Document created: 22 October 03
Air University Review, September-October 1973
Lieutenant Colonel Arthur C. Mussman
When I was younger and dumber, I was operations officer in a combat group. I worked for a commander who was highly enthusiastic about new ideas. One day I got a new idea and drafted a paper proposing a change in operational procedures. I took it to my commander for coordination before sending it forward to higher headquarters. It is an understatement to say that he approved of the idea. He was overwhelming in his enthusiasm. He insisted that I prepare the paper for his indorsement through command channels. This very favorable reaction to my efforts did wonders for my self-esteem. For several days I cruised around on cloud nine, in total awe of my perspicacity.
The letdown was quick and painful. I got a call from the director of operations at division. He gave me holy hell for submitting operational matters out of channels. If he had let me say anything other than “But Sir—” I would have explained to him that, according to the organizational charts I had seen, my channel was through my commander to his commander to him. It was a very effective chewing out; I never did it again.
To salve my bruised ego, I did try to find out why those lines on the organizational charts don’t go the same route as correspondence should go. A month or so later, when the director of operations had cooled off, I asked him why he got so hot about the routing of my paper. He explained that it was very upsetting to his operation and composure to have his commander wave my paper at him and ask questions for which he wasn’t prepared. He suggested that a better way would be for the paper to go to division operations where it could be studied and a position established before the division commander was briefed. I accepted his explanation as a logical way of doing business, but I still couldn’t relate it to Air Force line-staff organization. I wrestled with this problem off and on for a while and finally achieved a significant “Aha!”
If my paper, I hypothesized, had not been a procedural change but something mundane, such as a daily operational report, I would not even have considered submitting it to division through command channels. I would have sent it directly to the division operations shop with the rest of the routine correspondence. I realized there were important channels between staff elements at various levels of command and that certain items must be kept in these channels. There must be a fundamental difference between matters that are handled within staff channels and those that are handled in command channels. Once, this difference could be explained in terms of routine and nonroutine matters, but the situation has changed in the past few years. I concluded that the distinction was now between bureaucratic and extrabureaucratic matters. The staff would then represent the bureaucracy. Commanders and command channels should be considered extrabureaucratic: outside of and pecking away at the bureaucracy. The purpose of this article is to explain my ideas on this concept and why I feel this point of view is important.
I look at the modern Air Force as a heavy bureaucracy superimposed on a simple military line-staff organization. Let me illustrate with some generalized history. Once upon a time, military weapons were either pointy or sharp or both. The tasks of the military man were few and simple. A commander knew all there was to know of the arts of his warriors. Included in this body of knowledge were the then simple support functions: how to repair spears and shields; how the communications system worked (voice, messenger, and semaphore); the pay system (booty); and logistics (forage). As armies grew to a size beyond the capabilities of one man to handle, subordinate commanders were appointed, not specialists but generalists who knew everything there was to know about running a unit. Things were simple enough then that a commander could comprehend and direct all of the work in his unit.
But armies grew in complexity as well as size. New weapons, such as siege and artillery, required materiel that was beyond the capability of the soldiers to carry on their backs. These weapons also required specialized knowledge for their proper operation, knowledge that was not required of everyone in the force. So the military staff developed, not in reaction to the increasing size of the forces but rather to cope with the increasing complexity of the deployed army and its weapons. Like Topsy, it grew and grew.
In the present-day Air Force, staff duty represents a fantastic complexity and volume of work. The staff has grown at a pace with technology, which has literally exploded in this half-century. The increase in the number and intricacy of our weapons has required larger and more intricate management systems.
The command structure, on the other hand, is still limited by the human capabilities of the commander. It is impossible that he could comprehend and oversee all of the work done in his unit; he would quickly run out of time and brain cells. So staff work has increased in both breadth and depth while the proportion of matters acted upon directly by the commander has become a smaller and smaller part of the total workload. The commander’s knowledge of his operation has become a generalist’s knowledge. Detailed information about staff activities is retained within the staff structure, passing from unit to headquarters through staff channels. Only general “How goes it?” information is reported through command channels. The proliferation of computers has started a trend toward reporting raw data, which are then collated and evaluated at the receiving headquarters rather than in the field. It is an unfortunate by-product of this process that a wing commander may have regular access to detailed data on a squadron’s operation before the squadron commander gets the same information.
As the commander is directly involved with less and less of the routine work of his unit, a significant tendency emerges. He is only infrequently consulted by his staff for solution of the technical problems arising within the staff area, for the staff officer quickly learns that the commander rarely has the technical expertise or current knowledge he seeks. A much more lucrative source of help is the corresponding staff element at higher headquarters, which can be depended upon to be intimately familiar with the problem at hand. In this manner the higher headquarters staff can influence the daily operation of a unit on an informal basis without using command channels.
Neither of the two trends has detracted one whit from the authority of the commander, but they have taken from him the initiative to use some of his authority. He is, in effect, a bystander to a significant portion of his command’s operation.
The situations just described illustrate the trends of modern Air Force organization. While the trends are generally in the direction of centralization, it is not centralization toward the commander of each component organization but “up and away” from the commander, from staff to higher headquarters. One might say the flow of centralization is from the squadron staff element up functional channels (staff element to staff element) to the level where the decision is made or the program is monitored. This is not a classic bureaucratic model. A bureaucracy functions through the chief of each of the component organizations, depending on him to define and implement procedures in his area of responsibility. The Air Force unit commander no longer fits into this pattern. He does not, as a rule, define and implement procedures in his area. This function has been largely taken over by the staff. The modern staff officer, in fact, appears more like the chief of a bureaucratic unit and less like an adviser to the commander. In this sense, an Air Force unit seems more like a collection of bureaucratic units, each receiving guidance and direction from the corresponding higher echelon. From this point of view, the commander’s role appears integrative rather than directive. He is outside the bureaucratic flow. He still has control over his people, but he has less and less control over what they must do.
I don’t mean to imply that the commander is not responsible for the effectiveness of his unit. He certainly has the ability to identify and shore up his weak elements. Many management techniques have been developed specifically for controlling the output of complex technical operations.
But there has been an erosion of the commander’s authority in those areas integral to the functioning of the bureaucracy. The operating procedures of his unit’s activities are, in most cases, specified by the bureaucracy. The unit commander has very little say as to what his unit will do and by what method they will do it. In addition, many traditional functions of command, such as job assignment and promotion, are less under his control than they have been in the past. For example, consider the implications of the Weighted Airman Promotion System (WAPS). Less than fifty years ago enlisted grade was assigned by the organization commander. He could promote a man from private to master sergeant on one day and bust him back to private on the next day if he wished. In evolutionary steps, the promotion system has moved to a point where a man’s grade now depends on his position in the Air Force relative to the rest of the force and irrespective of his job in his unit. It has completely turned around. Where once a man was assigned grade by the commander according to his job, he is now assigned the job according to his grade and skills. There are certainly good and just reasons for this evolution, from both the management and human relations aspects. But the commander’s ability to do what he felt was good for his unit has given way to a system to improve the Air Force as a whole. WAPS is bureaucracy, 99 percent fair, impersonal, centralized, and reducible to numbers and rules for simplified nonjudgmental application. Fortunately, the personalized and individualized authority existing in the WAPS program is assigned to the commander. He can exert a significant influence on the promotion or nonpromotion of airmen in his organization if he desires. All in all, WAPS is a typical example of the encroachment of centralized bureaucracy into an area that was once a commander’s prerogative.
Let us examine the characteristics of a bureaucracy and try to establish a specific relationship between the commander and this burgeoning phenomenon. From a public administration standpoint, a bureaucracy is
. . . an interrelated aggregate of positions and incumbents. It is relatively stable, existing usually for the purpose of fulfilling permanent and continuing needs of the community. It is rational, not intuitive or haphazard. It is based on general, not personal considerations. Personalities come and go, but the organization maintains a life of its own; many are now ancient, and short of catastrophe or collapse, they will persist indefinitely. In all their parts, organizations are based on purpose and function. Their backbone is the hierarchy and the acceptance of the superior-subordinate relationship in mutual arrangements of authority, responsibility, and obedience.1
Notice how important structure is to this definition. Dr. Laurence J. Peter, with his typical lack of reverence, emphasizes this point:
Internal bureaucratic organizational structures, procedures, and forms are valued more highly than output or public service. The pressure. . . upon the official is to be methodical, prudent, and cautious in protecting the rituals of the bureaucracy. He adheres to formal officialdom and punctilious conformity to the ritualistic procedures. His primary concern with conformity to the rules interferes with his producing output or providing service to the public.2
Both these quotations agree that the bureaucratic structure is given value above and beyond the service that it performs. There is a tendency to preserve the system and a tendency to view things from the system’s point of view. The inclination of the bureaucracy is to provide only those services for which there are established procedures. Since our first definition states that bureaucracy is based on general, not personal, considerations, the product tends to serve the general needs of classes of people, not the specific needs of specific individuals. This is frustrating for those whose needs are unique and different from the general needs.
One more idea should be inserted here. A large part of the Air Force bureaucracy is dedicated to satisfying the needs of the people who operate the bureaucracy. In other words, Air Force people both serve and are served by the bureaucracy. A feedback loop is implied here. If, for example, a staff sergeant in Supply gets the idiot treatment from Personnel, Civil Engineers, Dispensary, and the Finance Office, it is bound to have an effect on his perception of the services he should provide his customers. There is a distinct possibility that the services within a unit or a base may slowly grind each other down to a minimum-effort operation. In other words, the quality of the services provided by a bureaucracy has an effect on the performance of the workers in a bureaucracy. This is highly possible in an Air Force operation because Air Force people are dependent on the Air Force for so many of their needs, both professional and personal.
One should be able to see a role for the commander here—to monitor the quality of his organization’s output and see to it that his people’s needs are fulfilled. In this manner the commander maintains the quality of the work input to the bureaucracy. This is such a basic function of modern leadership that one may wonder why I went to such lengths to develop the idea. My justification is that I wanted to develop the idea in the context of the commander’s relationship to bureaucracy. Unable to cope physically with the entire complexity of his unit’s operation but equipped with a significant amount of authority, he stands at the fringe of the bureaucratic activity of his unit. He is in the perfect position to evaluate the bureaucracy on the basis of the service it provides the people of his unit and his country. He is a nonbureaucrat with authority in the midst of a bureaucracy. He can kick the monster in the rear and get it to perform in a logical and humane manner when necessary.
How does one transmit ideas and attitudes through a bureaucracy? Unfortunately, the bureaucratic system is ill equipped to process ideas and attitudes. The very nature of bureaucracy requires that ideas and attitudes be converted to programs and campaigns before they are inserted into the system. For example, suppose General Brown wants to project his ideas on interpersonal relations throughout the Air Force. His ideas center on behavior modifications, people’s relations to people, and the social atmosphere in Air Force organizations. These ideas are given to the Air Staff for implementation. But ideas can’t be inserted into the bureaucratic process. They have to be distilled into a system compatible with the structure and procedures of bureaucracy. So the Human Relations Program is born. But look at the program! Office space, training programs, new staff positions, reports—all this bureaucratic folderol to facilitate the implementation of General Brown’s ideas. Yet any autocratic, red-necked, inaccessible racist can implement this program to the letter without including General Brown’s ideas. He can implement the program without support or drive, which is a waste of time and money.
So you see, it isn’t the program that is important but the ideas behind the program. Since the bureaucracy can’t process these ideas, how does the commander get them? Through command channels! I went to great lengths to show that commanders are not in the mainstream of bureaucracy. I did this so I could propose that a major function of command channels is to transmit ideas and attitudes to all levels of the Air Force. The body goes through the bureaucracy, but the soul travels command channels, thus clarifying the role of the Air Force commander. It puts him back in the center of his outfit. It gives him control of the spirit of his unit.
We can accrue advantages from the idea of the commander as a nonbureaucrat. Let’s look at these exploitation advantages. Two commanders were discussing their philosophies of command. One said, “The Air Force is like a Big Daddy. It has a program and system to take care of all the jobs that have to be done. If everybody would stick with the system, all problems would be resolved. We have regulations and manuals to cover every situation. It is my job to see that these regulations and manuals are followed. The whole secret of USAF operations is to do everything by the book. Special considerations and out-of-channel requests just screw up the system. If we could keep everything in channels and according to directive, the Air Force would run like a well-oiled machine.”
The other commander replied, “My view of the Air Force is more like a Big Framework. The programs and systems exist to bulk-process routine matters. The needs of the Air Force and its people are so many and varied that it is impossible to anticipate them all. In addition to the framework, we must have supplementary processes where unique needs and situations can be personally evaluated and processed as justified exceptions or revisions to the system. I consider this supplementary process as a function of command and the purpose of command channels.”
We can see that the “Big Daddy” concept forces everything through the system. It is based on the idea that people in the Air Force have “government-issued needs,” and threats to national security will be in accordance with Air Force doctrine. Dr. Peter was talking about “Big Daddy” when he said:
Most hierarchies are nowadays so cumbered with rules and traditions, and so bound in by public laws, that even high employees do not have to lead anyone anywhere, in the sense of pointing out the direction and setting the pace. They simply follow precedents, obey regulations, and move at the head of the crowd. Such employees lead only in the sense that the carved wooden figurehead leads the ship.3
On the other hand, the “Big Framework” approach is endorsed in many of the more scientific human-relations studies on leadership. Consider this statement by James V. Spotts:
Contrary to what one might suspect, the leaders or supervisors of highly productive units—crews, departments, or divisions—do not appear to devote their greatest time and efforts to technical or job-oriented functions with subordinates. Rather, supervisors or leaders with the best records of performance focus their primary attention upon the human aspects of their subordinate relationships and attempt to build effective work groups with high-performance goals.4
I believe the key to modern Air Force unit management lies with the human relations approach to leadership, coupled with a clear understanding of the bureaucracy and its pitfalls. To summarize, I have listed the four major bureaucratic tendencies that the commander must recognize:
1. The technical complexity and the variety of bureaucratic work at the unit level make it humanly impossible for the commander to exercise any more than very general supervision in this area. The trend toward centralization in the Air Force is not through the commander but through functional staffs at the various levels of command.
2. Many of the traditional functions of the commander have been absorbed by the bureaucracy. He has only limited opportunity of interfering in the work of the bureaucracy, but he still has sufficient authority to insure that the work is accomplished to his standards.
3. In offering services, the bureaucracy must relate to the general or most prevalent condition rather than to the specific conditions of each situation. In other words, it is impersonal and general in nature. A large number of the life needs of Air Force people are provided by the bureaucracy; Air Force people both operate and are served by the bureaucracy. In terms of quality, their perception of what they should put into it will be colored by what they get out of it.
4. Bureaucracy deals in programs and procedures and is incapable of transmitting ideas.
If the commander considers himself to be a part of the bureaucracy, he will be preoccupied with keeping his unit’s activity within the limits of the bureaucracy. Since he chooses to work within the system, his role perception cannot extend beyond what the bureaucracy can accomplish. Consequently, the four indicated characteristics will create weaknesses in his organization. But if the commander disassociates himself from the bureaucracy, he is then in a position to provide what the bureaucracy cannot provide: personal service, objective judgment, ideas, and attitudes. He is in a perfect position to judge the needs of his people, his mission, and his organization. And he has the capability to act, both within and without the system, in order to correct deficiencies and oversights. He can be responsive to the ideas and attitudes that give life to the programs in his unit. He is a leader rather than a figurehead.
Air War College
1. Leonard D. White, Introduction to the Study of Public Administration, 4th ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1955), p. 42.
2. Laurence J. Peter, The Peter Prescription (New York: Morrow, 1972), p. 64.
3. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull, The Peter Principle (New York: Morrow, 1969), p. 68.
4. James V. Spotts, “The Problem of Leadership: A Look at Some Recent Findings of Behavioral Science Research,” in S. G. Huneryager and I. L. Heckmann, editors, Human Relations in Management, 2d ed. (Cincinnati: South-Western Publishing Co., 1967), p. 316.
Lieutenant Colonel Arthur C. Mussman (B.A., Ohio Wesleyan University) is assigned to 4th Allied Tactical Air Force, Ramstein AB, Germany, as an air defense staff officer. As a weapons director, he has been commander or operations officer of aircraft control and warning installations in Aerospace Defense command, and he served a tour on the ADC Operational Readiness Inspection team Colonel Mussman is a 1973 graduate of Air War College.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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