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Document created: 1 December 06
Air & Space Power Journal - Winter 2006

Lines of Excellence:

Executing a Balanced Organizational Vision

Maj Raymond M. Powell, USAF*

Congratulations! You’ve been selected to lead 1st Widget Maintenance, the unit command for which you’ve waited your whole career. You polish off your favorite leadership ideas—a grab bag of techniques you’ve assembled over the years of leading, following, and observing. You’ve learned that you’re supposed to supply your troops with a philosophy, so you’ve filled your change-of-command ceremony with lofty proverbs and visionary axioms. You hit the ground running, emphasizing “mission first, people always” and eagerly pushing four or five of your favorite tools of the trade, refined over 15 years’ experience in the widget business. You will be involved but not overbearing, comprehensive yet focused, inspirational but not cheesy. Most of all, you will emphasize your core belief—that the business of 1st Widget Maintenance is to support the war fighter!

That was then; this is two hours later—after your secretary has assigned you your first stack of paperwork to review and sign. Halfway through the pile, the first sergeant arrives to report that one of your junior troops has been detained following a domestic dispute. As he’s recounting the sordid details, the phone rings. The installation commander just drove by one of your buildings whose yard doesn’t meet the standards of his “Combat Cleanup” program. Naturally, you drop everything to restore his inner harmony. Support the war fighter—but first rake the leaves.

You spend the rest of the day and half the evening fighting fires and getting yourself caught up on paperwork. By week’s end, you’ve spent a surprising amount of precious time and energy managing the aftershock of back-to-back security violations and meeting with opinionated spouses, while your loyal subjects have already begun poking holes in the pet projects you introduced on day one. By month’s end, you’ve got the whole unit working 12-hour days to prepare for a visit from the Widget Inspection Agency, and a legion of objections and naysayers have wrestled most of your magnificent plans to earth. Grand Vision, meet Stark Reality.

Ground Rules and Pitfalls

Fortunately, reality need not be so bleak, and you need not find your leadership agenda engulfed by the tyranny of the urgent. You can still cultivate a high-performing unit if you accept a few basic ground rules:

A clear unit vision exerts its power during conflict between urgent and important matters by enabling your people to execute your priorities while you’re tied up in meetings and attending to crises. In fact, when Gen James Jones, former commandant of the Marine Corps, set out his “Ten Principles for Marine Leaders,” vision led the list: “Have a vision—Develop a strong sense of where you want to go. . . . Invest time in articulating the vision.”1 Unfortunately, most young leaders prove unable to follow through on this basic principle, frankly because it’s harder than it looks.

Part of the problem is that our doctrine and training deceptively represent the envisioning process as simple, intuitive, and discrete. You yourself may have been led to believe that inspired vision will naturally spring from your fertile mind and that once you develop and broadcast it, you can move on to more substantive matters while your newly enlightened troops dutifully move out. This is pure fantasy. Executing an organizational vision requires a long-term commitment to get it right and then see it through.

Your first temptation along that path will involve simply neglecting the development or execution of a vision, allowing the tyranny of the urgent to crowd it off your plate. Perhaps even more insidious, however, you might allow divergence to set in by repeatedly broadcasting a particular vision despite your obvious preoccupation with other, incongruent, priorities. The former says, “I don’t have time for vision,” while the latter simply screams, “Hypocrite!” A third common culprit, diffusion, intrudes when your vision becomes either too vague or disjointed to be functional. It may look good on PowerPoint, but it doesn’t translate easily into a guide to action. Finally, myopia sets in when leaders become so preoccupied with their overly narrow, rigid vision that they can’t recognize external realities, threats, or opportunities.

So what characterizes a vision that actually survives first contact with reality to become an organization’s guiding force? To begin with the obvious, a well-constructed vision should center on fulfilling your unit’s mission and should clearly reflect your boss’s priorities. It should instill a forward-looking mind-set that positions your unit to move confidently and aggressively toward bold objectives. Above all, it must be executable along four balanced imperatives or lines of excellence: modernize, operationalize, professionalize, and standardize (MOPS).

Lines of Excellence:
Basis for a Balanced and Executable Vision

Before I develop the MOPS model, let me first explain what I mean by lines of excellence and how this framework is foundational to executing your unit’s vision successfully. In recent years, it has become fashionable for senior military commanders to frame objectives within the “logical lines of operation” construct, by which they synchronize myriad disparate tasks to achieve a desired end state.2 By capturing the complexity of large-scale operations, logical lines of operation compel subordinates to recognize the full spectrum of activities required to realize comprehensive mission success. They provide staffs a flexible framework from which to tailor plans to meet these objectives. Simply put, logical lines impose balance when fixation on urgent, obvious, or familiar problems is most tempting.

In Iraq, for example, Task Force Baghdad developed five lines of operation for its stability and support efforts: combat operations, training and employment of security forces, essential services, promotion of government, and economic pluralism. This approach recognizes that killing bad guys, extending sewer lines, and building government institutions all play an indispensable role in forging a secure and democratic nation. According to the task force’s Maj Gen Peter Chiarelli and Maj Patrick Michaelis, to neglect one in favor of another would have represented a dangerously “lopsided approach.”3

You face essentially the same challenge, and by adapting this model into a steady-state, unit-level guiding force, you can harness its balanced and practical approach to infuse a culture of excellence throughout a skilled, motivated, and aggressive workforce. This is less a matter of uttering flowery prose than of consistently expressing unit values and objectives in terms that the troops can get behind. The four meaningful, memorable, and forward-leaning lines of excellence represented by MOPS are designed to serve as the executable arm of your organizational vision (see fig.).

Figure. The MOPS framework provides a balanced approach for achieving organizational vision.

Figure. The MOPS framework provides a balanced approach for achieving organizational vision.

Modernize: Improve, Upgrade, Expand, Innovate

During his presentation of the Navy’s budget for 2006 to Congress, Secretary of the Navy Gordon England stressed his department’s commitment to a culture of “continuous improvement in both our effectiveness and our efficiency” (emphasis added).4 The modernize track represents this imperative to get every member of your unit dialed into “making it better” every day. Great ideas are far more likely to bubble up from below than they are to emit from the inspired head shed, but moving those ideas from concept to action can prove extremely challenging, particularly in hierarchical organizations. Junior personnel frequently believe, with some justification, that no one takes their ideas seriously. It’s up to you to break this inertia and cynicism by seeking, promoting, and celebrating progressive thinking. Up and down the chain of command, you want your folks chomping at the bit to effect improvements in combat capability, mission effectiveness, responsiveness, efficiency, and service.

One of the most productive techniques for generating improvements in operational military practice—the after-action review—entails “a professional discussion of an event, focused on performance standards, that enables soldiers to discover for themselves what happened, why it happened, and how to sustain strengths and improve on weaknesses.”5 Aviators recognize this concept as the postflight debrief—a critical deconstruction of each mission to capture and leverage lessons learned. By following up major operations, exercises, and other significant events with focused after-action reviews, you send your people a clear message that you demand honest, constructive criticism and that you don’t tolerate comfortable inertia.

Further evidence of achieving a modernizing culture occurs when your requirements begin to grow far beyond your budget because your people always bombard you with ways they want to upgrade or expand current capabilities. Of course, I’m not advocating mindless spending. In fact, although it may seem counterintuitive, waste will more likely result when you’re ineffective at identifying opportunities and requirements. After all, if you can afford everything on your list, you have no need to prioritize. Moreover, as Air Force colonel James Kolling points out, “ ‘Unfunding’ something that’s always been seen as a must-pay . . . in order to invest in a new idea or initiative is a powerful indicator of priority and willingness to support innovation.”6

This is an important point because developing an innovative military culture seems to run contrary to the military predisposition toward standardization. Indeed, a natural tension exists between the two—standards are imperative but not immutable. Much conventional wisdom just begs to be rewritten by an aggressively modernizing organization. Push that envelope by encouraging your troops to break the mold of how it’s always been done. Challenge the wise elders to actively elicit creative new solutions from their younger troops. When their ideas seem infeasible, tell them, “I’m not sure we can get there from here, but I like the way you’re thinking. What do you propose?”

Operationalize: Mission Focused, Combat Ready,
Rapidly Deployable, Aggressively Aware

It may seem obvious to say that your people need to be mission focused—that is, to know the overarching purpose of your unit and comprehend the cost of mission failure. But such an understanding can prove strikingly elusive due to another natural tension: procedural integrity versus flexibility. You clearly need your checklists and rule sets lest every routine action become an improvisation, but dull allegiance to these tools can easily undermine your operational edge. If you deny your customers the use of critical capabilities for the sake of obsolete or overly rigid regulations, you have done the enemy’s job for him.

Because formal rules and procedures generally lag a step behind the state of the art, they are constantly challenged by mission changes and technological advances. The United States has recently seen this dynamic play out on the evening news, as our law­makers have struggled over whether mechanisms established to generate intelligence and protect civil liberties need to adapt to new twenty-first-century threats. Since both the security environment and technology have changed drastically in recent years, procedures that once seemed reasonable now strike many people as archaic. In the same way, your troops need to know that there is a time to go by the book and a time to reinterpret, edit, or even rewrite the book.

Military leaders must address still another tension point, one involving the balance between those mundane nonnegotiables and the need to stay combat ready and rapidly deployable in support of exercises and real-world operations. This is not an either/or equation—you must be able to perform both daily and contingency missions with equal proficiency. Unfortunately, the nature of business at the home station dictates that your people will naturally become fixated upon relentless peacetime requirements while unit readiness ebbs away. Your most basic leadership responsibilities include honing the operational sword by keeping checklists current, servicing deployable equipment, rehearsing and reviewing contingency procedures, and readying troops to move out on minimal notice.

Such readiness implies that your troops routinely demonstrate aggressive awareness, one of the most difficult operational mind-sets to enforce in a garrison. Gen John Jumper, former Air Force chief of staff, publicly lamented a pervasive “help-desk mentality,” under which many staffers waited to be called rather than proactively identifying and resolving the war fighter’s most important issues.7 Such passivity is the enemy of operational effectiveness. Infuse your troops with the aggressiveness to get out from behind the desk and discover looming problems before they blossom into crises.

Professionalize: Clean and Orderly, Customer Friendly,
Total Team, Recognized Excellence

The professionalized track begins with a simple motto: “disorder spells disaster.” You might be tempted to take the attitude that a messy work area reflects “real work,” but it’s generally more symptomatic of a cancerous carelessness. Foster a squared-away ethic in your organization by enforcing clean and orderly equipment and facilities. Gen Bill Creech, legendary commander of Tactical Air Command from 1978 to 1984, launched his “Look” campaigns at a time when he believed that pride in the command’s units, people, and work ethic had waned. Though many personnel chafed at the time, by insisting on high standards of professional appearance, Creech eventually earned wide admiration as a key architect of today’s world-class combat Air Force.8

Of course true professionalism lies far deeper than external appearances. Your troops need to be customer friendly—routinely accessible, courteous, helpful, and knowledgeable. All members should also recognize the importance of the unit’s total team, whether they serve as suppliers, partners, or community and family members. Such a unitwide commitment not only remains vital to mission accomplishment but also prevents ordinary problems from festering into calamities that eat up your personal time and energy. If you find yourself constantly dragged into your subordinates’ food fights or mediating unexpected disturbances, it may indicate that your people haven’t internalized this mind-set.

As your unit begins to achieve its goals, sustain the momentum through a policy of recognized excellence. Seize every opportunity to further educate and train your people. Reward and celebrate success, and provide incentives to your achievers through encouragement as well as enhanced opportunities for advancement. Build a robust recognition program to send the message that your people represent the elite, not because they were selected as such but because they have chosen to be. Furthermore, when you faithfully reward your high performers, you clearly communicate the message that they don’t need to be careerists. They can focus on their mission and troops because they believe that you’re committed to taking care of them.

Standardize: Compliant, Safe, Secure, Repeatable, Measurable

From the day we entered military service, we learned to consider some things as basic: comply with rules governing critical procedures, assure that the safety of troops remains of paramount importance, and secure valuable materials as well as classified information against loss or compromise. Indeed, you’ll earn a fast trip to the leaders’ graveyard by failing to take care of “musts” such as administration, meticulous accountability of financial resources and equipment, technical and operational training, and dozens of others specific to your specialty or unit.

Unfortunately, these habits fall into disrepair as time erodes memories of what can happen when procedural discipline crumbles. Each of these basic functions has the potential to become the elephant in your unit’s living room, as you find that yesterday’s top priority gets overshadowed today when your unit has a major safety infraction, a repeat security violation, or chronically late paperwork. Only by systematically knowing, monitoring, and enforcing basic compliance issues will you keep them in perspective.

Chronic problems reflect bad underlying processes, so assure the repeatability and measurability of your unit’s recurring procedures. Your commitment to responsiveness, flexibility, and innovation doesn’t set aside your unit’s need to gain efficiencies, address deficiencies, reduce common errors, and simplify task training. You’ll find that Management 101 offers a careful system of automating, checklisting, and evaluating repeatable processes against realistic standards—an indispensable guard against the kind of chaos that can unravel the most well-intentioned leader.

Note that young leaders make one of the most elementary management errors by treating multiple, related errors as individual problems rather than a systemic weakness. Identify these defects by encouraging each work center to lay down accurate, meaningful metrics and then conduct trend and deficiency analyses of their most critical processes. Select the most important of these, making them part of your own balanced scorecard of unit performance.9 Don’t lull yourself to sleep with misleading metrics that consistently show outstanding performance. Instead, constantly refine your scorecard to assure its accuracy and its ability to get to the heart of your priorities.

Modernize, Operationalize, Professionalize, and
Standardize in Action

Whereas the logical lines of an operation model generally don’t seem very useful below brigade level, the lines-of-excellence framework described above appears especially practical for company- to field-grade-equivalent levels of leadership.10 It offers a convenient starting place for new leaders who need an off-the-shelf means of focusing unit efforts. The MOPS tracks themselves are fairly generic and tailorable to a variety of unit and mission types. Perhaps most importantly, their simplicity allows young leaders to grasp and apply them easily.

An especially powerful template for setting goals, MOPS induces subordinates to define their objectives via a balanced and forward-looking model. Having participated in goal-setting exercises throughout my career, I’ve observed a vast qualitative and quantitative difference in the product people generate when they have a clear outline of what the leader expects as opposed to a vague edict to “send me your goals.” Give your folks your vision, and tell them you want to see how they plan to modernize, operationalize, professionalize, and standardize over the next 18 months. (Including the subtitles for each track will generate a complete range of ideas.) You’ll be amazed at what they come up with!

After establishing your initial goals, however, you must actively monitor and encourage your people’s progress lest their good intentions pave the road to mediocrity. Require them to set target-completion dates and intermediate milestones for each objective. Don’t settle for distant targets that invite procrastination, but be generous when renegotiating milestones so as not to discourage aggressive goal setting. Keep a living list of these goals, reviewing and updating it consistently to maintain its integrity.

Whatever you do, make sure you celebrate every success. Hard-working people become cynical about suggestion-box improvements, believing that a defensive or preoccupied leadership will smother or discount their ideas. Under the MOPS construct, however, ideas are not optional—they’re fundamental because it assumes that, regardless of past or current success, a culture of excellence doesn’t stand still. Conscientiously implemented and dependably encouraged, MOPS can expand a trickle of ideas into a torrent.

While leading the 1st Fighter Wing, Air Force colonel Steve Goldfein expressed a commander’s raison d’être this way: “In the end, commanders do only two things—provide the vision and set the environment.”11 These are not simple, discrete tasks. They represent enduring charges that require your utmost devotion and careful implementation. Constructing the vision is up to you, but by providing a balanced and executable vision framework, the MOPS lines of excellence can help you set the environment for a culture of excellence—skilled, motivated, and aggressive.

*Major Powell is commander of Detachment 1, 82d Communications Support Squadron, Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.


1. Gen James L. Jones, “Ten Principles for Marine Leaders,” Marines: The Few. The Proud, http://www.usmc.mil/marinelink/mcn2000.nsf/10principles.

2. Army Field Manual (FM) 22-100, Army Leadership, June 2001, par. 5-37.

3. Maj Gen Peter W. Chiarelli and Maj Patrick R. ­Michaelis, “Winning the Peace: The Requirement for Full-Spectrum Operations,” Military Review, July–August 2005, 15–17, https://calldbp.leavenworth.army.mil/eng_mr/2006050113510487/03chiarelli.pdf#xml=/scripts/cqcgi .exe/@ss_prod.env?CQ_SESSION_KEY=WNVWNTUQ GZUP&CQ_QH=125612&CQDC=5&CQ_PDF_HIGH LIGHT=YES&CQ_CUR_DOCUMENT=4.

4. House, Statement of Honorable Gordon R. England, Secretary of the Navy, before the House Armed Services Committee, 109th Cong., 1st sess., 17 February 2005.

5. Army Training Circular 25-20, A Leader’s Guide to After-Action Reviews, 30 September 1993, 1.

6. Col James G. Kolling, USAF, e-mail interview by the author, 13 February 2006.

7. Nicole Gaudiano, “Old Warrior, New Ideas: For Outgoing Chief of Staff, Transformation Blends Tradition with Innovation,” Air Force Times, 30 May 2005, http://esc .hanscom.af.mil/esc-pa/the%20integrator/2005/May/ 05262005/05262005-12.htm.

8. See Lt Col James C. Slife, Creech Blue: Gen Bill Creech and the Reformation of the Tactical Air Forces, 1978–1984 (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, October 2004), http://www.maxwell.af.mil/au/aul/aupress/Books/Creech/Creech.pdf.

9. For a more complete discussion on the general concept behind the balanced-scorecard method of using metrics, see Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton, “The Balanced Scorecard: Measures That Drive Performance,” Harvard Business Review, January–February 1992, 70–79, http://web2.tmu.edu.tw/library/news/%5BHarvard %20Business%20Review%20-%20January-February %201992%5D%20-%20Kaplan%20&%20Norton%20-%20 The%20Balanced%20Scorecard%20-%20Measures%20That %20Drive%20Pe.pdf.

10. Army FM-Interim 5-0.1 “The Operations Process,” final draft, September 2005, par. B-42.

11. Col David L. Goldfein, Sharing Success—Owning Failure: Preparing to Command in the Twenty-first Century Air Force (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, October 2001), 23, http://www.maxwell.af.mil/au/aul/aupress/Books/Goldfein/Goldfein.pdf. The author quotes his brother.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University

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