Intelligent Obedience

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. William Heuck
  • Commander, 5th Space Launch Squadron
In the U.S. Air Force we are allowed to think.

We are all bound to follow lawful orders, of course. But except in extreme circumstances (e.g. during direct combat ops) we can evaluate our instructions in light of our professional experience and knowledge, and provide informed feedback when it is clear the direction we have received was ill conceived, will generate significant unintended consequences, or is just plain wrong. In fact, it is our duty to do so.

I've heard officers and NCOs support a particular course of action by appealing to a vague statement made by a senior officer. They didn't make a cogent argument, or support their position with relevant facts or first principles. Instead they attempted to end debate by appealing to a supposed position held by a senior leader.

These folks thought they were doing the right thing by pushing what they saw as theĀ  commander's agenda. But instead they had disengaged their critical thinking function,
and had become less effective as AF leaders.

"Commander's Intent" is an important tool to guide the decisions of subordinate leaders. But we should be careful not to infer an explicit commander's intent statement from general comments, questions, opinions or musings that the senior commander may put forth during
the various meetings and briefings he attends.

The Air Force pays us to think, trains us to think and encourages us to speak truth to power. Perhaps some leaders don't encourage these things, but most of the good ones do. In the end, the decision maker may still make a call that is contrary to our advice, and we don't always get to know why or even get access to all the information. The point is to give our best advice based on what we know, without being skewed by our impressions of the decision maker's preferences.

It is also important to divorce our own preferences and agendas from our recommendations. Competing recommendations that are skewed by hidden agendas do not served the commander. They obfuscate facts, confuse the issue and increase the likelihood of a decision that does not serve AF priorities.