Department of Veterans Affairs (Part 3): Leadership and Empowerment

By Matthew Wadler:

Leadership, as defined by the Army, is the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation while operating to accomplish the mission and improve the organization. There is a great quote by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand that exemplifies this definition. “I am more afraid of an army of 100 sheep led by a lion than an army of 100 lions led by a sheep.” To this end, one of the most fundamental principles of leadership is momentum.  In the military we often define this as audacity. Per ADP 3-90, the Army states that, “Audacity is a key component of any successful offensive action. Commanders should understand when and where they are taking risks but must not become tentative in the execution of their plan. A difficult situation, such as numerical inferiority, handled boldly often leads to dramatic success.” Put more simply by General George Patton, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” While this principle is exciting when projected via military battles, it holds true in any genre of application.

Truly what exemplifies gifted leaders is the ability to take action at decisive moments. However, the converse is what often embodies poor leadership. An exceptional example is General McClellan at the Battle of Antietam during the Civil War. General Lee had engaged in battle with the Union Forces under command of General McClellan. He lost a significant percentage of his forces and had uncoupled his troops from the battle. The fact that Lee did not win the battle was of absolutely no surprise since the Union found the complete battle plans lying in the middle of a road, likely having been dropped by a courier. The day after the battle McClellan was reinforced with additional forces. At this point, he could have easily chased down the Confederate Army and if not completely destroying them, caused such devastation that it likely would have hastened the end of the war. However, McClellan failed to act decisively. Even though he outnumbered his foe in both personnel and equipment and had received fresh reinforcements, he made a decision to not act. This often is the most costly of all types of decisions. In this case, it allowed Lee to retreat to safety and reconstitute his forces. This was a mistake that not only cost numerous Union lives resultant of the continuation of the war, but ultimately led to him being relieved by President Lincoln. It is a typical situation where people are promoted beyond their potential based upon either who they know or job performance at their current position.

This is the reason, I believe the Veteran’s Administration has, is, and will continue to be a monumental failure. It is not a direct reflection of the employees, but a reflection of a system that is inherently dysfunctional.

After conducting my job training at the VA, I delivered a scathing report to the director’s office. This would be akin to being hired as a clerical aide or line worker and walking into the CEOs office directly with a list of issues. It was three pages of damnation. I was shocked and appalled by the lack of oversight within our training, especially given that the class before us had listed all of the same complaints.

While I understand that not everyone understands the principles of training and education, I would assume that if your job title was Quality Control and Training you would have been given some background in coaching. However, we can look beyond that. What I refuse to forgive is when the instructor is late for over 3.5 hours within the first week of training. I also cannot accept that the instructor would walk into the training unprepared and unable to explain the fundamental tasks that we were training on. However, what disgusts me completely and makes me sick is that her manager was aware of this and allowed it.

Approximately a week before I quit, the manager over the training team confronted me about my complaints that I gave to the director’s office. She was visibly upset that I would jump over her and go directly to the very top of the organization and wanted an explanation as to why I didn’t come to her first. What she quickly realized is that twenty years in the Army taught me to have a general disdain for tact when it comes to giving feedback. As my wife would tell anyone, don’t ever ask me a question that you do not want the brutal truth to. In this case I told her, “I did not come to you because you are the problem. The class before us listed all of these complaints and you did nothing to address them.” Her reply was essentially, I didn’t know what she had done nor how she managed her employees was any of my business.

“You’re right. How you choose to manage your shop is none of my business. But either you chose to ignore these issues or you are inept. In either case, it is clear that you have been vastly promoted outside of your abilities. I have had positions with exponentially more responsibility and ten times the employees and have never seen a failure of leadership like you exhibited. If you worked for me I would fire you immediately for cultivating a culture where incompetence is not only ignored but seemingly fostered. I can accept having substandard teaching methodologies, but when you cannot even get your employees to show up to work on time it is clear that the problem is not with them.” At this point she got angry and started to talk over me. I had grown weary of seeing the incompetence of the managers in the VA so I very clearly told her, “You don’t have to like what I have to say, and you don’t have to agree with it. However, you asked me why I didn’t come to you so you are going to hear me out.” After a few more minutes of explaining her failures of leadership I exited the office. I finished my work day with nothing else being said. The same thing happened the next day with me going to work then going home without incident. It was at this point that I sat down with my wife and explained I had to quit.

She of course asked me why, since clearly there was going to be no repercussion for what I had stated. To me however, that was the problem. I was a new employee on probation who could have been let go for any reason. I had essentially violated the chain of command, passing at least four levels of successively higher level managers, in handing in my after-action review directly to the director’s office. In addition, I had told a senior level manager she was completely incompetent. The only reason I could see for not having been fired was because my assessment was spot on and everyone knew it.

This is the problem with the VA. Once you get into the system there is simply no way to get you out. The unions have such a strangle hold that it is impossible to fire anyone. I have video still on my phone of one employee who would literally sleep every day in his cubicle. At least once a week I would tape some sarcastic remark to his monitor so when he woke up it would be staring at him in the face. Management even knew about him doing this. He would show up an hour late and leave up to two hours early multiple times a week. Yet because he was the godson of one of the management, no one dared do anything. He had been moved about the agency for years.

This is the truth in the federal government. You are promoted for one of two reasons, either you are a problem and they want you out of their shop, or you know someone and so they move you into management.

To this day thinking of the worthless examples of leadership I saw during my brief time at the VA disturbs me greatly. I am not trying to cast a net over the whole of the VA. There were also many examples of people who truly cared about what they did which was supposed to be serving and protecting the veterans. Unfortunately, when you have an unwritten rule within an organization of tolerating incompetence, no amount of heroism will change the cultural norm.

Exactly two things are needed to fix the VA. Leadership and empowerment. True leaders must be placed into positions of authority. Leaders who understand how to give purpose, direction, and motivation. These leaders must be empowered to train and teach when possible, and fire when needed.

I have never believed in the blame game. I believe in accepting responsibility for your failures and coming up with corrective actions. However, in order to see how the errors manifest themselves, one must first be able to take an honest look at themselves and see what actions they took to assist in the fault. Unfortunately, within in the federal government everyone seems to be invested in ensuring someone else takes blame for every action with less than stellar results. Real leaders don’t have time for excuses or blame. They want to know quickly, what the issue is and fix it. Equally, real leaders understand that they are ultimately responsible for every action those under them take or fail to take.

General Colin Powell understood that leadership is how an organization survives or dies. “The most important thing I learned is that soldiers watch what their leaders do. You can give them classes and lecture them forever, but it is your personal example they will follow.” It is time that the government learned this lesson. The VA is a failure of leadership starting at the highest levels. This failure is a poison which spreads throughout the system leaving decay and rot through the organization, stifling and suffocating those that strive to actually support and defend those who gave so much for our country.

Matthew Wadler is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and U.S. Army Veteran. Matt served in the Army for 20 years as both enlisted and officer before retiring. His service includes time as Military Police, Field Artillery, Adjutant General, and Recruiting. His deployments include Somalia and two tours to Afghanistan. His formal education includes a master’s degree in HR Management. He is a strong supporter of the constitution and advocate for the military and Veteran communities.

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