Accountability: consistency is key

  • Published
  • By Col. Bill Rupp
  • 86th Maintenance Group commander
One of the toughest challenges facing leaders in today's Air Force is accountability. When to hold someone accountable and to what degree are questions we find difficult to answer under the best of circumstances, sometimes traumatic in the extreme.

In those units where leaders exercise too strict accountability, careers might be at stake, morale affected and personal relationships tested. But, one might also find exactly the same results in those units where leaders exercise accountability too loosely.

Have you ever been in an organization where a co-worker was continuously late but never called to the carpet, yet the on-time folks had to pick up the slack? Or a unit where you were blasted for walking in from your car without a hat while folks from a different unit, wearing a different uniform, often seem to be out and about uncovered?

Accountability is difficult for many of us because it is, by its very nature, confrontational. When holding folks accountable, we are forced to look them in the eye and communicate an impropriety.

Confrontation is certainly not easy when it is directed at well-intentioned performers, such as those comprising a vast majority of our Air Force. Leaders may fear a confrontation will contribute to not being liked or popular, adjectives that are not, and have never been, pre-conditions for effective leadership. Congeniality may facilitate good leadership, but properly applied accountability is a necessity. But what does it mean to hold someone accountable?

Accountability, in the context of this editorial, is simply taking the appropriate steps to correct or (if necessary) punish inappropriate behavior AND, depending on the circumstances, to deter similar events from happening in the future. It often seems, however, that when one speaks of "holding someone accountable," the phrase conjures up visions of guillotines at work in 18th century Paris.

Discuss accountability with today's Airmen and you will find, for example, that many supervisors hesitate to document counseling (for example, letters of counseling or reprimand) because they don't want to "hurt" their troops. One disconnect is many mid-level supervisors feel the level of accountability is too tough, while many senior-level supervisors often feel it doesn't do enough to deter inappropriate behavior.

This lack of constancy and consistency generates confusion and frustration among Airmen. Holding people properly, and, ideally...consistently, accountable certainly does not have to result in bloodshed. It must be done, however, in order to maintain the level of discipline and professionalism we expect of today's Airmen.

In the aircraft maintenance business, for example, Air Force Instructions, technical orders and job guides provide the framework, usually prescriptive, for how to accomplish a specific task. Deviation from that guidance is generally not at the discretion of the member and failure to comply usually warrants some level of accountability. Continued deviation necessitates increased levels of accountability.

There shouldn't be the least hesitation on the part of a supervisor to hold an offender accountable, both because of the need to preserve the discipline inherent in our military culture, and to ensure consistent, safe application of the maintenance art. In other words, if we don't demand and ensure our folks do it right, the mission suffers, equipment gets damaged and people get hurt.

In the interest of being compassionate, leaders sometimes overlook the responsibility each of our Airmen, civilians and contractors has to get the job done properly. In a past discussion with a commander on appropriate accountability for accidents and incidents, the issue arose of how to weigh intent versus human error.

One position went something like this: if someone knowingly does something wrong, non-judicial punishment/court-martial are appropriate considerations; however, if someone simply makes a mistake, a lesser form of accountability is warranted. The counter-position went something like this: in addition to the normal accountability considerations, human error and willful disregard for rules and tech data, there is a third individual's responsibility to NOT contribute to an accident or incident.

Intent matters, of course, but unintended events that were the individual's responsibility to avoid should also be dealt with in a manner that deters them from happening across the board, especially in an area as critical as national defense and all its contributing missions.

Air Force leaders at all levels must be willing to hold personnel accountable for their actions and inactions. Lack of accountability not only degrades that discipline assumed to be an integral part of a military leader's function, it also erodes, if not eliminates, a leader's moral authority to command and supervise others. Inconsistencies in how leaders from different organizations apply and enforce common standards further affect morale and camaraderie.

We are privileged to work in a profession where superior performance is recognized and appreciated, but above all, demanded. We must continue to "set the bar" high so our Airmen, civilians and contractors know the standard, see the path, and understand the expectations laid before them by our leaders and the American people we defend.

Leaders at all levels must consistently shoulder the responsibility of holding folks accountable; the honor of serving in our great Air Force demands it!