The year is 2018 and I am starting my second year as an attaché.  Things are going well; I am rated highly amongst my attaché peers and have received, as was the standard throughout my career, top quartile performance evaluations.  The Defense Attaché Office I am posted at is composed of six attachés from each armed service and the boss, the Defense Attaché, “Stan,” introduced in a previous chapter.  At the time, I was, what we’ll call the operations officer, a duty given to me by the Defense Attaché.  My role was to ensure we were maximizing the performance of the office.  We were in a large embassy in a key European country, so there was a lot going on in the operation.  My job was to get the biggest “bang for our buck” by assessing how to best use our limited and valuable time.  The specifics of the office’s inner machinations don’t really matter here.  What does matter is that all of us were trained and resourced to do our attaché jobs and I was put in charge of making sure we, as a synergistic team, were producing the best output we could.  After all, the United States was paying fairly handsomely to train and resource us.  Oh yeah, it was also our duty as commissioned officers of the United States military.


Fall of 2018, in rolls FNG “Pete”  (FNG is the term of endearment we bestowed on every new pilot in the fighter squadron.  Everyone was FNG until they received their callsign.)  At any rate, Pete is a new attaché in the office and new to the diplomatic game.  Although as an Air Force Colonel he outranks me, he is not my supervisor.  Operationally, I do not have authority to task him, however, as operations officer, it is my role to assess everyone’s performance, including his.  You probably already see where this is going…  After a few months, it is becoming clear that Pete does not want to play ball.  He is, as we say, “on his own program,” and his peer attachés see it.  A few of them pull him aside in a vain attempt to mentor and guide him.  But Pete’s not having it.  After all, he’s a Colonel goddamnit – he’s somebody, he’s arrived!  And so, the good Colonel spends as much effort in attempting to subjugate his office mates as he does actually working.  As the cohesiveness of the office starts to suffer, as does its output, my peers and I begin to address it with bossman Stan.  It’s here where Stan starts to really earn his Jello Mold namesake because every conversation ended with head nods and thumbs up and “yep, agreed” and the like, but two seconds later, the vacillating ceased and Pete was allowed to continue with his Colonel antics.


This silliness continued for about a year until one day, Pete drops by my office and tells me that he will now be the primary rater on my performance assessments.  Time to digress to another fighter pilot story…


I began my tactical aviation career flying the F-16CJ.  Our mission focus was Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD).  The roots of the SEAD mission hailed from the Vietnam era where fighters would ingress into a target area and try and take out enemy Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (SAMs) before the real bomb-droppers showed up.  The catch: in order to locate these SAMs, the fighters basically had to get tracked by the enemy…and that usually meant get shot at.  SEAD pilots henceforth would wear a Wild Weasel patch adorned with the acronym YGBSM: “You Gotta Be Shitting Me!”  as that was the reaction of SEAD pilots when they were instructed on how best to locate an enemy: fly over it and get shot at.

In my first two years on the job, Stan the Defense Attaché, my supervisor and superior officer, was my rater. The fact that he was my supervisor made for a natural and logical rater-ratee relationship. But Pete, who clearly resented the fact that I, a lowly Lieutenant Colonel, could exercise some level of operational authority over him, if not just deep-down resented me as a person, was always chomping at the bit to subjugate me.  It was no shocker when he showed up to my office one day and simply announced: I’ll be the one assessing your performance from now on.  My reaction: YGBSM!

So, I go to the “skipper”, which is Navy-speak for boss I guess, and make my plea: “Pete’s gunning for me, you and I both know it, I need you to intervene on this one. I need you to stymie this power play move by Pete.”  But remember the Golden Principle of Self-Servitude Leadership which Stan is an astute disciple of: “If it affects me personally, then I care.  If not, then I don’t.”  So, how much effort did Stan invest in this problem set (at least, the portion that did not affect him personally)?  As we say in the fighter pilot business: “the square root of fuck-all.”  And that’s when the dam began to burst.


I want to propose two alternate universes now, to highlight the impact that one person, one leader, can have, good or bad.


Universe 1 (Reality):


Me: “Boss, Pete is gunning for me, you and I both know it, so I’m asking you to do the right thing here and step in and continue to be by rater.”


Stan: “I’m sorry, Count, my job is to uphold the rules and if we do what you’re asking (although it’s allowed in the regulations), I wouldn’t be able to walk that back.”

(to this day I still have no idea what the fuck he was talking about when he gave that rationale. I doubt he had any idea either.)

Universe 2: (Alternate reality):


Me: “Boss, Pete is gunning for me, you and I both know it, so I’m asking you to do the right thing here and step in and continue to be by rater.”


Stan: “Done!”

Obviously, Universe 1 was what played out.  That was December 2019, two years and three months have elapsed since then. You’ve already read what’s transpired since then.  


And had Universe 2 played out, god’s honest truth, I wonder if any of the Congressional inquiries or IG investigations, or the press, or the money/time spent, or all the consternation, or sleepless nights, or bouts of depression, or any of it would have happened.  But it did.  All of it and a hell of a lot more.  Just because of one man’s poor leadership call?  Kind of.  But more importantly, it was because we don’t instill in our leaders (nor reward them for promulgating) this crucial principle of bold leadership: what’s right isn’t always what’s in writing.   


How do these characters ascend in our military ranks?  Read on.