point I no longer see the UTILITY in following them.” I suggest that a better answer is, “At the point I see HARM in following them.” (And if the situation allows me the latitude of time and consultation, reaching that conclusion only after I get a sanity check with others, too see if I’m off in left field.) Regarding the first stance: unless you’re intimately aware of the perspectives from all levels of an organization, it’s usually presumptuous to assume a policy has ceased to have any utility. Regarding the second: policies might be inefficient, or produce sub-optimal results, but rarely do those conditions reach the point that the behavior is out-and-out “counter-productive’. Until they rise to that level of criticality, obedience is merited. As you’re upholding them, continue to seek maximum efficiency and ideal results through policy improvements, working within the system whenever possible, but follow the rules up until the point that they’re actually “bad”, not merely “not good/best”. That’s what the military (and every hierarchical organization which sees the value in having many eyes on a situation) wants.

    1. Dan,

      While I agree with your assertion that the military is founded on discipline and with your comments regarding the decision to follow or not follow rules based on their perceived utility, rather than whether following them would cause harm, I tend to disagree that (in the missile subculture specifically) that blind obedience is not often an expectation. By and large, I sought not to judge the actions of the individuals who chose not to follow the Weapon System Safety Rules (WSSRs), but sought to explain the environmental factors both that are documented and that I had observed to be true in my years as an officer and missileer. Regarding my first stance, I don’t consider my statements to have been presumptuous, rather, I have a fairly intimate knowledge of the WSSR rules, their purposes, and my perceptions of their shortcomings (including their application in all relevant scenarios). What I have experienced, especially in the military, is the idea that a person who hasn’t risen to the O-6 level or above is often marginalized because they couldn’t have an enterprise-level understanding of the rules and regulations. I beg to differ. Most of the rules were written by junior officers and then sent up the chain of command for approval. The day-to-day operations of the missile wings depends as much on the lowest level interpretation of many of those rules as the command-level interpretations of them.

      I stand by my decision not to defend those individuals who chose not to follow the rules in this circumstance, though I see why it might have happened and how the rule that was broken is intrinsically and extrinsically flawed (both sub-optimal and potentially harmful). It is not my place to critique rules and regulations, but, based on my understanding of LD/OD principles, I feel I am compelled to examine the factors that lead to a lack of discipline and morale.

      Thanks very much for your well-articulated commentary.


  2. Dr, as one of those 0-6s you speak about, I can tell you unequivocally, that I and the VAST majority of senior Air Force officers I dealt with or came across in my nearly 30 years of service have nothing but the utmost respect for the intelligence and insight of our military force. I saw VERY few instances of anyone being marginalized, regardless of rank. That is why that I, frankly, find some of your comments to be both offensive and denigrating to the Force I spent three decades with. Perhaps your personal experience during your short time in the military has biased your viewpoint more than you realize.

    While never a missiler, I was in leadership positions which oversaw the maintenance and storage of nuclear weapons. As is in the missile world, there are years and years of experience (technical and operational) as to the best approach/method for ensuring the safekeeping, correct/safe operation, and readiness of these national assets. These years of experience have been tested, reviewed, updated, and codified time after time, after time. Consequently, there is no guess work … no “doing it my way” … or otherwise ignoring or disobeying the exact steps and policies that have resulted from these in-depth and thorough reviews.

    I can relate to you the horror stories of what happens when well meaning people decide they’re smarter or know better than the engineers or those who have spent a life time in developing policies and procedures. Planes crash … aircrews die; equipment fails or malfunctions … people are killed or injured.

    I don’t want my missile crews, weapons maintainers, aircrews or other personnel who in any work with or associated with nuclear assets to do what THEY think is the right thing to do. I want them to know, understand, and do what the experts and years of hands-on experience have proven what is the correct thing to do. There are pathways/processes to suggest an orderly and peer-reviewed way of changing technical orders and policies if needed. It is NEVER acceptable for those who wear the uniform to by-pass that system and improvise.

    No robots, Dr … no Stepford types, just people wise enough to know that the BEST way is staring up at them from a longstanding, thoroughly vetted, well used checklist.

    1. Mr. Brisco,

      As I noted in LinkedIn, where I first saw your comment: I appreciate your opinion, as I appreciate the opinions of others who comment on my work. I reserve the right to disagree with some of your points inasmuch as they differ with my “limited” experience and education. I can appreciate that you took the time to read and respond to my article, but I don’t think that questioning the perceived bias of someone you’ve not met and know nothing about is perhaps not the most enlightened approach. I assure you that, by and large, senior leaders do indeed care for and respect the lower ranks. I had not meant to imply anything of the sort and I apologize if that misconception had led to offense being taken, as that was most certainly not my intent.

      Like I said in the post and in my initial response to Mr. Wetmore, I won’t speak to the decision to follow or not follow the procedure in question, but I did attempt to limit my commentary on the general issues with missile operational leadership environmental factors (i.e. morale/discipline/LD/OD, etc.). There was a point in the post where I said: “…what I hope not to promote, is a distrust of our military. Rather, I would that citizens and leaders took a moment to look at the institution in a critical light…” As an academician, I take issue with individuals who are unwilling or unable to take a step back and evaluate; to question things. I don’t believe, nor will I defend, defiance of orders.

      With due respect, I have to disagree with your assertion that the operational missile community would not prefer their officers to perform in a robotic manner while on alert. Though you have a lot of experience (thank you for your years of service), the operations environment in the missile world is unusual to the point where the closest analogous career field I have encountered is submarine operations officer (bubbleheads). There are very few situations (and the debate can be had whether that is necessary/beneficial) where judgement is required, while in the capsule, that wouldn’t fall into the well-defined routines that can be programmed into a computer. I happen to think that, while on alert, slavish dedication to the rules is a necessary part of the discipline that Mr. Wetmore mentioned. It is a real problem when it bleeds outside of the capsule back onto base. The point I was trying to make was that there hasn’t been a fundamental restructuring or comprehensive LD/OD evaluation of the operational missile wings in many years.

      Again, thank you for taking the time to respond. I sincerely hope that discussions are occurring in the active duty world that might stimulate critical review of the work environment in the missile enterprise.


      1. Dr, believe you can rest assured that with recent incidents, launch officer surveys, and the congressional angst/oversight of the Air Force’s nuclear community has the FULL attention of Air Force leaders. I am confident they will arrive at the right solution(s) to the issues currently plaguing the community. Thanks.

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