[November 15, 2017] The passion surrounding talk over racism is hard to dismiss. Every leader, especially politicians, seemed to be caught up in the spirit of the times and are beating their chests with indignation and lecturing us about race. One thing, however, that the U.S. military warns its senior officers about is the downfall of getting ahead of the facts when talking about anything.
The latest example of a leader doing just that is U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Jay Silveria. For the record, he is a smart, experienced officer with a long history of making first-rate decisions, leading people in combat, and having the confidence of many senior military and civilian leaders. Learning from the mistakes of others, however, is a theme of this blog and one of his mistakes is one that needs light shed upon it.
A challenge of leadership is about getting ahead of the curve; in Air Force speak they will say a leader must get inside the decision loop of the enemy. It means being quick, talented, and focused. Yet it is not a good idea to get out so far ahead that you are alone and unprotected. That is why Army folks don’t like our units getting cut off, surrounded by the enemy and annihilated.
Lt. Gen. Silveria did just that. He made an impassioned speech – with emotion and a touch of anger – when he addressed the cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy. You can judge for yourself what he said and how he said it (see link here to the YouTube video, 5:29 minutes). What he said was not just right but important that the message about racism and hatred be delivered. I don’t think anyone would disagree with his comments. However, his words and his passion hinged on an incident of racial hatred that turned out to be a hoax.
There is no joy for me to point out that he got ahead of the facts; having been a flag officer myself and understanding his need to get onto the problem before he was accused of dragging his feet. It is obvious that he needed to deliver the message with clarity, speed, and firmness. And this is where the challenge for leaders comes into play. By getting out ahead of the facts in this case, he made the Air Force Academy and himself appear unprepared and thus a bit foolish to all watching.
Many in the media heralded his comments and celebrated because they considered it more about President Trump than about an Air Force general. They were more interested in denouncing Trump than truly praising General Silveria. Sadly, the more egregious problem here is not with Silvia but with the lack of an ethical code for journalist and an absence of leadership on the part of news-media staffs and editors. It is also about an increasingly troublesome divide of a nation.
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