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Toeing the Line July 6, 2010

Posted by Bill in Afghanistan, barack obama, Current Events, Uncategorized.
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Was Obama right to fire General McChrystal? Absolutely! Not only was he a liability and a “maverick” but he was STUPID. Anyone who works in the military knows you don’t publicly dis the prez or the prez’s policies. In fact, anyone who works in the public sector knows that you toe the party line. You may disagree with the boss in private but in public you act like he’s the most brilliant person in the world and you support him 100%. It doesn’t matter if you are just grousing to friends, because you never know when your remarks will jump up and bite you in the butt.

I’ve worked in the public sector for much of my life, and I remember getting bitten pretty badly one time. The government agency I worked for stopped a benefit that was very popular among employees. Because I worked in Human Resources and had a hand in disseminating the information regarding cessation of this benefit, another employee emailed me privately to grouse about it. He was someone I got along with and often joked with. I stupidly responded and let him know that it wasn’t my decision and that I was just the messenger. The guy forwarded my comment to my boss and a couple of layers above me, along with a pointed comment about how even the people in HR weren’t on board with this decision.

I got called on the carpet, and I deserved to be called on the carpet. My defense, “But I didn’t think so-and-so would pass it on,” just drew a raised eyebrow from my boss because I knew perfectly well the public sector adage– imagine waking up in the morning and finding your words splashed across the front page of the paper in 90 point font.

General McChrystal’s mistake was twofold– not only did he pop off around his subordinates but he popped off within earshot of a Rolling Stone reporter. It’s not like this was his first offense–he was openly critical of the Obama administration’s Afghanistan policy and publicly disdainful of the United States ambassador to Afghanistan. So he let down his guard and talked too freely around a reporter, and  his words were splashed across the cover of Rolling Stone. Not good!

But worse was the message he conveyed to his subordinates. He let them know that he was just not totally with the program. That kind of feeling trickles down. As any employee knows, shit rolls downhill. If the top-tier of the company is behind something all the way, that attitude trickles down, and everyone knows they’d better get behind it or be left in the dust. Companies that do not have a clear direction or have dissension among the members of the top-tier tend to flounder because the employees get mixed messages, and they don’t know which way to jump. If the CEO sends out a memo that all employees are supposed to turn the widget clockwise, and your direct supervisor comes around regularly to check to make sure you are turning the widget clockwise, guess what? Those widgets will be turned clockwise. But if the direct supervisor comments within earshot that he doesn’t think it really matters which way the widgets are turned or that the CEO doesn’t know what the heck he’s talking about,  which way are the employees going to turn the screw?

So yes, General McChrystal deserved to be fired, and Obama’s choice of Petraeus seems to be inspired. He’s respected by the rank and file, but also knows how to toe the line. He’s adept at forging relationships, and he’s nobody’s pawn. He will have no problem privately disagreeing with Obama, but in public he will support the president and his policies. Whatever I might think about the war in Afghanistan, if we are going to be there, we need to do it right, and putting Petraeus in charge is a step in the right direction.