The Captain is an idiot

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- Imagine you are part of a crew on a classic sailing ship.

You are navigating rough seas, violent storms, and trying your best to stay afloat and reach your next port. Your crew works below deck.

There are no windows below deck. The little light produced by the old copper oil lamp only adds to the misery of how bleak your conditions are. You can see the old tattered wooden beams, the old box used as a chair, and the stale air reeks of weeks at sea. Yet, on this night, and for the past nights, your only concern has been to bail water out of the hull. Your entire waking hours are spent filling buckets and dumping them out. Hour after hour, your crew bails water from the hull. You have asked for more crew and more buckets from the captain of the ship, but your questions have been unanswered.

Who is this captain? Does he have a clue? What an idiot!

To make matters worse, word came down he wants to "re-purpose" two of your crew for other duties on the ship. In addition, he is taking a third person at the next port of call and removing him from the ship. There are only a few of you left and of those few, half of you are sick.

Doesn't he know you cannot do your job if he keeps taking all of your people? The ship won't sail if it is underwater. You cannot even keep your processes alive with manpower this low.

What? He wants to take buckets from you now. Seriously, your team had just barely enough buckets to have one for each person and have barely kept water from sinking the ship.

Again, you say your captain is an idiot. If he just spent two hours with you, he would realize you need four times as much manning and three times the number of buckets. You see all the wood on this ship and think, "Why can't he start pulling up planks from the deck or use one of the masts to make more buckets?"

From where you sit, you are correct. Your team's job is to ensure the ship does not take on water. It is especially daunting, given the rough seas you are sailing. However, the captain of the ship has an alternative perspective. His primary purpose is to accomplish the mission and to ensure each of his teams perform their processes so the system works.

A ship cannot sail on its own. It needs a solid infrastructure and people to make it move. Looking from the mission perspective of the captain, it makes sense he pulled two members from your team to re-use them as carpenters. He realizes the ship can't function when it takes on this much water. However, from his perspective, the problem is not bailing water, but ensuring water doesn't penetrate below deck. If he can remove the cause, he removes the problem.

At some point and time, the captain made the decision to take the risk of reducing your manpower to re-use them to repair holes, tears, gaps and other problems on the ship. If he can repair the infrastructure, then your operations will be complete. Then, your entire team will be available to use on mission-focused tasks, rather than crisis-recovery tasks.

While it is necessary to keep the ship afloat, the purpose of the ship is to accomplish its mission.

What about the wood from the buckets? Maybe the captain needed to use the steel band and wood timbers in a repair? Maybe while making a repair, a new hole was created and water needed to be bailed from that location on the ship.

What about the individual that is being cut from the crew? Doesn't he need a job? That's not fair. Why cut from your section? Again, the captain realized he needed to lean the ship.

The galley staff is large and serves the needs of the ship and the mission indirectly. With the manning on the ship, the galley crew had to be large. The only way to cut the galley crew was to cut manning across the ship. Your section lost one individual, but other sections lost more. In fact, one whole team was cut. While part of the ship's mission was to have a crew to fish for and make dried squid, the captain realized this was a secondary mission that could be cut. Ensuring his war ship was in place to defend the Constitution is his primary purpose. The economic benefit of selling dried squid, however tasty it might be, could be cut in order to maintain the ship's mission.

Thus, the captain made tough choices while sailing in rough waters.

He retrained some personnel. He re-allocated resources. He cut secondary missions that serve the ship and not the mission. Tough choices; tough times.

With the current fiscal challenges facing our nation and our Air Force, we are all in the belly of the ship, trying to tread water.

Being great Airmen, we are passionate and excellent at doing our work. Our perspective is clouded, though. If left to us, we would buy more buckets and more Airmen to bail water. The ship would be free of water, but would not accomplish its mission.

How many times have you thought, "What is the captain thinking? My NCO doesn't have a clue. If only they gave me X, Y or Z, I could do my task." We need to keep in mind that the captain of the ship and each subordinate element faces distinctly different challenges than what we face. Even the captain may be guilty of loss of perspective.

In a constrained resource environment difficult choices must be made.

By focusing on the true problem, we will be able to best allocate these resources. The larger challenge is to stay focused on the mission, especially in a fast-paced environment.

While at sea, the captain was trying to keep the ship afloat and also accomplish its mission. The Air Force is in those times now -- crisis, manning cuts, budget cuts and even mission cuts. We have to find a way to accomplish our set tasks with less resources, more effectiveness and to support our leaders making the tough choices. Leadership needs to ensure they communicate the goal and purpose to their subordinates, so the subordinates can understand the big picture.

We need to ensure we all have the same perspective on where we are heading. A left turn or a right turn doesn't affect the subordinates as much if they understand where we are going. It makes sense to retrain a bucket boy into a carpenter if leaders explain why he was retrained.

So, is the captain an idiot? It is not up to me to decide. But, I've been bucket boy of the quarter twice, had my shop's manning cut, had resources taken away and still accomplished the mission, I get it now. He wasn't acting against us, he was acting for us. In the end, if he is an idiot, then to me, he's the smartest idiot I know.