- by Gitabushi
When I was in Officer Training School for the United States Air Force, I encountered a difficult leadership test. I’d like to share this anecdote with you, for your edification, but also to get feedback. I still think I did the right thing, but I still don’t know if I did.
The training system divided students into upperclassmen and lowerclassmen. As in many similar situations, the upperclassmen engaged in activities, ostensibly intended to train their inferiors, that were often indistinguishable from harassment, although not outright hazing.
A new commander took charge at about the same time I advanced to upperclassman. Along with the advancement in seniority, I also was nominated to be the assistant Student Squadron Leader. That means I was second-in-“command” of three flights, or about 45 students. I followed the orders of the Student Squadron Leader, of course, and we both followed orders, guidance, and instruction from the Instructors (who were active duty officers, mostly Captains).
One of the tasks assigned to me was the testing and board process by which the lowerclassmen leaders were selected. In effect, I was tasked with handling the search for our replacements.
The event was scheduled for a Wednesday night. The nominations were due to the cadre Thursday morning.
However, Tuesday evening, the new Commander disseminated new orders. We were told, verbatim: “Upperclassmen shall not mess with the lowerclassmen during their study time, from 8pm to 9pm.” This was because many loweclassmen were complaining they were doing poorly on tests because upperclassmen had found it entertaining to give them assignments or orders during their study time.
In order to make sure we finished the board process in time, we started at 6pm.
Unfortunately, it rapidly (by 6:45pm or so) became clear we were not going to finish by 8pm. I called the Student Squadron Commander and asked her what I should do, if I should continue with the board process or stop prior to 8pm. She told me to do what I felt was right. To be fair, I asked her what she would do and she said she wouldn’t continue. But she wouldn’t order me to stop, she merely repeated, “Do what you feel is correct.” I asked what would happen if we didn’t have the nominations for the cadre tomorrow. She had no answer.
So I went back and tried to speed up the process. When it again became clear we were not going to finish (by 7:30pm), I called the Squadron Commander again, and again she refused to give me a direct order, but told me to use my judgment.
So I called all the candidates together for a quick meeting. There were approximately 12, vying for 4 positions. I pointed out that we would not finish before study time began, and asked them if they wanted to stop or continue. They all said they wanted to continue. I asked them if they felt behind on their studies. They said no. I asked them if they felt their academic scores would suffer if we continued. They said no. I asked them if they thought continuing the process would be “messing with them.” They all said no. So I decided to continue. I called the Squad Leader to inform her of my decision, and the input of the candidates.
The next day I was called in to the office of the actual Squadron Commander, a Major (which is one level higher than most of the Instructors). He yelled at me for half an hour. He asked me what I was thinking. I explained that I wasn’t messing with the students, I was trying to finish the task I was assigned.
He told me that he was extremely disappointed in me. He pointed out that I was from the Army, and asked me if the Army allowed its soldiers to ignore orders like I did.
Sitting here right now, I don’t remember explaining my position to him. If I recall correctly, I felt that attempting to explain would be seen as either giving excuses or talking back, so I just told him I was sorry for misunderstanding the orders and would never do anything like that again. My position was that I had been given conflicting orders and put into a no-win situation: Finish the board process, but don’t “mess with” study time. The time alloted to finish the board process was insufficient. I was not allowed to use two evenings to complete it. I did not have any authorization to select nominees by any other process. I went to my superior for orders on how to resolve the conflict, and received no guidance whatsoever. So I made the decision to try to split the conflict: I analyzed the orders and felt that I could follow the spirit of the order (not messing with the lowerclassmen) while violating the letter of it (preventing the lowerclassmen from starting their study period on time), but I could not do the same with the mission of completing the board process. There was no way to accomplish that mission without fully accomplishing that mission. I did what I could to mitigate the issues (checking with the candidates to ensure continuing wouldn’t negatively impact them), but in the end, I understood that I was the one who needed to make the call, and I did.
He told me he very nearly kicked me out of the training program. To this day, I don’t know why he didn’t. I suspect that my instructors all put in a good word for me. I had several instructors who thought I was one of the better students and better officer candidates, deserving of recognition and a higher student-leadership position than I had been given. I can only assume they stood up for me and explained that I wasn’t stubborn or stupid and wasn’t a risk to disregard direct orders in the future. I had gotten excellent evaluations from the instructor I reported to every day as the assistant Student Squad Leader (the Student Squad Leader reported to a different instructor every morning).
Looking back, however, I still feel frustrated. I am angry at Squadron Commander for questioning my integrity. I am angry that he couldn’t see that this was not the time to install fear into me, but a perfect time to teach me how to deal with situations where I feel my orders are in conflict. He could have taken the time to show me what I did wrong in how I phrased my request for guidance to the Student Squadron Leader. He could have given me a better framework of how to resolve conflicts like that in the future. His best response would have been to suggest incorporating my dilemma into the training program, because these are the sorts of conflicts that result in death and tragedy.
Yes, the military cannot function if subordinates decide to ignore orders, just as the Squad Leader said. But the military also fails if subordinates blindly follow orders. Commanders cannot know the circumstances their subordinates face. Subordinates must be able to think on their feet to resolve conflicts in their orders, or to recognize when a superior’s orders do not comport with the local circumstances. The subordinate must then do everything they can to minimize negative impacts, and still adhere to the spirit of the orders to the best of their ability.
I would like to speak to the Squad Leader again, based on the experience I gained as an Officer in the 15 years since graduating Officer Training School. I think he was wrong to give me that verbal warning. I think he was wrong to consider kicking me out. In retrospect, I think the sort of independence and evaluation/analytic ability I displayed is exactly what the United States Air Force and the United States military need. At most, he should have taught me how to do it better.
What are your thoughts? It’s okay to say I’m wrong, as long as you explain why.