Letters

Lesson Spurned

It is a shame the strategic leaders who launch ill-advised massive transformations don't have to reap and eat the bitter fruit of the seeds of disaster that they sow ("Parting Wisdom," April 1). We would be well-served by historians who thoroughly investigate the reasons such transformations end in tragedy. We need to hold past leaders accountable for their failures and to hold our current leaders accountable to learn and apply the lessons of that history. Apparently, Brian Friel, and Daniel Forrester, author of the white paper "The Government's New Breed of Change Agents: Leading the War on Terror," and those reading their publications also could use a lesson from recent history to get a countervailing perspective on transformational change.

After reading Vice Adm. Arthur K. Cebrowski's "unconventional advice," one can only wonder if he was even remotely informed or aware of the recent tragedies caused by leaders in our military who also ramrodded their "brilliant" transformational ideas into their military organizations without any consideration for the second- and third-order effects and the risks attendant to these changes. Such leaders have more often than not left a legacy of death and destruction.

Consider Gen. Merrill McPeak, a self-proclaimed transformational leader and former chief of staff, who made major changes in the Air Force in the early 1990s. "One base, one boss, one wing" minimized regulations for everything (including air traffic control), made Air Combat Command and combat fighter wing commanders and their staffs supreme, and stripped the air traffic control command architecture of its authority. This all was done within the context of closing bases and front-loading the downsizing of the Air Force.

McPeak also based the first composite wing at Pope Air Force Base next to Fort Bragg, N.C.-in spite of the expressed concerns of leaders at Bragg and staff officers at the Pentagon. With a reputation for arrogance, McPeak forced all those changes, without understanding the synergistic effect and high risks of making many major changes simultaneously. And so, he transformed the Air Force without managing those risks. One tragic result was the catastrophe at Pope AFB on March 23, 1994, when an F-16 collided with a C-130, creating a huge ball of fire that roared through a formation of 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers waiting to load their aircraft. Twenty-four paratroopers died and at least 20 more were severely burned.

Much later, McPeak acknowledged responsibility for the catastrophe. He was responsible, but I wonder to this day whether he really knows why. And, like Cebrowski, strategic leaders in the military right now, judging from their "just do it" mentality, apparently never bother to seek or learn the real lessons of massive transformations. One military service's strategic leader is widely quoted as saying, "Change is not managed. It is led."

Instead, the McPeak legacy should be this lesson: Arrogance of strategic leaders coupled with their failure to carefully limit and manage change is a recipe for transformational disaster. The lessons of recent history belie Cebrowski's advice. If McPeak ever learns the real lessons of his transformational change, then he will regret that he moved too fast.

Col. Buck Walker (retired)
Army
Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec