Don't pass the buck

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jon T. Mohatt
  • 28th Medical Support Squadron
Accountability is a fundamental ingredient for leaders at all levels of an organization.

It is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as "an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one's actions."

The Air Force does not have a standardized definition for accountability, so the term is open for the individual leader's interpretation. Many settle with a definition in line with the one above of being responsible for one's actions via appropriate rewards and punishments.

Regardless of the definition one uses, accountability is essential for all leaders and enforce and keep unit loyalty, morale, productivity, commitment and effectiveness high. The primary keys to effectively enforcing accountability are maintaining consistency, fairness and objectivity. Consistent, fair and objective accountability, also known as "the buck," is every leader's responsibility and should not be readily passed.

Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, former Air Force Chief of Staff, said for accountability to be effective "the response for a particular individual must be consistent."

The classic example is when someone receives disciplinary action such as a letter of reprimand and still receives a stellar performance report. When this occurs, no one is being held accountable, as the LOR will disappear in a year or two and no real repercussions are ever felt by the Airman.

General Fogleman was faced with this very situation when two Airborne Warning and Control System controlled F-15 pilots shot down two American Blackhawk helicopters in 1994, killing 26 Airmen, Soldiers and civilians. All appropriate UCMJ actions were taken for those responsible, but not a single performance report reflected what happened. General Fogleman corrected this inconsistency by issuing supplemental performance evaluations and ensured accountability was consistently enforced. Although consistency was eventually obtained it should have been done at a much lower lever than the Chief of Staff.

The buck was obviously passed.

As with any authority given to a leader, accountability must be administered fairly amongst all members of a unit from the most junior member to the commander.

Gen. W.L. Creech said, "Leaders...above all, do not countenance selective enforcement of rules and standards. I know of no more ruinous path for commanders than selective enforcement of rules and standard. Excellent leaders have very high standards and they enforce them without fear or favors."

One would be hard pressed to find a true leader who would say otherwise.

When a member of a unit is held accountable for their actions and another who does the same thing is not, this sends a clear message to the unit that the leadership does not hold everyone fairly accountable. The example which quickly comes to mind is with driving under the influence punishments. When an Airman receives a reduction in rank and another does not, a message is sent - which often undermines unit cohesion. Standards are set for all to follow and they do not change based on one's rank or position. Respect, loyalty and desire to perform quickly erode once unfairness has been identified within a unit.
On June 25, 1996 there was a terrorist attack on the Air Force barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The Secretary of Defense at that time, William S. Cohen, held Brig. Gen. Terry Schwalier responsible for the Khobar Towers explosion and blocked his promotion to major general. General Fogleman disagreed and felt Secretary Cohen was not being objective and ultimately decided to retire before the end of his tour due to this disagreement. Secretary Cohen's loss of objectivity in holding General Schwalier responsible cost him an outstanding Air Force Chief of Staff. The lack of Secretary Cohen's objectivity was further established in 2000 when he did not take any action against the U.S.S. Cole's Captain or any other U.S. military member after the Cole was also hit by a terrorist attack. This lack of objectivity lowered Secretary Cohen's creditability, loyalty and trust by many of his subordinates as evidenced by General Fogleman's early departure. Subjectively enforced accountability, based on media coverage or other outside influences, is detrimental to the unit. Accountability should be enforced using pertinent facts to maintain credibility.

Enforcing accountability is critical to good order and discipline. Without good military order and discipline it is impossible to lead through our Airmen's Creed. Accountability must be applied with consistency, fairness and objectivity by all levels of leadership in a unit. If it is not, then it is bound to cause more harm than good.

Leadership is not easy and accountability is just one of many attributes supervisors must master to be successful and have the full support of their units.

The Air Force core values and accountability are intertwined to the point where they cannot be separated. Integrity, selfless service and excellence in all we do must be our foundation as we enforce accountability. The loyalty, effectiveness and respect of your units are at stake.

Don't pass the buck!