Category Archives: Leadership

Essays on leadership

5 Enemies of Problem Solving

There is hardly a day that will pass in anyone’s life where he won’t encounter problems.  This is the nature of life.  You wake up and walk into the kitchen expecting a bowl of Cheerios only to discover the milk has gone sour.  On the way to work you get behind a rolling road block being orchestrated by someone who apparently has a car that can’t do more than 32 miles an hour.  Then when you arrive to the office 15 minutes late, you find out that two of the three key people working your most important project have called in sick.  Just as you are about to let your emotions get the better of you, your boss pops in to let you know that your department’s budget is getting cut 25%, but he’ll still need 100% performance.

An extreme example?  Hardly.  There have been days when I wished that I could have such a smooth start to the day.

Due to the staggering number of problems faced by any organization, a premium must be placed on developing problem-solvers.  The people who can dissect a problem, develop a reasonable alternative or new solution, and then present the improved way ahead to your team.

Unfortunately, problem-solvers are not as common as problems.  In fact, most organizations are plagued with enemies of problem solving.  These are people, often well-meaning people, who are not only incapable of solving problems, but actively obstruct problem-solving efforts.  In essence, the enemies of problem-solving become another problem!


During my career I’ve been on multiple teams dedicated to “problem-solving.”  In some instances, I was the most junior member of the team.  In others, I’ve been the commander who was able to direct action.  I’ve observed as teams and organizations have wrestled with difficult problems.  I’ve watched as people huddled around white boards and brain-stormed like champions.  I’ve listened as impassioned advocates of change cited reasons for dramatic initiatives.  I’ve been blessed to be around some great men and women of action, who could actually fix things.

But in those same organizations, I have seen the others: the enemies of problem-solving.  These are the people who take an almost morbid pride in saying how it can’t be done and why it can’t be fixed.  You’ll recognize them by the hats they wear, because the ball caps they wear have an upside down Nike symbol proclaiming:  “Just Don’t Do It”

Avoid these people if you can.  But since you can’t, at least familiarize yourself with the 5 enemies of problem-solving.


1. Problem Complicators:

Problem complicators will spend most of their day debunking solutions to problems.  No matter how straight-forward the solution, the Problem Complicators are willing to dig in and have a weeklong discussion about it.  The Problem Complicator can usually be identified by his liberal use of trite sayings such as “I wish it were that easy” or “There are no simple solutions, guys.”

But there are simple solutions.  If some of your employees are having trouble getting to work because they have to drop their kids off at school – try this:  change their work hours. The Problem Complicators hate such solutions.  They are far too clever for their own good.

A common move by Problem Complicators is proposing an unnecessarily elaborate solution.  For example, if a dead-bolt on a door is broken, the Problem Complicator will suggest a laser-driven security system with a retinal-scan authentication device in order to keep unauthorized people out of the store-room.  Of course, this will require an incredible amount of money, training, legal advice, and an environmental impact study.

Typically the boss says something like “I have a better idea, buy a new dead-bolt lock.”

Then the Problem Complicator sniffs indignantly and talks about how “these Neanderthals never listen!”

2. Problem Identifiers

When I was stationed in Las Vegas, I often told the people who worked for me, “It is really easy to identify problems.”  I would tell my squadron, “I could go down to the University of Las Vegas and grab some freshmen who have never even been on an Air Force Base in their lives and bring them in here to this squadron; I bet that within 5 days they could identify almost all of our problems.”

Identifying problems is very easy to do.  Don’t get me wrong, some problems are more difficult to solve than others, but identifying problems?  It’s easy.

Problem identifiers are a particularly insidious enemy of problem-solving.  Problem Identifiers actually think they are part of the solution because they are identifying.  I’ve even heard people brag about this supposed skill.  They literally spend all their time identifying problems that need to be solved without any intention of actually solving them.  But we know that identifying superficial problems is easy.

For example, let’s say when you get in your car tomorrow morning and you turn the ignition, your car makes an awful knocking noise and won’t start.  When you get out of your car, you see a black pool of oil forming on your driveway.  Then along comes your neighbor, a Problem Identifier named Digger.  And then you have this conversation:

Digger:  You’ve got an oil leak.

You:  Yeah, I wonder what is causing that.

Digger:  You know, you’re not gonna be able to drive it like that.

You:  Yes.  I realize that.  I wonder if I blew the main seal?

Digger:  You’ll need to clean up that oil, ya know.  If that oil gets into the water table – wow!  I’d hate to think what that’ll do to the water table.

You:  Gee, thanks Digger {your anger is building}

Digger:  I think your left rear tire is low on air

And then you kick Digger out of your driveway.  You have learned to hate Digger.

Problem Identifiers can have a very nice career doing what they do.  Many are not as obvious as Digger.  They actually sound helpful when they say “you know the tech team just isn’t producing like it used to.”  Be very wary of Problem Identifiers.  They will not solve problems.  Remember, you can get five freshmen out of UNLV to identify problems; but those same college kids probably can’t fix anything.

3. Problem Diverters

Problem Diverters spend most of their day avoiding the problem.  There are two sub-classes of Problem Diverters – the conscious and the subconscious.

The Conscious Problem Diverter spends an inordinate amount of time intentionally trying to get the boss to focus on anything but the problem at hand.  This is a skill that they learned as children.  When their parents would ask, “Tommy, why didn’t you mow the lawn?”  The young Problem Diverter would say something like this, “But Mom, Joey never does anything!  Besides he’s been sneaking out of his bedroom every night to see that new girl down the street that wears the tight jeans and Metallica t-shirts.”

And it worked too; because Mom would refocus on the “Joey Problem.”

The Subconscious Problem Diverter is a different animal.  He is physically incapable of focusing on the problem.  So when the Boss asks someone why the shipping department is not meeting any of the established timelines, the Subconscious Problem Diverter is interested in talking about getting new office furniture or looking for clarification on the company’s “Vision Statement.”

Both variations of Problem Diverter are dangerous to your organization – but, be particularly wary of the Conscious Problem Diverter, because he actually thinks he is fooling you (and sometimes he is).

4.  Problem Reiterators

Problem Reiterators make their living restating the problem in a variety of ways.  They can be identified rather easily because they use terminology like “At the end of the day…” or “The crux of the matter remains…”

I consider Problem Reiterators to be among the vilest of all enemies of problem solving.  Why?  Because, they use already identified problem as a tool against all proposed solutions.  Let me illustrate:

In the Air Force, officers are highly encouraged to earn “Joint Credit” at some point in their careers.  Simply put, joint credit is given for jobs in which officers work with other branches of the military.  For example, an Air Force officer might get joint credit for working at the Pentagon or might get joint credit for working for a sister service, like the Navy.

A few years ago I had a very talented Captain who worked for me and was deployed to Iraq.  This Captain worked almost exclusively with the Army and actually served in the “J2” job, meaning she was the joint (Air Force and Army) lead for intelligence.  However, she didn’t get “joint credit” on her record for that job.

When we inquired with headquarters as to why she didn’t get “joint credit”, we were told “the policy is you get joint credit for only designated joint jobs.”

Me:  Can we designate the job this Captain did as joint?  I mean, it was inherently joint – she worked exclusively as the J2”

HQ Problem Reiterator:  I don’t set the policy; the policy states which jobs are joint.

Me:  can we change the policy then.  This seems like a no-brainer.

HQ Problem Reiterator:  At the end of the day, your real problem is the policy doesn’t give joint credit for that J2 position…

Problem Reiterators are tough.  You identify the problem as “the company policy or regulations need to be changed.”  Then Problem Reiterators tell you company policy or regulations prevent you from fixing the problem.  You tell them – this policy is stupid and should be changed.  They tell you, you know the real problem is that policy doesn’t allow for that.

Problem Reiterators are quintessential bureaucrats and as such “at the end of the day” they will tell you “there is really nothing I can do.”

5. Problem Accommodators

Problem Accommodators are sometimes difficult to identify because they give the superficial appearance of being actual problem solvers.  Make no mistake, a Problem Accommodator is an enemy of problem solving, but the camouflage used by the accommodator is brilliant in its inefficiency.

Problem Accommodators are most easily identified by their elaborate “work-around schemes.”  I’ve encountered these guys multiple times.

For example, your headquarters comes up with an automated database to track all employee training.  Headquarters believes this database will streamline accounting and reporting of training.  There is just one problem – the database that headquarters came up with doesn’t work.  In fact, it is terrible.

The Problem Accommodator creates his own local tracking system.  He creates a better database and uses that to track training.  Then every month he loads the good information into the bogus headquarters database.  He does this manually because the headquarters product is terrible.  Result:  The Accommodator has never had a late report; no one knows there is a problem and headquarters renews the contract for the Training Database 2.0 that will be even less efficient than the original.

Problem Accommodators have real potential.  You need to find them and help them actually solve problems.  Typically the Problem Accomodator has been emotionally scarred in the past by a Problem Reiterator (boy, I hate those bastards).  The Problem Accommodator tells you how they came up with a great solution to “problem X” 10 years ago, but after fighting with the Problem Reiterators for weeks, he gave up.

You ask, “why did you give up when you were right?”

Then he tells you, “Well, the Problem Reiterators told me that at the end of the day, the policy was complicated…”


Look we are all guilty of this stuff from time to time.

However, there are more than a few enemies of problem solving that are going to get in your way all the time because they live there.  These people need to be identified and rectified.  You simply cannot allow enemies of problem solving to go around souring the milk and setting up road blocks.


Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham














Cheerleading is not leadership

The problem with our Potemkin village is not that we don’t have a good enough tour guide. – Anonymous


From a fan’s perspective, there is nothing worse than a one-sided game, the dreaded blowout. And in the world of blowouts there is nothing worse than the High School basketball blowout.  You know what I mean, the games where the talent disparity is so high that there is no chance of the lesser team even competing, never mind winning.

I recently attended such a game.  The score at halftime was something like 51 – 6.  I was seated among the family and classmates of that losing team, and the mood was utter despair and silence.  However, during timeouts, the school’s cheerleaders trotted merrily out on the floor and implored the catatonic fan base to “fight fight fight!” or shouted rhymes about how our squad was about to win because we had heart and spirit.

At first I was amused by the juxtaposition of the basketball team being blown off the court and these cheerleaders enthusiastically jumping and shouting.  It was absurd.  Yet, as the game went on I found myself craving more cheerleading and less basketball.  It was a form of torture to deal with the reality of disheartened boys getting blown off the court; it was sweet relief when smiling cheerleaders were doing high-flying stunts. 

During the second half, as the opposing team repeatedly made easy buckets the score grew worse.  Despite the rout, whenever our boys managed to score, even a single point via free throw, the cheerleaders would jump about, shaking pom-poms and executing impressive high leg kicks.  By game’s end, the boys had lost by 71.  The team left the court confused and dejected while the cheerleaders shouted “good effort” and “nice try!”

But the boys aren’t stupid; they knew despite the shouts from cheerleaders, they just got crushed.


Part of a leader’s job is certainly encouragement.  A leader has to find ways to motivate his team to attack challenges and problems with confidence.  It is a good leadership trait to exhort your team to greatness.  The troops want to be rallied.  They want a leader who says “it can be done!”

However, when exhortation crosses the line and become cheerleading, you are no longer leading.  Instead you have replaced reality with fantasy.  Your team knows this; and you will end up losing your credibility as a leader. 

Once the leader compromises on honesty, he will quickly lose his credibility with the troops.  When your team is walking off the court following a 71-point blowout, resist the temptation to add insult to injury by offering up platitudes about “good effort” while shaking a pom-pom.



The military is facing another year of bad budgets and manpower cuts this year.  More than a decade of war with (at best) mixed results has been rewarded with planned deep cuts of uniformed personnel.  All branches of the military are being cut, manpower will be lost, experience will leave, and weapons systems will be eliminated or moth-balled.  Oh, and for those who remain, your retirement is on the chopping block.

It has the feeling of a high school basketball blowout.

Yet, the sloganeering and empty rhetoric of how “people are our most important resource” continues unabated.  Leaders at all levels are executing high leg kicks and shouting “we have spirit, yes we do!” 

Spirit, we may have, but do we have uniformed personnel to accomplish our mission?

There is a way for a basketball team to respond to a blowout.  First, you honestly assess how badly you played; you accept reality.  Then you get to work in practice.  The coach, as a leader, doesn’t waste a lot of time trying to find bright spots in a 71-point loss.  Instead he puts together a plan to address shortcomings and overcome failure.  The situation requires honesty.  Slogans simply aren’t going to cut it.

Cheerleaders might tell the team they are wonderful, but a cheerleader isn’t going to solve the problems of that team.  Problem solving requires a leader – a coach.  The coach is going to get back to basics.  He will focus on basic skills and the most important skills.  A back to basics approach focused on mission accomplishment.


The troops aren’t stupid. 

They doubt our sincerity when leaders say “our most important resource is our uniformed personnel.”  The troops have seen budget cuts gut training and readiness.  They have seen the projected troop strengths going south.  The troops see vital resources diverted to social engineering efforts and CYA programs designed to placate media firestorms.

The troops aren’t stupid.

They watched as the entire DoD went into freak-out mode when DoD civilians were furloughed for 11 days (which was eventually only 6 days) last year.  Those same troops can’t help but notice there is no similar outcry when the military announces huge cuts in uniformed personnel.  And yes, the troops see that there are approximately 750,000 civilians working for the DoD.  There are 750,000 elephants in the living room, eating peanuts, as uniformed manpower gets cut.  The troops know that 750,000 civilians in the DoD is almost the same size of the Army and Navy combined.  They also see that there is no major cut planned for civilian personnel in DoD.  The troops know that Mr. Putin isn’t concerned with civilian DoD employees as he calculates his next move in the Ukraine, yet civilian manpower in the DoD is untouchable. 

The troops aren’t stupid.  They see the stories and speeches calling for cuts in EARNED benefits to military personnel. 


We do have a great military.  The people who serve in our nation’s defense are great people and they do great things every day.  They need advocates and they need resources and they need leaders. 

But they don’t need cheerleaders – because they can see the score.

-cj cheetham

Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham

Remarks: POW/MIA Day – September 20, 2013 Newark DE

Tonight I had the honor of speaking to American heroes – veterans who had gathered in Newark Delaware to express gratitude to America’s POW/MIA.  It was a great privilege to meet comrades from the Korean and Vietnam wars. 


Good evening.

First of all, I want to thank the veterans assembled here tonight for putting together this outstanding tribute to America’s prisoners of war and those still missing in action.  It is a wonderful event and I thank you for allowing me to be a small part of it.

I’ve been in the military for more than 29 years, as both an enlisted man in the Army, and now an officer in the Air Force.   I’ve noticed that at this point in my career, I tend to look back more often than I did when I was a much younger man.

When I reflect on my military career it always comes back to this:  I love the military.  There are two very good reasons why and I hope my comrades, the veterans assembled here tonight will agree with me – what makes the profession of arms a great vocation is first our mission is to defend the greatest nation the world has ever seen, the United States.  Yes, America is exceptional and I don’t care what a cracked communist KGB agent in Russia has to say on that subject.

But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, what makes the American military great is the relationships we build.  It is our people – the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen that make up our forces – that truly makes our military an incredible team.  It is their dedication, patriotism, and incredible spirit that inspire me.  There is no other organization in the world that can take citizens from disparate backgrounds, different economic circumstances, different regions, different races, different religions, etc. – and forge them into a cohesive team dedicated to a single mission:  Defend this land we love.

Only the military can build such a team.  Only the military can take strangers and make them brothers and sisters willing to lay down their lives for one another and our nation.  It is remarkable.  It is powerful.  Yes, in the military we love our country.  But we also love each other.  Our shared experience in the defense of this land has made us different – and I thank God for it.

It is because of this love born of mutual respect and shared sacrifice that we today celebrate and honor the remarkable POW/MIAs of our nation.  We honor those who faced the brutality of prison – who faced the cruelty of our enemies – and did so with honor and dignity.  Our comrades who, to quote Churchill, faced down our enemy and simply said “go ahead and do your worst; we will do our best.”  These Americans were our best and they are our best.

Likewise, today we honor those missing in action.  It is not unusual in the fog and friction of war, for some to be classified as missing in action – this has been true from the American revolution through our efforts in the Persian Gulf.  However, it grieves us as a force and it grieves us as a people because we do not have a full accounting of the fate of our fellow warriors.  Our military, forged together from all walks of life and all corners of our great nation, will never rest until a full account of the fate of all our comrades is completed.  We cannot and will not forget because they are a part of our nation’s soul – and our souls cannot find rest until we have accounted for our countrymen because they are a part of us and we love them.

Our sorrow is particularly acute with regard to the MIAs of the Korean and Vietnam wars.  For in both of these conflicts, when war ended and hostilities no longer remained, our barbaric foes did precious little to help us account for those missing in action.  So, our nation, our military, and most importantly families, are still left wondering about the fates of those missing in action.

Today we honor the missing because we know how difficult their road was; in many cases they faced the enemy alone.  We are standing up and we are saying again proudly, we will not forget.  To our MIAs we say you are not forgotten.  We will not rest; we will not give up.  Because we know in our hearts that you did not rest and you did not give up.

Their fates are now known only to God but their valor and courage are known to all.  We know as a team – we know as a military, that this is not what we wanted for them, because we know in our hearts that we love them as our fellow warriors.

In closing, on this 34th annual POW/MIA day – let us renew the effort.  Let us never forget and let us say thank you to America’s prisoners of war and to those missing in action.  May God, the author of freedom, bless you and may He guide our efforts to honor your sacrifices.

We will never forget.

Thank you

-cj cheetham

Copyright © 2013 cjcheetham

The Leader’s Code

How good leaders lead.

A couple weeks ago I found myself in my home office looking through dusty old books on political theory.  Eventually I made my way to The Defender of Peace by Marsilio de Padua, a political tract written in 1324.  This isn’t an essay about Marsilio, but when I was re-reading the Defender of Peace I came across a great deal of hand-written notes in the margins.  The thoughts I’d formed that first time I had read Marsilio’s ideas on civil society.

I am a lifelong margin scratcher.  There is hardly a book I own in which I haven’t written commentary.  I’m not sure why but I started to go through a lot of books in my office – looking for my notes that I had written (to whom?).  It was during that mining operation that I came across this, written in my own hand, squeezed in the margin of a book:

“The Leader’s Code!  How good leaders lead”

My notes were scrawled (almost illegibly) in pencil and then an arrow pointed to a circled phrase.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.    

“Yes,” I said firmly, “that IS the leader’s code.”


Cracking the Leader’s Code:


A leader should never put his own desires ahead of the mission, the team, or other team members.  In other words, a leader should strive to have relationships built on mutual trust with his boss, his peers, and his subordinates.

You may ask, but isn’t ambition critical to the success of any individual and for that matter any group or nation?

Yes.  But the key point in the Leader’s Code is the modifying term.  The problem is not ambition but rather selfish ambition.

A leader should never engage in selfish ambition.  In my time in the military I have seen selfish ambition everywhere.  Selfish ambition is characterized by a boss who adopts this attitude:

“I am going to get ahead no matter how hard I have to make you work.”

These are the leaders who take credit from subordinates, undermine peers, or spend ridiculous amounts of time lobbying their boss for recognition or “the next great position” in the organization.

Healthy ambition is when someone says “I’m going to work my hardest to achieve a goal.”  Selfish ambition states “no matter what happens I better get ahead because I am so special.”


Closely related to selfish ambition is conceit.  The dictionary describes conceit as an excessively favorable opinion of one’s own ability, importance, wit, etc.  In other words, the leader who operates from a position of conceit is the last guy you want to work for.

The conceited leader thinks that he has such remarkable ability that he doesn’t really need input from the little people.  Sure, he’ll allow you to voice an opinion in a staff meeting because he read in a leadership book one time that he should let his subordinates feel empowered; but he has no real intention of listening to you because he is much smarter than you.  How do you think he got this job?  He’s supernaturally talented, that’s how!

The self-importance of the conceited leader will also be evident.  The conceited leader is always acutely aware of where he is sitting at the conference table (why am I not closer to the boss?); he is singularly focused on who talks the longest to the boss at a dinner party.

People who work for the conceited leader will know what kind of pens he likes, what soda he drinks, and they will run themselves ragged trying to make sure everything is just right.  In other words, the conceited leader is a boorish, self-important snob.  He expects to fly first class, have someone clean up after him, and he’ll need lots of minions around tending to his needs.  He also has a tendency to make decisions based on what is good for him rather than the team.

Sadly, conceited leaders seem to be everywhere.


Humility comes from a Latin word that carries a few meanings.  Obviously, humility means humble but it also connotes “from the earth” or “grounded.”   To put that simpler, humility for a leader means: remember where you came from.

I’ve been blessed to hold many leadership jobs in my time in the military – but I started out 29 years ago as a Private.  I’ve peeled potatoes; I’ve cleaned toilets.  At other times in my life, I’ve been flat broke.  I’ve been lonely and I’ve been hopeless.  When I look at my military career, I am very thankful for the success I have had.  If someone had told me when I was a Private that someday I would be a Lieutenant Colonel and a Squadron Commander, I would not have believed it.  I try really hard to never forget where I came from; because when I was a nobody, I still thought I was a somebody.

And yet, I look around the military and more often than not I run into senior leaders who have literally forgotten where they came from. There are an awful lot of senior officers who think the reason they got where they are is because they are special.  These officers have forgotten where they came from; they forget the breaks they got – or the help they received.   They have no time for the “little people;” no respect for the janitor, and no patience for the mistakes made by lieutenants.  I’ve heard Colonels say outrageous things like “the enlisted force can’t problem solve; we need the officers to do that.”


Only when you remember where you came from can you fully implement the principle of counting “others as more important than yourselves.”  No, I am not talking about how you let the troops eat before you do at the squadron Thanksgiving meal.

I am talking about adopting a real attitude of becoming a servant-leader.  One who understands that the organization will meets its goals only when you view each individual as a person – not as a cog in a machine.  The people who work for you have real hopes.  They have real desires and they want to live a full life where they are able to use their talents at work to achieve something great.  Sometimes your subordinates will need encouragement, correction, help, or praise.  No matter what they need, they will always deserve your respect.  They will always deserve to be treated as an individual.

I wish I could tell you that there are many leaders who are servant-leaders, but that is simply not the case.  What I have typically witnessed is the exact opposite – leaders who NEVER count others as more important than themselves.  These are the Leaders who rarely listen to their subordinates and who hate disagreement.  These are the leaders who threaten their subordinates.  These are the leaders who deny opportunity to subordinates because it would be an inconvenience to the boss.


America was founded by people who understood the Leader’s Code.  So, here’s my challenge to leaders:  This week try to implement a little bit of the Leader’s Code.  I often wonder how great the USAF could be with a strong adherence to the Leader’s Code. How great could our schools be if guided by the Leader’s Code?  How good and decent would law enforcement be if our police officers lived the Leader’s Code?  Dare I dream of a government committed to the Leader’s Code?

This week, don’t spend any time working on your next job; don’t angle on how you are going to get recognized by your boss.  Instead, talk to your subordinates.  Get to know the troops, and help them to identify and achieve their goals.

What you will find is this – there is an incredible amount of talent on your team.

Then it won’t be so hard to be humble.

-cj cheetham

Copyright © 2013 cjcheetham

There are probably some of you who recognize “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”  Yes – it is from the Bible – Philippians chapter 2, verse 3. 

Yup, I scratch in the margins of my Bible all the time.

Remarks to the University of Virginia AFROTC commissioning class – 2006

While cleaning out my closet I stumbled across this speech that I gave to the AFROTC commissioning class back in 2006.  I was just a Major, and it was quite an honor to speak at an event normally reserved for general officers.  I think you will enjoy this.


Good morning.  Lt General North, Col and Mrs. Vrba, staff of detachment 890, Faculty and University officials, cadets, and most of all families, friends, and classmates of the 2006 commissioning class –

Let me start by saying how pleased I am to be here this morning.  I count this as a great honor, to return to the finest AFROTC detachment in the nation; to share in the excitement of this day – a day in which we will commission new lieutenants into the United States Air Force.  And to the families and friends of those about to be commissioned, thank you for your unwavering support to these fine Americans.

To me, it seems like only yesterday that these cadets were attending their initial orientation in preparation for their first year of college and military instruction.  In fact, there are even a couple of cadets seated here that I can remember interviewing for an ROTC scholarship.  And now, you are about to enter into the most exciting profession this nation can offer – and you are about to become leaders in a force unequaled in the world, and you are about to become defenders of a nation unequaled in human history.

So today, I am going to try to give you some advice – some encouragement, because I have little doubt that you have the skills, education and training to take on this higher calling.

Let me just give you some background on the Air Force you are about to become a member of.  It is a busy place.  We are operating all over the world, directly engaged in the global war on terror, most noticeably in Iraq and Afghanistan; relief efforts for various natural disasters; conducting joint exercises with allies across the globe, and monitoring and dissuading emerging threats in every theater.  In other words, the operational tempo you are about to become part of is extremely high.  We are doing more and more with a smaller force than we had in the past.  In such an environment, there is a premium on leaders.  We have to have leaders NOW.  As lieutenants you will not be afforded the luxury of easing into your jobs – the learning curve will be steep and you are going to be put into positions of authority immediately.

And so, to assist you in your transition, I want to give you some practical advice.  Some of the things that I think you need to know – and to think about, if you want to be a successful officer.

1.  You will be judged by performance.  This might seem obvious but it needs to be stressed.  The moment you enter active duty there is a new reality – performance in your job becomes the sole measurement of success.  I can tell you, that having great talent, having a great academic resume, having potential – all pale in comparison to how well you perform.  The sooner you realize that the better.  Invariably, I run into lieutenants who don’t fully understand this.  They are always shocked when a co-worker who went to a no-name school and squeaked by on a “C” average has suddenly become the best officer in the organization.  They are left asking themselves “how is it possible that I, who went to this elite university, earned a 4.0 in astro-physics, and served as the cadet wing commander at my ROTC detachment, am now being out-performed by THAT guy?”  Let me give you a reality check.  The only thing that matters is excellence and hard work – for the most part, no one cares where you went to school, what sports you played, and least of all what your Grade Point Average was (which I’m sure is a relief to some of you).

2.  Standards are NOT optional.   You’ve been trained on this – you know the core values and their importance.  Now it is time to apply them.  You will be tempted – sometimes by peers, sometimes by subordinates, and even sometimes by yourself – to bend the rules.  Or to relax the standards.  Typically, these temptations are camouflaged by things like expediency (hey, we need to get this done now), or cynicism, or false appeals to “cutting someone some slack.”  I implore you to ignore these voices.  The standards are not empty rhetoric.  They were not created by a Pentagon think tank in order to make life tougher than it has to be.  No, quite the contrary – the standards by which we conduct ourselves are the combined wisdom of military leaders through 6,000 years of recorded human history.  These are our ideals.  And as a wise man said “ideals are like stars.  You will not succeed in touching them with your hands, but like the seafaring man on the ocean desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them, you reach your destiny.”

3.  Avoid the cult of micromanagement.  Yes, micromanagement is a cult.  It is not solely an affliction of the military.  No matter where you are or where you work, you will meet micromanagers.   These are the folks who will ask you why you aren’t using the new TPS cover sheet.  Over and over again.  Nothing robs the morale of your troops faster than asking them to do something and then squelching their creativity by endlessly suggesting stylistic improvements, asking for updates, leaving post-it note suggestions, etc.  When I was in the Army in a previous life, nothing made me happier than when my boss would say “Sgt Cheetham move your squad from point A to point B, and secure that location.”  And that’s it.   He didn’t say “move your squad this way; use this equipment; if you need to send out a recon party, have them follow these procedures first – oh, and throughout the process if you could provide me an update every 15 minutes, that would be great.”  Don’t get me wrong – you will meet micromanagers – but don’t become one.  Learn from bad examples and do not perpetuate it.  You will make everyone better.

4.  Maximize your training.   I’ll be honest with you – sometimes training is boring.  When you are sitting through your seventh straight hour of power-point briefings – you will probably find yourself exhausted.  And you will tune out.  This is when you have to steel yourself.  I remember having a moment of clarity during Operation DESERT STORM where I wished that I had learned more BEFORE I got there – I wanted to remember ALL my training.  A leader has to maximize training – and ask questions, learn as much as possible, because you are going to find yourself wanting knowledge when you are making decisions.  And you owe it to your airmen to train hard. 

5.  Three important words:  I Don’t Know.  The next principle follows closely on the heels of training – and that is learning three very important words:  I DON’T KNOW.  I say this all the time – (although I’m not sure I like admitting this with the 9th AF commander in the room).  One of the biggest problems I’ve encountered with lieutenants is pride.  If you don’t know the answer, say so – or ask someone to help you.  This is how you will learn.  Go out and find the answer and then that is one thing you DO know.  But never never never guess – you will invariably be wrong, get yourself into trouble, or even worse endanger mission accomplishment and personnel.

6.  Understand the rewards of your career.  This is critical to your mental health.  You will not get rich serving in the United States Air Force.  Except in rare circumstances, you will not be famous.  But let me tell you what you will get.  When you are in the twilight of your life, you will be able to look back on this time in your life and say that you did something great with your life – because the mission of the Air Force IS great.  To me, the mission of defending our nation and our families against people who want to knock down our buildings and kill our families is inherently great.  I can’t imagine anything more important or more rewarding. 

7.  Finally, if there is only one thing you remember about today, remember this:  You have a responsibility to safeguard and honor the memory of those who served before you.  Not only the officers, and not only the Airmen, but anyone who EVER served in the United States military.  I’d like to share a story with you.  My brother Michael, who is a Lt Commander in the Navy, is now serving in Baghdad – working with the Civil Affairs teams trying to bring order to the nation of Iraq.  This past Tuesday, Michael sent me a note, and I immediately knew it was something I wanted to share with you today.

He wrote:

Dear Christian,

Shane, a US Army Captain, was in my Civil Affairs Class at Ft Bragg.  He was in Iraq two weeks when his Humvee was hit by a roadside IED.  Three were killed instantly.  Shane, though critically injured, survived.  Two of the three killed were on their final mission in Iraq.

We heard Shane was in a Baghdad hospital.  When Shane saw the three of us walk up to his hospital bed he grabbed a notepad and wrote DON’T LET THEM SEND ME HOME.  His wounds and the tubes down his throat prevented him from speaking.  The most severe wound were to his lungs.

We communicated, him writing, us talking.  His concern was for his wife.  He wanted his Dad to be notified so that his family could notify his wife of his situation.  He asked about his army friends’ whereabouts.  If we knew, we told him.  Hank joked with him and actually got Shane to laugh as he lay on the bed.  His was a silent laugh and was probably painful; but that was Shane.  Good natured and happy.  We all laughed loudly with him.  Tears escaped the corners of his eyes and our eyes.  He then wrote WILL I RUN THIS FALL?  Meaning in the marathon he was training for.  We assured him he would make a full recovery and he’d be back 100%.  I then prayed with Shane, I had closed my eyes and I felt his hand grab mine firmly while we prayed.  I knew I was in the company of a hero.

Sadly, Shane passed away yesterday.  He is being sent home after all.  Although now there will be no joyful family reunion.  There will be no kiss for his wife, no hugs for his two young children.  Instead there will be only tears and memories.

Shane died on freedom’s frontier.  His body returns to freedom’s homeland.  His soul now resides with freedom’s Author.

Cadets, soon to be officers, that is quite a standard that this brave young man set for you – but I am holding you to it.  What we do is rewarding and exciting.  But it is serious business.  I need you to have your game faces on from day one of your career and I need you to NEVER forget the sacrifices of those who came before you – not just in the War of Terror, but in Vietnam, Korea, the World Wars – in every conflict America has had heroes like Shane.  Those heroes weren’t much different than any of you when they fought at a frozen Valley Forge with blood-soaked frost-bitten feet; or when they charged up San Juan Hill; or liberated Europe and Japan.  Today, these heroes of America’s history become your comrades.  DO NOT LET THEM DOWN.

Today, you become freedom’s warriors.  I am honored to serve with all of you.


Are You Creating a “Resourcefulness” Constrained Workplace?

Leveraging ideals to solve real problems

Here’s something I used to believe when it comes to problem solving:  In any endeavor, when it comes to problem-solving realism must be applied and realism must drive the outcome.  Therefore, nothing is worse than pie-in-the-sky solutions that are unattainable and unaffordable.  You might even catch me saying things like “let’s not have the perfect solution become the enemy of a very reasonable and good solution.”

However, over the years I have come to a new position.  Leveraging the ideal solution is not only important to solving an organization’s problems but it is essential to understanding the very nature of your problem.   The leader, rather than squelching subordinates from floating ideal (and perhaps fantastic) solutions, should encourage this behavior.  Once an ideal is agreed upon, that ideal can be studied and then, only then, should realism enter the picture.  Ideals must enlighten realism.

The ideal: invisible soldiers that walk through walls

Picture yourself in a room full of military planners.  A group of terrorists have kidnapped Americans and are holding them in an unknown building in an urban environment.  To complicate matters, the Americans are being held in a hostile nation, so you will get no cooperation from locals.  You are trying to solve an incredibly complex hostage situation.

Immediately the team leader starts looking for options and his team start talking logistics, intelligence, special operator teams, etc.  There are a lot of ideas about what can’t be done.  We won’t have time for this or those resources aren’t available, etc.  It’s a very realistic conversation.

Then some guy named Jones down at the end of the table says – “what we really need is invisible soldiers who walk through walls.”  Everyone stops and looks at this guy.  Somebody just shakes their head and they get back to how many C-130s are we going to need? 

The Boss finally says “Jones, let’s stay focused on the problem.”

The team is off and running to find a solution and Jones keeps his mouth shut.  They may even find a workable solution, but Jones is disengaged because he now realizes his ideal solution was a dumb idea.

But was it a dumb idea?  Not really; if you analyze an ideal solution you can learn an awful lot about what you actually need. 

Analyzing the Ideal

Let’s look at Jones and his idea for invisible soldiers who walk through walls.  Assuming that this is agreed upon as an ideal solution, what is it about invisible soldiers who walk through walls that make it ideal?

A quick analysis of invisible soldiers that walk through walls might yield the following principles of the ideal: 

–          Friendly forces move undetected by the enemy (Stealth)

–          Our forces can see and hear our enemy but they can’t see and hear us (information superiority)

–          We are undeterred by physical barriers such as buildings and walls (freedom of movement)

–          We have thinking human actors at the point of attack (mentally agile actors)

–          Invisibility limits the risk to our troops (security)

–          We can avoid a large conflict (precision engagement)

You get the idea – we could make a list for hours about the benefits of invisible soldiers who walk through walls.  The bigger lesson lies in the parenthetical remarks above.  When you take the time to analyze an ideal solution, it will reveal to decision makers the principles that the team must strive for.  Things like stealth, information superiority, security etc.  These things make up the ideal solution and a leader must ensure that the real solution, even if it can’t rise to the level of the ideal, incorporates the principles of the ideal solution.

In other words, Jones said something very important at the conference table.  The ideal principles are very germane to the actual answer.  They must enlighten the realist’s decision-making.

A “Resourcefulness” Constrained Environment

In the Air Force today, we are constantly reminded that we are operating in a “resource constrained” environment.  By resource constrained, senior leaders want us all to know that we don’t have enough equipment; we don’t have enough people; and we certainly do not have enough money to do everything that we need to or would like to do as a force.  In fact, there is hardly a speech given by leaders at any level that doesn’t talks about the “resource constrained environment” we are operating in and how it is going to get worse.

I don’t disagree with any of that.  We are resource constrained.  However, this is not different than any other time in American history.  We have always been resource constrained.

The danger in focusing on constraints is that it constrains your problem-solvers enthusiasm.  It squelches your idea generators.  If leaders go into a problem solving session by saying “we don’t have enough money, equipment or people but we have to do something” – they will get lousy inputs from their subordinates. 

Here is something I have seen over my career in the Air Force:  A junior officer says he needs X, Y, and Z in order to solve a problem.  The response from senior leaders is “we don’t have any X;  Y is way too expensive and I am using Z for something else.  You have to understand, Junior, we are in a resource constrained environment.”

The problem goes unsolved.  The junior leader (and the senior for that matter) thinks that X, Y, and Z are not “realistic” and therefore they say “forget it.”  Even more damaging, the next time there is a problem – the junior leader starts his problem solving by remembering we are in a “resource constrained environment” and he doesn’t look for an ideal solution, but rather one he might be lucky enough to get some backing on.  A half-measure that is funded is better than nothing at all, so knock off the dreaming, he thinks.

Equally discouraging is the fact that no one ever really analyzes the ideal of X, Y, and Z.  Why analyze “invisible soldiers that walk through walls?”  It will never happen.

The ultimate result is that leaders begin to create subordinates who can’t solve problems.  The subordinates get better at listing constraints and limitations to solving problems then they do at actually imagining victory.  The leader may as well start handing out ball caps with an upside down Nike symbol on them.  He can tell the team “Just Don’t Do It” and they can all where their anti-Nike hats.

The leader has succeeded in creating the Resourcefulness Constrained Environment – which I guarantee you will be much more damaging than the resource constrained environment.  Kill you team’s soul and their can-do spirit, and no amount of money can solve that.

A Way Ahead.

Ideals are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands.  But like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you will reach your destiny

  • Carl Schurz (address to Faneuil Hall, Boston.  April 18, 1859)

Leaders, we have to get back to encouraging ideals and idealism in our subordinates.  Do not constrain your subordinates with endless negative talk about what can’t be done and what will never work.  It is up to you to free them to imagine things that will revolutionize what your organization is doing. 

Too often junior leaders are confronted with a drumbeat of negativity and short-comings disguised as “realism.”  This leads to leaders at every level who are incapable of imagining creative solutions; they are terminally negative; and they focus more on what they don’t have rather than what they need to do.  They get very good at thinking in a constrained way.

Believe me I see it every day.  Leaders who have been so conditioned by constraints that they are literally incapable of solving problems.  They focus their attention on managing inertia rather than imagining the ideal.  They will argue why they can’t do something – and they will argue that all day long.


The ideal is your friend, leaders.  It is not a waste of time.  It is the inspiration for organizational excellence.  Will we ever have invisible soldiers, time machines, and endless supplies of energy?   I don’t know.

But what I do know is that by analyzing those ideals and other ideals still unimagined, we can discern what makes them ideal.  Then as leaders, subordinates, and problem-solvers, we can strive for the effects that make something ideal to begin with.  That is called organizational PROGRESS.

Stop crushing it with you indignant realism.

-cj cheetham

Micromanagement – The Incurable Disease

Try this experiment:  Get together with your coworkers and ask them what they think of micromanagement.  I’m guessing that you will get animated responses, indignant denunciations, and outright hatred of micromanagement and its practitioners:  micromanagers.  

In terms of public opinion, micromanagers are rated near the very bottom of society.  In fact, in a recent study (that I just made up off the top of my head) Americans rated micromanagers very low on the respect scale.  The results were stark, micromanagers finished just below “people who engage in human sacrifice” and just ahead of politicians.  It’s that bad. 

In other words, there is an almost universal agreement that micromanagement of subordinates is ineffective, annoying, and completely unnecessary.  Great!  We are all in agreement and we don’t have to worry about that subject anymore.

Now ask your coworkers just one more question:  have you ever worked for a micromanager? 

Hey!  What are all those hands doing up in the air?

It turns out that in a real study, nearly 80 percent of respondents said they either currently work for or have in the past worked for a micromanager.  That represents a huge disconnect between what we universally hate and what is actually practiced by leaders.   What exactly is causing leaders to do what everyone hates?

Make no mistake about it, micromanagement is not leadership.  In fact it is the opposite of leadership.  It does not empower, motivate, or inspire subordinates to achieve.  Instead it creates an atmosphere of fear and loathing; of anger and discontent.  So why would otherwise talented people use a universally despised method to “lead” their organizations? 

The Roots of Micromanagement

Micromanagement is rooted in a multitude of unsavory leadership defects.  Perhaps those of you who have encountered a micromanager will recognize some or all of these traits existing in your tormentor.

1.  I’m the smartest person in the room (Arrogance)

This is a very common trait among micromanagers.  They fail to trust their people and they question the competence of their people.  This trait is a deformed version of confidence.  Most people will tell you they are happy with a confident, self-assured leader.  What people despise is the arrogant boss claiming to know better than the front line worker on every subject.  In the military this manifests itself when Headquarters second guesses the tactical leader despite the fact that the front line tactical leader has access to the most relevant information.

2.  Fear of failure (Cowardice)

Micromanagers live in fear.  They obsess over “what will my boss think?” and “if this doesn’t work perfectly, how will I explain it?”  This leads to endless requests by micromanaging bosses for more and more detailed information, before the boss is willing to make a decision.  What the micromanager is actually doing is hoping to never make a decision on a subject.  This will frustrate subordinates who are closer to the actual problem, understand the risk, and want to take the best course of action even though they know it isn’t perfect.  The micromanager? 

They would rather do nothing than get it wrong.  So they demand more and more information to consider for longer and longer periods of time.  Frustrated subordinates either figure out a work around and don’t let the Boss know; or worse the subordinate gives up on trying to solve the problem altogether.

3.  Let me weigh in on every subject (Obsessive)

 Micromanagers have opinions on everything their subordinates do.  In fact, if a micromanager reads any report or document from a subordinate, rest assured he will find something that needs to be revised or changed.  Why?  Because, by their nature micromanagers are obsessed with weighing in on every subject.  This is a misapplication of leadership.  The leader weighs in only when he has to enable subordinates to accomplish a task; the micromanager weighs in on every tiny detail thereby slowing down and frustrating progress. 

4. There is only ONE way to solve a problem (Compulsive)

When I was a student at the Army Command and General Staff College we would always caution each other to find “A” way to solve a problem rather than getting bogged down with “THE” way to solve a problem.  The efficient leader accepts that there are multiple right answers to challenging questions.  Unfortunately the micromanager doesn’t believe that and insists on finding “THE” answer to all problems no matter how small.  What results is a game called “bring me a rock.”   It goes like this:

Boss:  “Hey Joe, run outside and get me a rock that will prop my office door open.”

Joe:  “Sure thing Boss!”  (Joe returns with a big white rock and hands it to the Boss).

Boss:  (Disappointed) “Joe, I actually think a black rock would be better.”

Joe:  “Sure thing Boss!”  (Joe returns with a black Rock)

Boss:  (Disappointed) “Joe I actually think a square rock would be better.”

You get the idea.  Every time Joe returns, he is met with disappointment.  The rock isn’t big enough; not round enough; where are the quartz speckles, Joe?  Not heavy enough; not unique; etc.

Eventually Joe starts to think there is no solution to this problem.  He starts to hate the rock and fantasizes about what color and size rock would do the most damage to his Boss’s skull.

5.  Today’s technology allows me to know everything (Hubris)

A micromanager almost always loves technology.  They want excel spreadsheets linked to other excel spreadsheets, managed by a complex access database.  Micromanagers love pie charts, fishbone diagrams, scatter graphs, and flow charts.  The reason micromanagers love these tools is because they believe they can actually understand everything and know everything that is going on in their organization with the right visualization tool. 

This is hubris and this is destructive.  It is not possible for one person to understand that much information.  This is why we hire employees to begin with.  At some point in the past a Boss said “we need to hire a guy to run project X, because I do not have the time or energy to manage that anymore.  I need to focus on other leadership level stuff.”   

Then years later along come Mr. Micromanager and he wants all the detail weekly on Project X.  Not only that but he’d like pie charts on the projects associated with the other 25 letters in the alphabet too!

Soon things devolve into a death spiral, as frustrated subordinates come up with new, bright colored slides, with shapes, arrows, symbols and shadows – all designed to give massive amounts of information to the micromanager.  Unfortunately the micromanager begins to re-imagine bigger and better slides, data bases, and spreadsheets that will eventually unlock life’s mysteries.  Before you know it a significant portion of the workforce is dedicated to creating graphs, charts, and slides – all in the name of technology making information “more accessible” to decision-makers.

 Curing Micromanagement

Okay, we are in agreement.  Micromanagement is a disaster and we need to find the cure for this leadership disease.

Except there is just one problem:  There is no cure (didn’t you read the title of this article?).

Like Michael Jordan, you can’t stop micromanagement; you can only hope to contain it.  The best way to contain micromanagers is to stop putting them in charge of other people.  If you have a micromanager in your organization, find a detail oriented job that requires no human interaction for them.  That is your best option.  For Heaven’s sake, don’t put him in charge of people.

Another way to limit the effects of micromanagers is to let them know they are arrogant, cowardly, obsessive, compulsive, and hubristic leaders who are more hated than people who conduct human sacrifice.  In other words, the micromanager must be confronted and then the micromanager, like the alcoholic, must go to battle with his demons daily.  Will he occasionally fall off the wagon and demand a Pareto Chart when he doesn’t really need one?  Yes.  But as long as he gets back on that wagon, your organization stands a chance.

A third strategy for limiting the deleterious effects of micromanagers is to mock them.  The movie Office Space is a great example of just the type of mocking that is necessary.  Give the micromanager a good drubbing with mockery – remember this is for his own good; he has a disease.  Obviously this option only works with peers and subordinates.  Open mockery of a boss will probably land you out of a job.  So be careful how you use it.  Think of mockery as a tourniquet – a last resort that could result in the loss of a limb.

Lastly, realize that these controlling techniques will only work on about 50% of micromanagers.  The other 50% will not be affected at all by these weak efforts to control them.  In fact, the other 50% are probably oblivious to the fact that they are micromanagers at all. 

So, there’s a good chance you will work for a micromanager at some point – just don’t become one. 

If you really have to do something people detest, go with human sacrifice – you’ll be more popular.

-cj cheetham

Can we (please) fix the Air Force evaluation system?

I’ve been in the Air Force for 18 years.  I’ve seen, reviewed, edited, and written myriad performance reports for both enlisted members and officers.  During those 18 years, I’ve discussed the Air Force evaluation system with young Airmen, old colonels, smart sergeants, confused captains, angry majors, and exhausted commanders.

I’ve taken an informal poll and I can say with confidence:  90% of the Air Force thinks our evaluation system is terrible.  They don’t think it is mediocre or that it has some short-comings.  They think the evaluation system is absolutely terrible.  The wrong people get praised with glowing reports and great people get over looked by the system. 

The Purpose of Annual Evaluations

Performance evaluations play an important role in any large organization.  For the Air Force, these reports are supposed to provide a standardized record of an individual’s performance.  Then that record is supposed to be used to enlighten the personnel bureaucracy within the Air Force.  It is the accurate performance report that will drive what individuals are selected for key jobs and positions, educational opportunities, critical leadership positions, and ultimately (most importantly) performance reports will play a key role in promotions for enlisted and commissioned Airmen.

Yes, the Air Force evaluation system is very important.  How is it possible that the overwhelming majority (yes, I’m sticking with the 90% number) of Airmen think the evaluation system is broken and inaccurate?  More importantly, why does Air Force leadership ignore this fact?  Does a first rate organization settle for a 5th rate evaluation program that is devoid of accuracy?

The underlying truth is this:  because the evaluation system is so crucial, it must be grounded in truth, fairness, and accuracy – and currently it falls far short of these ideals.

The Problems with Air Force Evaluations

1. Limited Perspective:    The current evaluation system has one point of view.  The only person evaluating an individual is the immediate supervisor or rater.  You get only one person’s opinion of an individual’s performance.   Yes, it is true that all evaluations have a block for senior rater’s to make comments about an individual; but let’s be honest – senior raters never write a word of that.  It is all written by the immediate supervisor.  

So ultimately you get the opinion of a single individual about the performance of a single individual. 

Practically speaking what does this mean?   It means the individual being rated only has to please one person:  his immediate boss.  The individual can be despised by his subordinates and disdained by his co-workers, but if he has pleased his immediate supervisor, he stands to get a great performance appraisal from his boss.  Inversely, if an individual is loved and respected by subordinates, and universally praised by peers it doesn’t guarantee him a great report.  If that second individual is loved by everyone except his immediate boss, guess what happens?  He gets a bad report.  This is nonsensical.

And what kind of people spend all their time pleasing their boss to the detriment of all other relationships?  Not leaders.  Not innovators.  Not team builders.  The type that spend all their time pleasing their bosses are usually annoying sycophants.

2. An Obsession with Form over Substance:   The Air Force evaluation system is one of the most bureaucratic processes you would ever want to encounter.  Like all bloated bureaucratic processes, there is always a flimsy excuse for the byzantine manner in which processes are executed.  In this case the excuse used is:  these reports are so important we need to have multiple cumbersome reviews, ridiculously prescriptive writing guidance, and grammatical excess that would make a 9th grade-grammar-Nazi-English-teacher blush.

Practically speaking, the review process for evaluations takes so long that authors are writing draft reports two months before the end of the evaluation period.  In other words, a 12-month report is written at the 10 month point and clever supervisors are left predicting what their subordinate will accomplish in the last 2 months of the report. 

Is this indicative of performance reports being accurate or important?  I don’t think so.  It is indicative that the review process is ridiculous.  In every Air Force organization I’ve worked in there are so many people reviewing performance reports for “quality” that you end up with a series of edits, re-edits, rewrites, suggestions from would be “grammar experts” up the chain of command.   Literally, some senior leader prefers “azure” over “blue” and it is sent back for re-write.  Someone likes the word squadron capitalized and another doesn’t – so we need a re-write! 

Why this obsession with form?  Does anyone really think that a promotion board reviewing someone’s record is going to say “Wow!  This guy has a fantastic record.  I sure would like to promote him but his supervisor capitalized the word ‘Squadron’ in his performance report.  Even worse, his boss used the word tremendous when he should have written fantastic.  Oh well, I guess this guy shouldn’t be promoted.”

Ludicrous?  Not at all.  The Air Force spends hour upon hour evaluating adjectives and adverbs in performance reports.  We spend vast amounts of energy on abbreviations.  We struggle over whether we should use a semicolon or a dash. 

Ultimately all this energy wasted by the foolish bureaucracy creates a system that spends more time on form than substance.  Raters are struggling with rules, regulations, and complying with myriad “writing guides” rather than doing their level best to accurately reflect the performance of their subordinate.

Enlisted Evaluations – the participation trophy:   The enlisted evaluation system has a wonderful two-sided form for supervisors to use to evaluate Airmen.  The critical part of the form is the numeric rating.  An enlisted member can be rated from 1 to 5 on their performance.  If someone is rated an overall “5” by their supervisor, that individual is absolutely superior and should be promoted; “4” is very good; “3” is average; “2” needs work; “1” probably has major issues.   Great.  Makes sense.

There is just one problem – 98.62% of enlisted evaluations have an overall rating of “5.”  (Yes, I made up that statistic; it is likely a higher percentage than I estimate).

How is that possible?  How can almost every airman earn the highest recommendation for promotion?  This is a military force, not a youth soccer league.  We shouldn’t be giving out participation trophies to all Airmen.  Thanks for showing up Johnny, here’s your trophy…er, “5” performance report.

The enlisted performance reports have no credibility.  This should bother every member of the Air Force.  We have repeatedly said performance reports are important, but we have created a monstrosity of an evaluation system.  All the current system guarantees is that you cannot rely on it to differentiate between great, very good, good, average, and substandard Airmen.  This is incredibly discouraging for our best performers, who after doing fantastic work get the same performance trophy as the guy who skips practice and misses games.

4. Unwritten Rules:  Despite all of the withering, debilitating bureaucratic guidance regarding Air Force performance reports, there is one more glaring short-coming in the system.  The Air Force performance report system uses secret codes, implied remarks, and double-meanings in the narrative of the reports in order to send secret messages to the personnel system.

No, I am not a Dan Brown-styled conspiracy-nut.  I am not suggesting that albino monks at the Air Force Personnel System are harboring secrets in performance reports.

But it is well known throughout the Air Force that there are certain unwritten rules on comments in performance reports.  For example, when I was a lieutenant I would see in performance reports words like “Challenge this officer” or “Rock-solid officer.”   At one time these were just throwing away words in a report.  Now they have secret meanings to boards.  Challenge actually means this guy isn’t ready for prime time; rock solid means not very good (sorry to disappoint you – don’t worry it’s on one of my reports too).   If you don’t say “promote” you are sending a secret message.  If you don’t recommend someone for school – the albino monks are taking notice.

Is this really what we want for our very important performance appraisal system?  Secret messages that aren’t standardized, change from year to year and from person to person?  I don’t think so.

A Better Way

Here is how we fix the Air Force Evaluation System:

1.  360 degree evaluations:  We have to get away from single-view evaluations – especially for leaders (Officers and NCOs).  Every leader in the United States Air Force should be evaluated by their boss, their peers, and their subordinates.

This is not as radical as it sounds.  Yes, the Air Force is a hierarchy.  Yes, we have a chain of command.  However, the measure of effective leadership is how the leader interacts with peers and subordinates.  A leader is actually leading subordinates (aka people).  That is the #1 group I want to hear from when evaluating a leader’s performance.   The Captain who is despised by peers and subordinates, but loved by the Squadron Commander – that is a lousy Captain.  The Colonel who is despised by the Lt. Colonels, who work for her, is more than likely failing even if she impresses the General in staff meetings.

Every leader must get evaluated from those above, equal to, and below him in the chain of command. 

This will likely frighten some “leaders”.  To that I say, fantastic!  We already have too many leaders focused solely up the chain of command to the detriment of morale and mission accomplishment.  Will this give too much power to peers and subordinates?  No.  As it stands we are giving too much power to one person’s opinion on performance.  Additionally, I trust people.  I don’t fear the comments of my peers and subordinates being included in my record.  I certainly hope that other leaders don’t fear their peers and subordinates.

2. Stop the nonsense on grammar and form:   Let’s go to a purely narrative form.  The current bullet-comment format has become a laughing stock.  Additionally, we have to agree as a service that we don’t care whether “squadron” is capitalized or not.  We have to stop blathering about action verbs, quality adverbs and adjectives, and the best way to abbreviate words.  The performance report is a tool to communicate how someone did in their job.  It doesn’t have to take on the cumbersome bureaucratic regulatory structure of Wheat Production in the former Soviet Union.

Let’s just simply state what a person did, why it was significant, and what kind of officer, NCO, or Airman we are dealing with.  We will probably have to keep the numeric scoring for enlisted personnel and stratifications for officers – but that does not mean we have to keep the goofy bullet format comments where we labor over removing individual letters to make the right adjective fit on the form.

Additionally, let’s agree that all the endless grammar reviews and quality reviews are a waste of resources time and effort.  The Air Force has its leaders spending hours every week trying to decide if a double-dash is appropriate or a semicolon would be better.  We have highly paid leaders agonizing over whether some project was completed “quickly,” “rapidly” or “efficiently.”  It’s like something out of the movie Office Space.

Unless your name is Colonel Funk or General Wagnalls stop with the endless grammatical reviews!  You do not impress anyone and every minute you spend on grammar is a minute you aren’t leading – the real job of Generals and Colonels (same goes for you Chief Master Sergeants).  Are you seriously telling me that the service founded by Billy Mitchell has strong opinions on whether fantastic is a better adjective than tremendous?

3.  It’s time for trophies to go to the most deserving:  There is only one way to fix the enlisted performance report problem.  If everyone is getting rated a “5”, you have to create a limit on the number of “5’s” given.  I propose that only the top 20% of enlisted personnel should get rated as a “5.”

I know there will be many who say we shouldn’t create a quota.  All that is needed is honest raters who are willing to not give a “5” to someone who deserves a “4.”  I used to believe this.  I no longer do. 

When every soccer team is giving participation trophies to all players, the coach who stands on principle and only gives trophies to his best players is not going to coach very long.

The system is broken.  Let’s introduce a 20% quota for “5” ratings and also make it clear that a “4” rating is very good.  The “4” will probably need to be limited to 30%.  That would leave the bottom 50% of the enlisted force in the average or below average categories.  In my experience, that is really how the enlisted force breaks out anyhow.

Let’s admit and move on.  It doesn’t mean that average performers aren’t important.  Look at a football team and tell me that role players aren’t important to team success.  We can still love the average performers – let’s just stop lying to them.

4.  No more codes:  Currently, secretive albino monks are not running (yet) our promotion boards and assignment teams.  We have actual professional Airmen running that process.  It is time to do away with secret code words that none of us can keep up with.  If I think a young officer would do great in a challenging job next, for goodness sakes let me say “challenge him with a tough job.”  I actually mean that.

If something absolutely has to be on a performance report, create a block for that measurement with clear guidance for leaders.

Stop making us figure out personnel nuance from year to year.  “You can’t mention college degrees”; “don’t forget to say promote – even if the person isn’t eligible for promotion”; “No one believes you when you say best captain I’ve ever worked with.”

Enough!  Why don’t we just have the evaluator write a paragraph or two about the rated individual?  Combine that with a numeric rating (for enlisted) or stratification (for officers) and you are all done.

When everyone agrees and no one acts, we have a problem

The Air Force is a great place to work.  I love the people, the mission, and the excellence associated with the Air Force.

But I hate the evaluation system.  I am not alone.  Just talk with members of the Air Force and you will get overwhelming evidence that the evaluation system is broken.

If we have a massive majority that knows this, isn’t it time to act?  Of course it is – and it should be bold innovative action.  It should be a revolutionary change.

That is the Air Force way. 

-cj cheetham

*If you are curious about Colonel Funk and General Wagnalls, you can read about them here:

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

Nico Toscani Isn’t Walking Through That Door (aka Steven Seagal on Leadership)

When I was in college, my roommates and I were almost obsessed with a film you’ve probably never heard of:  Above the Law starring Steven Seagal (it was actually his film debut).  We picked it up at the local movie rental store on a whim.  We soon became obsessed with Seagall’s character – Nico Toscani.

Who wouldn’t love Toscani?  Born in Sicily, raised in Japan, he was a master in Aikido.  After kicking some serious behind in Vietnam as a covert operator with the CIA, Nico had become disillusioned with the Agency.  He just couldn’t do the dirty work they asked him to do.  So, he naturally moved to Chicago to become a cop. 

The movie isn’t really very different from a thousand action films.  Toscani, is the lone rebel hero – never outnumbered no matter the situation.  I remember in particular our favorite scene: 

Toscani walks into a seedy bar in a bad Chicago neighborhood and starts asking some tough questions of the local “clientele.”  Within minutes, Toscani is surrounded by a bunch of tough guys brandishing weapons.  Now, you and I know that the average man in this position gets drubbed mercilessly by the gang and most likely hospitalized or killed. 

But Nico Toscani is not an average man. 

What ensues is one of the great scenes of that movie (and dare I say in film history?)  Nico instead of getting stomped, dishes out some of the most effective Aikido moves you have ever seen.  When he is finished, every dirt bag is incapacitated and the bar is a mess.  Then Nico gets the key piece of information he was asking for.  It’s pretty obvious, Nico Toscani is above the law.

Problem solved.

Except in real life leaders aren’t above the law.  In fact, there is an iron-clad law that leaders will never rise above:  problems are not solved by lone wolves or super heroes.  In fact, the best way for a leader to solve a problem is to leverage multiple inputs from a team. 

Leaders, especially leaders in America, have been conditioned from a young age to seek the answer from “THE” expert.  It is part of the American fabric and culture.  This is why super hero films are so popular.  The world is about to end – and suddenly in flies a mutant with super powers and the world is saved.  The criminals have taken over the city?  Don’t worry, Clint Eastwood just strode into town with a Smith and Wesson .44 Magnum, and he will have this straightened out in about 2 hours.

In times of crisis do we need centralized decision-making?

Throughout my career I have seen a couple common responses from leaders when they are faced with a crisis:

1.  Get me the expert!  

 In this scenario, the leader is faced with a complicated problem; he turns to his staff and asks, “Who is the expert on problem Y?”  The staff, usually eager to get out of the room blurts out a name.  “Jones!  Jones has been the expert on problem Y for years now!”  The exasperated Boss, leans back in his chair, rubs his temples and says – “somebody get Jones in here ASAP.  The rest of you guys hit the road.”

Here’s what happens next.  Jones shows up and comparatively speaking he is an expert on Y.  But he is one guy with limited knowledge of all the other processes that touch Problem Y.  He knows next to nothing about issues X and Z.  But, he’s the expert on Y and that is what he is paid for.  He comes up with a flawed solution.  But the Boss, tired of talking about Problem Y is happy.  He implements The Jones Solution. 

It works for a short time, but unfortunately, what Jones didn’t know about issues X and Z comes back to bite him.  Soon the Boss has two new problems – problems X and Z.   And of course at the next meeting, the leader asks his staff “Who are the experts on X and Z?!”

2.  This is too important for the minions.

The second response is another common human response to limited information or challenging problems.  The leader decides he has to go it alone.  The leader finds that as he talks to his subordinates none of them have the answer.  They all kind of have a partial idea – but by and large his subordinates seem lost and overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem.

So, the leader takes a deep breath and says, “I’m going in alone.” 

After all, the Boss is smart and he has an awful lot of experience.  Why can’t he solve the toughest problems?  Isn’t that what he is paid to do?

Unfortunately, in this scenario, the Boss isn’t like Toscani.  He gets absolutely drubbed by the boys in the bar.  In other words, he makes some really bad decisions.

 The Magnificent Seven

There is another great movie you should check out.  It’s called the Magnificent Seven.  In that film, a small western town is terrorized by bandits.  They are robbed, beaten, and raped.  The townsfolk pool their resources and hire a team to help them.  They don’t go get the Pale Rider – they go and get seven of the toughest men they can find.

Then, those seven men team together, using their combined strengths to mask their individual weaknesses.  Together the seven are stronger than the bandits.  To put an almost perfect bow on this illustration, the seven hired guns actually train the defenseless townspeople to stand up for themselves.  The seven actually multiply their effectiveness by including the helpless town in “problem solving.”  The film ends with the towns people realizing they no longer need the Magnificent Seven (although it didn’t prevent Hollywood from making “The Magnificent Seven Ride Again” – look folks, no illustration is perfect).

In Times of Crisis, Devolve Power Down

In times of limited information, when you are facing a crisis or a difficult problem – resist your urge to act like Nico Toscani.  If you are facing uncertainty, that is no time for the senior leader to start making more decisions.  Exactly the opposite is true.

Difficult problems are difficult because no one person has the answer.  Instead, the crowd of people in your organization – the regularly everyday people – holds the key.  No, not a single one of them has the answer.  But, they all have a small part of the answer.  They all hold some puzzle pieces.  Some of them may have more pieces than others; some may have more ability to put those pieces together – but as a group they have the picture.

This is where the leader steps in and does the truly difficult task of leading.  He, like the Magnificent Seven, helps these towns-people solve their own problem.  He patiently guides them, trains them, and most importantly believes in them.   That is what the truly heroic leaders does, because he understands that devolved decision-making and problem-solving is really the American way.

Don’t believe me?  Check your constitution some time.  The Founding Fathers were incredibly smart.  So smart that they understood that the difficult task of governing a country was best executed at the lowest level – not in a centralized model where a few “experts” called the shots. 

The American Way of Leadership is based on a very simple truth – the wisdom of the people is better than the wisdom of the elite few who don’t hold any of the pieces to the jigsaw puzzle.

So it is with your organization.  Resist with all your strength the idea that you have the answer to your organization’s problems.  If you can actually solve the problem by yourself – it never was a tough problem to begin with.  The toughest problems require wisdom from all your team – pooled together under the tutelage of a leader. 

That is how you clean up a barroom full of bad guys.


Admit it – you are dying to watch the movie trailer for Above the Law:

You know why I love you?  Because you don’t live the way other people live


-CJ Cheetham