The cost of tolerance over time

  • Published
  • By Col Ken Eaves
  • 131st Bomb Wing

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with my wing regarding some issues we’ve had in the last few years that I thought needed to be discussed. I am a believer that we can only get better if we debrief how we do business (which is a topic I’ll expand on in another article). I am not a big fan of punishing everybody for the transgressions of a few. However, I hope that we all can learn a little from this discussion, as I believe we can fail if we let our guard down.

So what happened that generated my all calls? Over a few years, we have had four specific issues that drove commander-directed investigations across the wing. These issues involved unprofessional conduct, inappropriate relationships, disengaged leadership and toxic leadership. In every case, senior NCOs were involved, and in all but one, officers also were involved. In every case, I personally knew the perpetrators and frankly, until their issues were brought to light, I thought they were good – and in some cases, extremely good – Airmen. In every case, the issues were not isolated events. They had gone on for quite time. And in every case, it impacted Airmen – which impacted the wing and ultimately impacted the mission.

Here’s the part that concerns me the most: in every case, supervision was involved. In some cases they were the actual perpetrators, but if not, they either tolerated the behavior, ignored the behavior or were so disengaged that they were oblivious to the behavior. It doesn’t matter which one, because ALL ARE FAILURES!

In these cases, none of these leaders woke up one morning and decided to not lead effectively. What I believe to be true is that all of them lost sight of our core values. More specifically, I believe they lost sight of our second core value: Service Before Self. In every case, for whatever reason, their own needs, desires or will became more important than the mission or the Airmen that they worked with or led. I also believe that the supervision or co-workers who should have addressed the issues also put themselves first.

If you are struggling with how I have drawn this conclusion, let me catch you up. If an individual perpetrates bad behavior that impacts mission or Airmen, then it can only be because it benefits the individual somehow, or the individual believes it will benefit them. If someone doesn’t take action to stop bad behavior, then they must have a personal reason for doing so (i.e. they are scared to engage, they are friends with the individual(s), they won’t be liked if they say something, etc.). They have then put self over service. I cannot come up with any other conclusion or find any different way that bad behavior or not addressing bad behavior is service before self.

The reality is, it was not my desire in my commander’s calls, or is it now, to dig into the individual actions so that we can point fingers. My desire is to really look at each case so that we can answer the question, “how did we get here?” The answer: tolerance over time.

As I said, none of these cases happen overnight. All of them started out small, and when left unchecked grew larger and larger over time until they finally blew up. What happens when you tolerate a wrong behavior over time? The organization and the Airmen define that behavior as normal behavior. It no longer stands out as wrong behavior, and nobody close to the situation thinks anything about it when it occurs.

What happens when a supervisor or leader tolerates bad behavior over time – or even one time? That supervisor or leader has unofficially declared that bad behavior as acceptable. I have looked everywhere in DoD and Air Force instructions, and I cannot find anywhere that mandates leaders to strive to be popular. I also could not find anywhere that they are directed to be everyone’s “BFF – best friend’s forever.” I can, though, find quite a few references where leaders are called to lead; where they are tasked to execute the mission; and where they are directed to take care of Airmen.

Our first core value is Integrity First. The Little Blue Book (“America’s Air Force: A Profession Of Arms,” July 2015) defines integrity as “simply doing the right thing, all the time, whether everyone is watching or no one is watching.” But what is the “right thing” if folks who are tasked to lead Airmen ignore issues and bad behavior? What is the “right thing” when the bar we all strive to meet continually moves? The Little Blue Book also says that accountability is one of the virtues of the first core value. How can we hold ourselves or each other accountable if leadership continues to move the bar? News flash… we can’t!

We know what issues were brought to light, and now we know why they happened; what we need to discuss is what should have happened. To discuss this, first we need to go to The Little Brown Book, AFI 36-2618, paragraph 3.1.3, which states, “Airmen should correct personnel who violate military standards.” If every enlisted Airman is mandated to correct violations, sorry officers, so are you. So someone… anyone… really, everyone should have spoken up the first time the bad behavior happened. Someone should have said, “Hey, that’s not acceptable behavior.” It doesn’t have to be a grand event, it just needs to be honestly and professionally said. Someone needed to put self aside and engage, at the first occurrence.

I do believe in these instances that there is a difference in messaging versus admonishment. A supervisor needs to message to all those individuals who witnessed the bad behavior that the behavior is not acceptable. That’s why it needs to be addressed immediately and in public. However, any admonishment of the individuals needs to be done behind closed doors.

What if you are not the supervisor – or worse, you are lower in rank? Should that matter? If we go back to The Little Brown Book reference, did it say correct violations only of personnel that you outrank? No, it said to take action, period. But Green Dot has taught us that if we are not comfortable taking direct action, then we can delegate. In this case, tell someone who will take action. Tell a supervisor, a chief, a shirt or a commander.

It disappoints me that I have to mention this, but what if you address the issue with your direct supervision and they don’t take any action? This one is simple: use the chain of command, and if that fails, go see the Inspector General or Equal Opportunity office. Bottom line: take some kind of action. A great organization holds people accountable to do the right thing. Great people hold themselves accountable to do the right thing, especially when no one is watching.

I could not be more proud of the 131st Bomb Wing or Team Whiteman; I do believe there are none better. But we can always improve. We need to ensure that 100 percent of the time we have a culture of dignity and respect. The mission requires it and the people deserve it. Unfortunately, your wing commanders cannot make this happen on our own… everyone in the organization must believe it and demand it personally.