Air University Review, September-October 1983

Defective Leadership:
America’s Greatest Peril

Lieutenant Colonel G. E. Secrist, USAF ( RET)

A leadership crisis of substantial magnitude has placed the United States of Americas in great peril. America has lost military superiority and is faced with a shrinking scientific-technological advantage. Defective leadership has been largely responsible for the potentially catastrophic trends toward military and scientific-technological inferiority. Five manifestations of defective leadership have become alarmingly prevalent: careerism, intolerance of dissent, substitution of politics for principle, disparity between rhetoric and reality, and obsession with image. The combined impact of these deficiencies has caused a bona fide leadership crisis in military organizations. One of the major consequences of defective leadership has been the loss of what once was an overwhelming worldwide U.S. military superiority. I will focus on America’s leadership crisis from the military perspective and discuss these five manifestations of defective leadership and their consequences within the framework of national security.

Career-First Orientation

One significant manifestation of leadership deficiency is the career-first orientation that permeates much of the present Air Force officer corps. This attitude is reflected by excessive concern for self-enhancement at the expense of principle and mission effectiveness. Selflessness, devotion to duty, and the courage to challenge difficult and controversial problems are subjugated to behaviors perceived as requisites for an outstanding officer effectiveness report (OER) and necessary to create and maintain a promotable image.

The malady of careerism is readily detectable by those close to the military. Captain Frank R. Wood conducted more than a hundred hours of unstructured interviews with Air Force junior officers in their first ten years of service and reported a trend away from concern for group welfare in favor of personal well-being.1 He described the tendency as the emerging "me first" attitude. This is consistent with evidence that depicts the military as moving away from an institutional orientation where the job is viewed as a "calling" toward a civilian job outlook which emphasizes self -interest.2

Richard Gabriel has claimed that the U.S. Army, over the last two decades, has spawned a careerism so extreme that protection and advancement of career may have become the primary objectives of a large number of officers.3 Others have carried the notion of careerism even further by stating that a brutally self-serving orientation is necessary for a military officer to attain the rank of general.4

Career-first behavior by a leader is in conflict with commitment to mission effectiveness. In Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale’s terms, error avoidance and careerism take the place of positive achievement.5 The direction of substantial energy and talent toward career considerations and promotion alters personal values and priorities. Conformity, control, and compulsive coordination become a typical behavior pattern in order to reduce risk of error. The propensity to avoid risk or "play it safe" is driven by the fear that a mistake or failure might tarnish one’s image and put promotion and career progress in jeopardy.

The consequences of unwillingness to put one’s career on the line, reluctance to take risks, and failure to stand up for principle are severe, often precluding innovative breakthroughs and superior effectiveness. Unfortunately, similar deficiencies contributed to even more serious consequences such as the My Lai atrocities, Watergate, the deplorable conduct of the Vietnam War, and the recent erosion of U.S. military strength and technological advantage.

Intolerance of
Diversity and Dissent

Another manifestation of defective leadership is the inability to handle dissent constructively. Various euphemisms are used to describe this passion for conformity: e.g., don’t fight the problem; don’t make waves; don’t rock the boat. There is far too much emphasis on being a "team player" rather than on innovation, originality, and independent thinking. Colonel Edsel Field has pointed out the relationship between the tragedies of Vietnam and Watergate and the lack of open dissent on important decisions from those in key leadership positions.6 It has become more important to be a good "team player" than to object strenuously to unwise, unlawful, or immoral decisions.

Some have suggested that pressure to be a team player in the military is so strong that the role of devil’s advocate is considered a hindrance to action, often precluding constructive debate regarding alternatives.7 Yet, greater effectiveness and efficiency result from questioning, debating, and dissenting prior to decisions rather than trying to recover from poor decisions. Diverse viewpoints, participation, and debate ultimately strengthen final decisions and engender greater commitment and motivation in implementing decisions. Although debate and dissent yield substantial advantage, it takes strong, self-confident, and visionary leaders to create conditions conducive to the expression of diverse viewpoints and novel ideas.

Maureen Mylander has argued that the drive for conformity has eliminated many of the most resourceful and best qualified officers.8 The periodic ostracism of superior officers for daring to question policy and morality gives credence to this supposition and serves as a harsh example to those with a predisposition for dissent.9 The loss of extraordinarily valuable and gallant officers is magnified by the constraining influence of such ostracism on the moral behavior of others.

Intolerance of dissent is not limited to the lower levels of government but, on the contrary, reaches the highest echelons. Former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt reported that he was threatened with both the loss of his job and Navy budget reductions if he spoke his mind concerning administration policies.10 Such circumstances promote paranoia and duplicity rather than candor and honesty.

The federal bureaucracy perpetuates intolerance for diversity through a selection and promotion process that tends to advance people who pose no threat to its management.11 The prime criterion for advancement is not performance but willingness not to cause trouble. Under such a system, it is almost impossible for anyone but "team players" to reach the top 1evels of management. By contrast, those who refuse to be part of the "team player" network arouse considerable animosity because of their honesty, impatience with incompetence and corruption, and persistent embarrassing questions.12

The marked failure of U.S. military officers to resign or speak out against policies or decisions that violate moral principles or are not in the best interests of the nation can be contrasted with the behavior of Canadian officers; in Canada more flag officers or generals have publicly put their careers on the line over matters of principle than have their fellow officers in the United States.13 This is consistent with Colonel Field’s observation regarding the lack of contemporary officers with Billy Mitchell qualities.14

Another side of the "team player" matter also merits consideration. One should keep in mind that when an organization’s goals are worthy and its means or methods honorable, individuals can easily identify with and internalize organizational values, rendering superfluous the insulting plea to be a "team player." The fact that it is necessary to coerce individuals into being "team players" is in itself a symptom of defective leadership. When an organization’s leadership feels threatened by dissent, is overly defensive of the status quo, and perceives disagreement to be synonymous with disloyalty, an unhealthy rigidity is created that severely restricts innovation, adaptation to change, and organizational effectiveness.

Basically, military organizations reward and support those who show the greatest conformity. They reinforce behaviors that are often the antithesis of innovativeness and effectiveness. They reward the organization man, the yes man, the individual who never makes waves, fills all the squares, and parrots accepted form and procedure. The sad consequence is that excessive conformity results in loss of initiative and imaginative, innovative, and creative thinking— the kind of bold and daring perspective and behavior necessary for significant achievement and dramatic increases in mission effectiveness.

Substitution of Politics for Principle

An excessive preoccupation with expediency as manifested by the substitution of politics for principle is another visible leadership deficiency. It explains much capricious behavior and gamesmanship on the part of senior officers. When political sensitivities are greater than moral sensitivities, loyalty is vested in people rather than in principle or absolute value standards. This condition spawns a plethora of miniature Watergates, artificial crises, distortion and hoarding of information, extreme parochialism, and the investment of energy in accumulating political gratuities.

The politicizing of the officer corps in this manner is a matter of great concern and one that exacts an unacceptable toll in diminished effectiveness and compromised integrity. In the less extreme case, it involves paying lip service to the "right words" and seeking to fill the right squares in a highly visible manner—all aimed at impressing the "right people."15 More disastrous consequences of substituting politics for principle were traumatically demonstrated during the Vietnam War when the pervasiveness of deceit reached epidemic proportions. It appears that there was more "official duplicity" during this war than in any other in American history.16

More recently, the ascendant position of politics remains undisturbed, with shortcomings, failures, and the lack of definitive progress often excused due to the imperatives of bureaucratic politics.17 R. P. Dunwell has described the military profession as overpoliticized and as having regressed to the point where the combined effects of politics and excessive bureaucratic layering have severely diluted U.S. Armed Forces military capability.18 Major General G. J. Keegan reached the same conclusion with regard to the intelligence effectiveness of the United States, stressing that the highly politicized mind-set of the intelligence process has dramatically reduced the performance of the national intelligence agencies.19

Rhetoric versus Reality

The rhetoric from defense leaders asserts unequivocally that human capability is the premier American resource. General Lew Allen has repeatedly stressed that U.S. capability rests more on people than on weapons and that our greatest advantage over the Soviet Union is the caliber of our personnel.20 It has been noted that the present Air Force is critically dependent on quality people, particularly in view of the 30 percent reduction in personnel over the last ten years, the sophisticated high-technology equipment in use, and the austerity in military funding.21 Comparable statements by other high-level leaders can be found throughout contemporary Department of Defense literature.

The unique abridgments of constitutional rights accepted by military personnel (e.g., constraints on freedom of speech, political/organizational activity, working/living conditions) and the extraordinary rigors and sacrifices of combat jobs and certain support occupations have been duly recognized.22 Yet, despite the rhetoric on the importance of our scarce human resources and an acceptance of the constraints and hazards of the military profession, there is little tangible evidence that this discourse has translated into reality in terms of appropriate intrinsic rewards or, until very recently, adequate extrinsic compensation.

The relative diminution of extrinsic compensation during the 1970s combined with the destruction of intrinsic incentives by bureaucracy and defective leadership to produce a vastly inferior motivational climate. The severe restriction of intrinsic incentives within bureaucratic organizations in the form of drastically curtailed opportunities for growth, use of valued abilities, exercise of initiative, involvement, and self-control has resulted in only marginal realization of human potential.

Although a few top-level Air Force leaders have made attempts to decentralize and restore authority to those closest to the work, these efforts have not permeated to a level where they might have significant salutary impact.23 For the most part, such attempts have been nullified by countervailing actions at intermediate levels of command.

In essence, the rhetoric emphasizes the importance and value of human resources, while reality paints a picture of more than a decade of neglect for extrinsic quality-of-life compensations; and stifling bureaucratic encumbrances choke intrinsic motivation and suppress the full utilization of human talents and capabilities. In the research and development (R&D) environment, for example, Air Force leadership has identified the biggest management challenges as the creation of an atmosphere that fosters and encourages new and innovative ideas and a proper environment for high-quality scientific work.24

So much for the rhetoric. In reality, the R&D bureaucracy is pervaded by micromanagement, overregulation, and a highly process-oriented management and inspection system that together comprise formidable barriers to the high-quality scientific and innovative environments espoused in the rhetoric.

The disparity between the professional ideal and contemporary reality is also obvious outside the R&D arena. There is evidence that both flying and support officers are frustrated by lack of control over work process, inflexibility of higher level management, and insufficient decision authority.25

The Air Force has advised officers not to be afraid of mistakes, that a person whose career is free of mistakes probably isn’t doing anything.26 Likewise, the Air Force urges its members to dare to innovate, spark new ideas, and create ways to do things better.27 Again, the rhetoric is unquestionably valid, but in reality the system is so rigid and intolerant of mistakes that too many officers "play it safe," remaining timidly indecisive until sufficient consensus can be obtained.

The problem of retention is another reflection of the rhetoric versus reality gap. The inability to attract and retain quality people is well documented.28 Inadequate compensation and blunted opportunity for real involvement and growth have contributed heavily to the exodus of skilled professionals so indispensable to Air Force scientific-technological advantage and mission effectiveness. As General John Roberts stressed, lip service to problems or legitimate grievances causes disenchantment and retention problems.29

The rhetoric versus reality gap extends far beyond the confines of the military; it pervades much of our society. An especially grave consequence of this condition is declining confidence in our institutions, expressly government institutions.30 Our young people, in particular, are keenly sensitive to hypocrisy, duplicity, and lack of integrity. The substitution of politics for principle and the disparity between rhetoric and reality are, to a large extent, responsible for our young people being "turned off" by government. Hypocrisy and the resultant loss of credibility in the military translate to serious recruiting and retention problems such as those experienced in recent years.

Obsession with
Image Enhancement

The creation of image at the expense of substance has become a prevalent form of military organizational behavior. Image should be a by-product or corollary of genuine capability. The elevation of image to stature as a goal or end in itself can be extremely costly.

Many of the ills of bureaucracy can be traced to the proclivity to establish and maintain an image of efficiency and effectiveness. Effective leadership or management is gauged in shallow terms corresponding to measurements of the management process. In effect, measures of management process are substituted for valid figures of merit or criteria of effectiveness such as mission performance, quantitative and qualitative excellence, scientific-technological breakthrough, breadth and profundity of innovation, improvement in operational capability, etc. The primary result of image-oriented thinking is that the "process" of management becomes the main product.

Preoccupation with image and process stimulates the promulgation of management and staff positions. Management/staff positions and process emphasis function as expanding reciprocities, each position generating additional process-oriented activity, information requirements, and internal redundancy. The additional process activity, in turn, produces and justifies increased staff and management positions.

The layered bureaucracy and passion for image-related trivia strangle line or primary mission functions in a morass of micromanagement, planning exercises, reporting requirements, briefings, management reviews, paperwork, etc. Then, to ensure stringent compliance, the Inspector General (IG) conducts exacting and tedious process-oriented inspections. In fact, in the R&D area, IG inspections are almost totally a process-oriented activity. A particularly insidious consequence of management/staff proliferation and obsession with process is the lack of single point authority and responsibility so prevalent in Air Force organizations.

Another serious consequence of the obsession with image enhancement is the tendency to give the image treatment to deep-seated personnel and organizational problems. One example is performance appraisal. A considerable amount of evidence exists substantiating the inadequacies of the Air Force OER system; yet, no scientifically based lasting solutions have been achieved.31

Performance appraisal is a vital cornerstone for nearly all significant personnel and career decisions. Further, the effectiveness of the institutional reward structure and its motivational potency are directly related to the extent that valued rewards (e.g., promotion, recognition, awards, etc.) are contingent on performance. However, performance-contingent reward systems are not possible without valid performance appraisal and open, honest feedback.

Performance assessment is essentially a highly complicated metric problem that requires the concerted efforts of top scientific talent. It will take sustained, intensive effort by highly qualified professionals to produce performance appraisal systems that have scientific and quantitative validity, management/operational credibility, and acceptance by the personnel being evaluated.

Another serious organizational problem concerns the need to develop an improved scientific foundation for leadership and management practices. As in the case of performance assessment, a strong, continuing organizational research program, employing high-caliber scientific talent, is required; not arbitrary, cosmetic treatment. The organizational environment or climate created within a job setting by the synthesis of leadership style, management practices, organizational policy, and unit structure can have a decisive influence on human effectiveness.32

With few exceptions, the Air Force has met these fundamental personnel and organizational issues with an ad hoc task group approach. A smoke screen of highly visible, frenetic activity has been created, but little significant progress toward long-term resolution of problems has occurred. Ad hoc work groups fail to marshal the necessary expertise and in-depth, continuing research required for substantive, lasting improvements. Consequently, the Air Force has not been able to tailor management practices and organizational environments to the unique characteristics of its varied missions and personnel to attain the totally supportive, finely tuned institutional framework which produces superior effectiveness.

High-quality, full-spectrum (research, development, applications, and feedback) R&D programs in leadership, management, motivation, organizational climate, and performance do not exist in the Air Force. Equally unfortunate is the lack of systematic, scientific efforts to screen, validate, and apply personnel and organizational research accomplished by other laboratories and institutions to Air Force organizations. Without these programs, Air Force leaders are denied the scientific-management expertise required to optimize organizational effectiveness and fully realize human potential.

Other significant detriments associated with image-enhancement activities involve misuse of manpower, waste of material resources, and loss of respect and confidence in leadership. Moreover, excessive concern for image by senior officers creates a ripple effect which makes image enhancement the primary concern of subordinate elements of command. Full and rational utilization of our scarce human resources demands that central concerns be aligned with major mission responsibilities, not peripheral, superficial matters.

The combined influence of all aspects of image enhancement in terms of reduced effectiveness, improper use of human resources, and loss of confidence in leadership is substantial. General David C. Jones has identified one of the causes of the problem and described its main impact:

If we even try to make perfection the standard, we run the risk of creating artificial pressures for people to concentrate more on image than substance. The "look good syndrome" is the enemy of personal integrity and professional reliability.33

Cosmetic approaches and image-enhancement activities never bring lasting solutions to problems. Problems might be temporarily obscured by a short-term facelift, but they will most certainly recur and often with more serious consequences. Emphasis on form and structure must be curtailed and the principal focus placed on substance and content. Looking good, square filling, and giving the appearance of quality must be replaced by a strong motivation to achieve genuine in-depth fidelity in all aspects of mission effectiveness.

The five manifestations of defective leadership interact and combine to produce a loss in leadership credibility, inappropriate and detrimental management practices, and organizational environments hostile to effective performance and the realization of human potential.

The late General George S. Brown outlined several major advantages that American military personnel have over their Soviet counterparts. These advantages, which relate to being reared in the American society, include greater willingness to take responsibility, independence of thought and action, flexibility and initiative, and the ability to innovate when required by the situation.34 Unfortunately, the five leadership deficiencies create conditions that suppress the expression of the very characteristics which can give America a decisive advantage.

America faces unprecedented challenges during the next decade, which dramatically increase the urgency of correcting our leadership deficiencies and reversing ominous trends toward the loss of military and technological superiority.

San Antonio, Texas


1. Frank R. Wood, "Air Force Junior Officers: Changing Prestige and Civilianization," Armed Forces and Society, Spring 1980, pp. 483-506.

2. Ibid.; Major Richard A. Gabriel, "To Serve with Honor," Army, May 1980, pp. 17-21. Charles Moskos, "From Institution to Occupation: Trends in Military Organization," Armed Forces and Society, April 1977, pp. 41-50.

3. Gabriel, pp. 17-21.

4. Maureen Mylander, The Generals: Making It Military Style (New York, 1974).

5. Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale, "What Is Your Ethical Resolution?" Supplement to the Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, January 1979, pp. 38-40.

6. Colonel Edsel R. Field, "The Neglected Factor in Decision-Making," Air University Review, March-April 1978, pp. 51-57.

7. Ibid., Richard A. Gabriel and Paul L. Savage, Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the Army (New York, 1978).

8. Mylander, The Generals.

9. A. B. Herbert, Soldier (New York, 1973); S. H. Loory, Defeated: Inside America’s Military Machine (New York, 1973).

10. Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., On Watch (New York, 1976).

11. J. N. Miller, "What Happens When Bureaucrats Blow Whistles?" Reader’s Digest, July 1978, pp. 197-204.

12. Ibid.

13. Gabriel, "To Serve with Honor," pp. 17-21.

14. Field, pp. 51-57.

15. Lieutenant Colonel Raymond F. Hamel, "Are Professionalism and Integrity Only a Myth?" Air University Review, May-June 1978, pp. 60- 67.

16. Colonel Don Clelland, "Truth in Jeopardy," Air University Review, May-June 1976, pp. 75-77; M. Wallace and G. Crile, The Uncounted Enemy, CBS News Special Report, 23 January 1982.

17. Lieutenant Colonel David MacIsaac, "Master at Arms: Clausewitz in Full View," Air University Review, January-February 1979, pp. 83-93.

18. R. P. Dunwell, "Erosion of an Ethic," United States Naval Institute Proceedings, March 1977, p. 56.

19. Major General G. J. Keegan, The Strategic Balance: Trends and Perceptions (Washington: United States Strategic Institute, 1977).

20. General Lew Allen, Jr., see Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, 1 November 1978, p. 1; 1 December 1978, p. 2; 1 February 1979, pp. 2-3; 1 October 1979, pp. 2-3; 1 December 1979, p. 1; and 1 March 1980, p. 1. Also see Supplement to the Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, December 1978, pp. 2-8 and Air Force, May 1980, pp. 62-63.

21. General J. A. Hill, "Soviet Defense Budget Exceeds Ours 25-40%," Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, 1 July 1979, pp. 1-2.

22. General L. Allen, Jr., "Air Force Seeks Incentives to Attract Quality People," Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, 1 November 1978, p. 1; A. H. Chayes, "The Military Is a Special Kind of Community," Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, 1 December 1979, pp. 3-4; General Bennie L. Davis, "The Demand for Able Professionals," Supplement to the Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, March 1979, pp. 34-40; Lieutenant General A. P. Iosue, "Force Modernization without a New Look at People," Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, 15 September 1979, pp. 2-3; General David C. Jones, "All-Important Aspect of Readiness," Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, 15 February 1980, p. 1.

23. General L. Allen, Jr., "USAF’s Responsibilities in the ‘80s," Air Force, May1980, pp. 62-63; J. C. Stetson, "What the Government Asks of—and Owes—Military People," Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, 15 February 1979, p. 1.

24. W. N. Lang, "Philosophy Inspires Labs to Excellence," Air Force Systems Command Newsreview, December 1977, pp. 5, 15.

25. Major Barry D. Guyse, "RMS 1977—Encouraging Management Growth and Productivity,"Air University Review, September-October 1978, pp. 81-85; Wood, pp. 483-506.

26. Major General R. E. Sadler, "The Air Force Officer," Supplement to the Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, September 1979, pp. 35-40.

27. General John W. Roberts, "ATC Commander Reveals Impressions," Lackland AFB, Texas Talespinner, April 23, 1976, p. 2.

28. General Lew Allen, Jr., See Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, 1 February 1979, pp. 2-3; 1 October 1979, pp. 2-3; 1 December 1979, p. 1; 1 March 1980, p. 1. Also see Harold Brown, "Retention, Not Conscription, Is the Solution," Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, 15 February 1980, pp. 2-3; Gates, pp. 62-65; P. W. Myers, "Health Care for Air Force Families," Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, 1 April 1979, pp. 2-3. J. C. Zengerle, "New Assistant Air Force Secretary Is Concerned about Retention," Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, 1 March 1980, p. 2.

29. General John W. Roberts, "Thoughts on Retiring," TIG Brief 6, 1979, pp. 1-2.

30. Lieutenant General John S. Pustay, "Changing Balance of Power," Supplement to the Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, December 1979, pp. 27-36.

31. Air Force Systems Command USAF Officer Evaluation Systems: Review and Research Recommendations (Brooks AFB, Texas: Air Force Human Resources Laboratory, Personnel Research Division, 23 February 1971); T. D. Phillips, Evaluation of the Air Force OER System 1968-1978 (Randolph AFB, Texas: Air Force Manpower and Personnel Center, Personnel Evaluation Division, July 1978); (NTIS No. AD-B043 371); G. E. Secrist, Memorandum to Brigadier General Emanuel and Colonel Allen, United States Air Force Manpower and Personnel Center, Randolph AFB, Texas, Subject: OER Project Plan and Schedule, 19 December 1978; United States Air Force Major Air Command Commanders Comments on the OER System (15 messages and letters), Randolph AFB, Texas: Air Force Manpower and Personnel Center, 1978.

32. G. E. Secrist, Scientific Excellence through Enlightened Management and Healthy Organizational Environments, research monograph submitted for publication, 1983; G. E. Secrist, The Impact of Management Practices and Organizational Climate on Operational Workload (USAF SAM technical report), Brooks AFB, Texas: U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, Aerospace Medical Division, 1983, in press.

33. General David C. Jones, "Integrity," TIG Brief 12, 1978, p. 1.

34. General George S. Brown, "Our People in Uniform," Supplement to the Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, April 1977, pp. 34-40.


Lieutenant Colonel G. E. Secrist, USAF (Ret) (B.S., University of Utah; M.S., Purdue; Ph.D., University of Utah) is a research scientist for Technology Incorporated, Life Sciences Division, San Antonio, Texas. During 21 years of Air Force service, he served as a research scientist and technical director of biotechnology and human resource research and development programs. Other assignments included Titan II senior standardization crew member, Strategic Air Command missile forces, and crew safety project officer for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory Program with Air Force Systems Command. Colonel Secrist has published numerous articles in professional journals.


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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