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Leading by innovation and efficiencies in a new era of fiscal change

RAF Mildenhall, England (AFNS) --

On Sept. 11, 2001, just before the Twin Towers were destroyed by terrorists, I signed into the orderly room of the 314th Logistics Readiness Squadron (Provisional) at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., as a shiny new second lieutenant. While my four years of ROTC courses had prepared me for the immediate challenges of my first few months in the Air Force, it could not prepare me for the new era that would be thrust upon the U.S. and the world. 

 

Over the next 12 years, the Department of Defense and the world would see unprecedented changes. As the military and, by extension, the Air Force was forced to adjust to external threats in the Middle East and elsewhere, it did so with the full weight of the federal government and its allies behind it. However, as both wars are starting to fade into the history books, so, too, is the seemingly unlimited financial support that formerly allowed the Air Force to be so successful in enabling stability and peace. 

 

One aspect of this change comes in the form of force restructuring, as well as a new fiscal reality. Today as a new squadron commander, I am tasked with ensuring complete organizational success in the face of these changes. While this is without question a daunting task, it is equally achievable. 

 While the term “fiscal uncertainty” seems to preoccupy the media and political landscape, I would argue that these changes are a part of a new fiscal certainty, one where the overseas contingency operations funding no longer exists and a new federal budget directs significant changes to the way the U.S. military will prosecute threats at home and abroad. 

 In my opinion, the term “sequestration” has developed into a cliché, universally applied to all budget woes and hardships. Without question, it’s not my intent to minimize the hardship that many face due to furloughs and budget cuts, especially those that impact Airmen’s families. However, as leaders, it’s important to view this change as an opportunity to lead through these trying times, in spite of a polarized political climate impacting the federal budget. 

 Air Force leaders should recognize the new fiscal reality and learn to operate within its limitations. Leaders of today and tomorrow must develop truly innovative and unique methods of balancing mission success and fiscal prudence. The military as an instrument of national power must learn to defend this nation and its allies “as is” and not “as we’d like.”

 From a historical perspective, increases in the U.S. federal deficit have been directly correlated to war.  As students of war, military members must understand where we have been before we truly know where we are going.

 As an example, at the end of The War of 1812, the deficit was 2% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the Mexican American War saw a deficit increase of 7% of the GDP. Of note, the most significant deficit came after World War II at an earth- shattering 45% of the GDP.

 More recent analysis reveals that increases to the deficit over the past 30 years have been directly tied to the Cold War and Global War on Terror. While military spending is not the sole reason for the budget imbalance, it has historically played a part. Needless to say, until Congress passes a new law, military spending will be a part of the method by which the U.S. deficit will be decreased. 

 Military leaders at the highest levels have realized this reality for some time now. In a 2011 speech, Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated that, “I have long believed -- and I still do -- that the defense budget, however large it may be, is not the cause of this country’s fiscal woes. 

 “However, as matter of simple arithmetic and political reality, the Department of Defense must be at least part of the solution.”  With these words, Secretary Gates recognized that the military, while not the sole cause of this fiscal crisis, would definitely be a part of the solution.

 Whether one agrees or disagrees with this assertion, the reality is that military spending has been drastically reduced to offset the federal deficit. Leaders who embrace this reality and its associated challenges will help define the next era of greatness for the U.S. Air Force.

 First, we must accept the new fiscal normal. Within every organization, there is always discussion of the “good ole days,” a reflection of times passed and how fruitful and free things used to be. Although nostalgia can be a good thing, it also has the potential to derail and create a barrier to change. Doing away with the old and accepting the new is one of the greatest challenges to leading and ushering in a new era.

 Successful businessman and author Peter Drucker wrote, “Everybody has accepted, by now, that change is unavoidable. But, this still implies that change is like death and taxes — it should be postponed as long as possible and no change would be vastly preferable. But, in a period of upheaval, such as the one we are living in, change is the norm."

 As leaders, it’s important to operate within the limitations of what we have versus what we would like to have. While military clichés such as “doing more with less” and “doing less with less” are designed to capture the state of then versus now, resulting in an attitude of holding onto what is, instead of what should or could be. However, unlike the past and however painful it may seem, this is the new norm. 

It’s important to operate within the boundaries of what is a given and to communicate risk associated with the current fiscal realities. Despite the difficulties, we must remember changes are a direct result of the overall federal budget crisis and the military has no control of this hand that is being dealt to us. Arguments can be made over the current state of political affairs relating to the budget, at the tactical level, it doesn’t change things. The term “fiscal uncertainty” is a good descriptor for the state of current affairs, “fiscal certainty” is even better.  Accepting the new norm is the first step to leading in the new era of the U.S. Air Force. 

 While accepting the current reality, it’s equally imperative that leaders effectively communicate well-thought out vision and direction in a 360 degree manner. Reverend Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, once noted that “the very essence of leadership is (that) you have a vision. It's got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can't blow an uncertain trumpet."

 Our budgetary situation shouldn’t be a crutch to leading without vision. Within any organization, one must first know the destination before starting the journey. All too often we live in a reactionary culture that’s not based on leaning forward or proactivity. This type of leader lacks systematic, methodical analysis and in-depth visionary leadership. Both types of leadership are necessary in certain situations, only the latter will allow us to make it through this new fiscal era. While doing the impossible should be rewarded, a new culture of seeing the probable should be encouraged. 

 After accepting our new reality, we must plot a course for the future, set goals, as well as encourage innovation and greatness. Ask yourself, “What’s the overall vision for the organization and how can it be achieved under current restraints?” A lack of communicated vision is just as detrimental to an organization’s success as a lack of resources. After establishing a vision, reward and foster a climate of innovation and efficiency.

 I’ve often heard that it’s our diversity in the U.S. Air Force that makes us such a formidable force. This heterogeneous mix of people from all walks of life and backgrounds is the fuel for creativity. Such creativity should be sought after for future success.

 Scholar and author Warren Bennis wrote, "Innovation— any new idea—by definition will not be accepted at first. It takes repeated attempts, endless demonstrations, and monotonous rehearsals before innovation can be accepted and internalized by an organization. This requires courageous patience."

 Innovation and creativity are terms often used without understanding their full impact. In most cases, what is called innovation is in fact a recycling of past ideas. True innovation comes from original thought. It’s a fruit of creativity that must be refined and nourished.  An important tool in the cultivation of innovation is allowing for some failure -- not the type of failure that would destroy an organization or take lives, but rather minor failure.

 Allowing people to make recoverable mistakes builds their confidence and trust in leadership, which will eventually yield great rewards for the organization. Author and founder of “The New Thought Movement,” Napoleon Hill, wrote, “Before success comes in any man's life, he's sure to meet with much temporary defeat and, perhaps some failures. When defeat overtakes a man, the easiest and the most logical thing to do is to quit.”

 Leaders often asphyxiate innovation by negatively reinforcing failures or the perception thereof. For true success in this arena, there must be an atmosphere that seeks new methods of doing things -- methods that stare in the face of fiscal regression and can not only succeed, but make things better on a larger scale when properly utilized.  Once a leader finds that balance, there are no insurmountable limitations to an organization’s success. 

At Yokota Air Base, Japan, Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Mark A. Welsh III, noted that “Right now we have to assume the worst case, so we assume the sequestration law will stay in effect … and that it will continue for 10 years. If we assume that that’s the case, then due diligence on our part would require us to build a plan, which we’re doing, for what that means the Air Force would look like in 2023.”

 

We owe it to the strategic leadership to be creative, safe and prudent as to how we move forward.  Regardless of whether Congress makes changes to sequestration, the bottom line is a new fiscal norm. 

 

From a historical perspective, the government has always pushed money toward the military machine in times of conflict to ensure overall success. It’s also true that the military has seen drastic reductions in the force structure and budget following such conflicts. This paradigm is nothing new. The only real difference is how this change is playing out on Capitol Hill and within the global media.

 

As leaders, it’s vital that we not only accept the fiscal change, but that we’re able to lead with vision through this and to the next era. Additionally, leaders must reward and foster a climate of innovation and efficiency. These are just a few ways in which to ensure that the military continues to prosper during these times. If history is a predictor of future events, it’s only a matter of time before another contingency ushers in a new era of change. Until then, these are the proverbial “fiscal” cards that must be played until such time arises.

 

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