Programs vs. Leaders: How Programs Undermine Leadership (Part I)

In any endeavor, leaders have awesome responsibilities.  First of all, the leader must provide the critical vision so the team knows what they are striving to achieve.  Secondly, the leader must articulate the values of his organization thereby establishing the culture that will drive success.  Lastly, the leaders must provide the tools, training, and resources necessary for success. 

Please note, that each of these three critical aspects to leadership and ultimately organizational success rely on a leader doing something quite radical:  a leader must communicate with and lead his subordinates.  The level of communication required for the team’s success is high.  If a leader wants to convey vision, values, and training to subordinates, it will require a great deal of personal interaction.  Because this is true, smaller organizations and businesses have a huge advantage over large, lumbering organizations.  

The United States Military is a great place to work.  The rewards are high, the respect we get from our fellow citizens is humbling; and for the most part we work with people who are incredibly dedicated to the success of the team.  But let me let you in on a little secret:  the United States Military is also a gargantuan, soul-crushing bureaucracy.  Like all bureaucracies, the military version of bureaucracy is dedicated to opposing leaders and common sense.  There is no better example of how the military bureaucracy is at odds with leadership than in the area of “programs.”

The United States Air Force has more programs than you could imagine.  There are literally so many programs that no member of the Air Force could possibly name them all.  There are resiliency programs, fitness programs, training programs, mentorship programs, equal treatment programs, smoking cessation programs, etc.

Now, you may already be reacting with what is wrong with resiliency and equal treatment?  Aren’t these noble goals?  And just what is your beef with training programs, Cheetham?  Do you want a bunch of untrained, non-resilient jerks serving in the military?

Here are the problems with programs:  programs separate leaders from followers; programs rarely achieve their stated goals; programs generally relieve leaders of their number one responsibility, namely the responsibility to train their own followers.

I think some practical examples will help illustrate this.

The Advanced Distributed Learning Service – a place where no learning happens

The Air Force Advanced Distributed Learning Service (ADLS) is a web-based training program that the Air Force uses for a multitude of training classes.  For example, any Airman can log into the ADLS website and access a smorgasbord of training classes.  There are classes on computer security, unexploded ordinance, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, safeguarding information, first aid, etc., etc.

 Again, there are so many courses, that no one Airman could tell you what courses are offered, but many of these courses are required (mandatory) annual training for all Airmen.  If you don’t complete those courses someone will let you know that you are not meeting standards.

The ADLS provides the Air Force with a fast, easy, efficient way to train across a huge organization.  If you want all Airmen trained on computer security, simply create a computer based course on ADLS.  Then Airmen all over the globe can read through the standardized training materials and take a test each year.  Problem solved – you have just created a class that can train 300,000+ personnel yearly on the critical issue of computer security.

There is just one problem – no one actually learns anything by taking these courses

Here’s how the courses are supposed to work:  an individual logs on and opens up a series of lessons.  The lessons have a series of slides, text, audio narration, and sometimes video.  At the end of the lessons which could take a couple of hours, all designed to convey critical information, the student takes a quiz or test to show that they have mastered the information.

Sounds okay, except this is how the courses actually work:  the student advances the slides of all lessons as fast as humanly possible (10 minutes is achievable) and then takes the quiz (over and over if necessary) until he/she achieves a passing (usually 70%) score.   Then the student can print a “certificate of training” and not have to think about that subject again for 12 months.  Note the student did not read the slides nor the text; the student did not listen to the audio and didn’t watch the video; he didn’t learn a thing.

There are many ways to describe such a system, but describing it as “training” is not one of those ways.  Likewise, there are many ways to describe the students’ experience in that system, but “learning” is not one of those ways.  In fact, I’ve never met anyone in my career who would say they have learned anything in an ADLS class.  Furthermore, leaders at all levels throughout the Air Force know this unpleasant fact; we all know that our Airmen are breezing through and not learning a thing!  So, if there is no training and no learning happening, why is this system being used? 

Problems with a centralized computer based training program:

1.   It is easier for leaders to outsource training to a website:   This is a perceived benefit for leaders.  Rather than have to devote manpower and time within their organization to train these critical topics and ensure that their personnel understand the subject matter, the leader simply says “make sure you get on your computer and get that certificate.”  The leader is literally abdicating his responsibility to this program.

2.   The Myth of Standardization:  There is a cult-like obsession with standardization in the military.    Therefore, this computer program which provides the exact same information, in the exact same way to more than 300,000 personnel makes the standardization cult very happy.  But I must remind you, the only thing being standardized is a lack of learning and a lack of training.

3.  CYA:  If you aren’t sure what CYA means – google it.  The reason this training system is popular is because it offers cover for leaders.  Going back to our computer security training example – if a sergeant violates computer security procedures the first question that will be asked is “was the sergeant trained on computer security?”  Now, that sergeant’s leader can produce a slick certificate proving he was trained.  Yes, we all know that he wasn’t trained – but he has a certificate.  So now the leader gets to say, “Well, I did everything I could.  I mean, the guy was trained.  We don’t have a training problem – just a bad egg.  It’s certainly not my fault.”  Technically he is right, because that is what every unit in the Air Force could say.  The real comedy comes next – when in response to the sergeant violating computer security, another web-based security class, new and improved, is created and 300,000+ Airmen who didn’t do anything wrong get to click a mouse and get another certificate of “training.”

4. Bean counting:  Under this system, leaders have become obsessed with tracking who has completed web-based training.  In fact, that is all they are concerned with.  Yes, they know that no one learns.  They really don’t care a bit about the quality of the training.  No, what today’s leader is focused on is statistics.  Did everyone do the training and get the certificate?  Never mind if the training had any merit – just get it done.  I don’t want to have to answer to headquarters. 

A Better Way:  Leader Centric Training:

There’s a better way to train Airmen.  Let’s return to leader-centric training.  That’s the kind of training where leaders at all levels actually communicate with subordinates.  Rather than shuffling them off to a website to get trained on computer security or something like that, let’s actually have Airmen trained by their supervisors and peers.  The current web-based nonsense creates resentment of leaders. 

Airmen are thinking “my boss knows this training is terrible, that we aren’t learning, and that we are going through the motions, yet he keeps demanding I do it.”  That is not a morale building thought.  It doesn’t engender confidence in leaders.  Airmen are asking why the system is allowing this.

The leader-centric concept creates more accountability.  If Airmen aren’t trained properly under the leader-centric construct, we’ll know exactly where to go to fix it – right to the commanders.  I know what my fellow commanders are thinking.  How in the world will I have time to train all of my airmen on all of these mandatory training requirements the Air Force has? 

First of all, commanders can empower and trust subordinate leaders to train their organization.  Secondly, training your folks is a core leadership trait and something commanders should be interested in.  Most importantly, if the Air Force has so many annual training requirements that we don’t have enough time or people to train those requirements effectively and genuinely, then we have lousy requirements.  Maybe, this gigantic bureaucracy has created too many darned training requirements!

Additionally, leader-centric training creates better morale in an organization.  It creates trust and respect across all ranks.  It instills feelings of confidence in your subordinates because they are trained by their superiors.  They trust the sergeant who trains them.  They respect the officer who trains them.

I can remember when I was a private in the Army National Guard in Massachusetts.  One day after a long day of convoy training I was sitting with some friends, drinking out of my canteen under the shade of a tree.  A sergeant came over and asked “what are you guys doing?”  


“Well get out your soldier’s manual.  I’ll train you guys on SALUTE reports.”

THAT is training. 

He didn’t say, “Well, when you get back to the barracks make sure you log into the website and breeze through the SALUTE report training.  I’ll need those certificates before close of business.” 

Not only did I actually listen, learn, and demonstrate knowledge back to that sergeant, but I also respected him more.  Years later, when my unit deployed for Desert Storm, it was nice to know that the people who were going to war with me actually knew what the heck they were talking about because they had trained me, trained with me, or been trained by me; they were not trained by mindless web-based training.  If the training isn’t important enough to have a human teach it, then frankly, I doubt its importance.

Lastly, leader-centric training ensures that the trainee gets it.  Only a human being can see when another human being does not understand a concept.  A website cannot do that.  If someone isn’t getting it – then the leader must find a way to train it differently.

The Elephant in the Living Room

There is an elephant in the Air Force living room.  That Elephant has ADLS painted on her side.  She is sitting in front of a computer trying to work a mouse with her huge feet.  She is clutching with her trunk a bunch of meaningless training certificates.

How is it possible that almost 100% of the Air Force knows that ADLS is failing our Airmen and nothing is done about it?  To the contrary, new ADLS training requirements are constantly being added to the system.

What is it about a program that makes them so resistant to reality? 

END OF PART I.  We’ll wrap it up with a look at other programs and how they are at odds with leadership – and what can be done about it.

-CJ Cheetham

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s