Several years ago, the drama around the Penn State sexual molestation scandal has brought back memories of the problems with knee jerk discipline. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) levied heavy penalties on the university. In the press conference, the NCAA spoke about changing the culture of Penn State. Certainly, there is a need for change when an institution’s culture allows things like Jerry Sandusky’s alleged behavior to go on for years. But, did this punishment overreach?
There were likely 30 – 40 people who knew of the abuse. But, the NCAA punishment effectively punishes hundreds of employees, thousands of Penn State fans and millions of college football fans. Even the ‘vacating’ of Coach Joe Paterno’s football wins since the late 90’s is ridiculous. Regardless of what the NCAA decided, Paterno won those games and its unfortunate there will always be an ‘asterisk effect’ when talking about winning coaches. Paterno’s win total will still be the mark to beat for any coach wanting to truly be #1.
During my years in the Air Force, knee jerk discipline was often the temptation of Air Force commanders. Because of the scrutiny commanders face as they are ‘punching their ticket’ in a commanders position, they are prone to take overly dramatic actions to show they have not lost control of their unit. It helps them to look good in the boss’ eyes but the ripple effect of punishing an entire unit for the sins of the few is unjust and kills morale.
I knew it was time to retire one blustery, frigid cold Saturday morning at about 4:00 AM. As senior noncommissioned officers (SNCO), we were preparing to do a raid on the enlisted dormitory on the Air Force Academy. There had been a couple of sexual assaults and underage drinking in the barracks. Certainly, law enforcement investigators were involved and were working the investigations. The perpetrators would face stringent military discipline. But, not every Airman was guilty of either sexual transgressions or drinking underage. But, at zero dark thirty that morning we were banging on doors and rousting groggy young adults so we could make a statement.
I am all in favor of the military being a tough organization. I started out in the Marine Corps and was often surprised at how lax the Air Force was as compared to the Corps. But, I was always bothered by the disparity in the way barracks dwellers were treated in comparison to base housing residents. If a couple of sexual assaults and underaged drinking occurred in base housing, it is highly improbable that there would be a mass raid of base housing with SNCOs banging on each door to wake residents.
So after 10 years as a First Sergeant, I knew that morning it was time to retire. Knee jerk discipline is poor leadership. Sure, the wing commander had the authority to order a dorm raid. But, he didn’t have the common sense to understand its negative implications. And, sadly his enlisted leadership in the wing office either didn’t have the guts to tell him it would be the wrong approach or they didn’t have any better sense. For anything gained in compliance, much would be lost in morale and respect for wing leadership. This would be true of both the dormitory folks awakened from deep sleep as well as the SNCOs performing the dormitory raid. Twelve months later, I walked out the gate as one of the Air Force’s newest retirees.
Knee jerk reactions are rarely effective in parenting, business or the military. As I mentioned earlier, knee jerk leadership is weak leadership. A good commander punishes the guilty…not the innocent. Certainly, there is a desire by military leaders to build cohesiveness within a unit. But, basic training is probably the only place where an entire unit should be punished for the sins of a few. In basic training, it serves a purpose of transforming undisciplined civilians into a cohesive unit. But, when you use this approach later in a person’s career it merely causes resentment. Careful, methodical approaches to punishment is always preferable to knee jerk leadership.