'Col. Ned Stark' Sounds Off on Air Force Promotion System Overhaul

Col. Jason Lamb, Air Education and Training Command Intelligence, Analysis and Innovation Director, participates in the Air Force Talent Management update panel during the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., Sept. 18, 2019. (U.S. Air Force/Andy Morataya)
Col. Jason Lamb, Air Education and Training Command Intelligence, Analysis and Innovation Director, participates in the Air Force Talent Management update panel during the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., Sept. 18, 2019. (U.S. Air Force/Andy Morataya)

The "distinguished graduate" tag can be misleading when it comes to Air Force promotions, and past performance won't necessarily tell raters how an individual will do the job at a higher grade, according to the intelligence officer whose postings went viral under the nom de plume "Col. Ned Stark."

And for those who think pilots and air crews get favored over others in promotions, well, "the last time I checked it's the Air Force," said Stark, whose name was taken from the noble but doomed character in the "Game of Thrones" series.

Stark, whose real name is Col. Jason Lamb, took the stage before a packed audience of airmen with Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, deputy chief of staff for Manpower, Personnel and Services, in a discussion of the promotions and evaluations system at the closing session of the Air Force Association's annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference on Wednesday.

At issue in the "Talent Management" session was the Air Force's ongoing overhaul of the promotions system for officers and enlisted.

In January, the Air Force announced that it would be updating evaluation policies for enlisted airmen to improve performance. In one of the changes, the Air Force is no longer issuing automatic referrals for enlisted airmen who miss some expectations on their performance reports.

The automatic referrals formerly occurred when an airman received a "met some, but not all expectations" evaluation on their EPR, likely ending the possibility of promotion.

In April, the Air Force also announced changes in the process for selecting officers for instructor and recruiter special duty assignments.

Following the changes, the Air Force now nominates and selects airmen through a board review process, and special duty assignments are considered in promotion evaluations.

Kelly said at the time that developing "exceptional leaders has to start with recruiting, training and developing the right airmen."

At the talent management session Wednesday, Kelly deferred to Lamb for opening remarks, and Lamb was as blunt as he was in his pseudonymous postings as "Ned Stark" in columns for the "War On The Rocks" website.

"I think many of your peers think you've lost your mind, putting me up here without any rules," Lamb told Kelly. "And if you weren't looking for candor, you picked the wrong guy."

Lamb is the director of Intelligence, Analysis and Innovation, Headquarters, Air Education and Training Command.

Lamb broke down his criticisms of the promotion system along three lines: awards, leadership and accountability.

The Air Force needs to do better at judging how much weight awards should have in promotions, he said, adding that "I was one of those" who received awards and benefited from them in making rank.

"But it's gotten to the point now where we have the red-headed, left-handed maintainer of the year award, just because we're looking for ways to try and tell the people that we should promote from the people that maybe aren't quite ready," he said.

Past performance is an indicator in gauging leadership qualities for higher grades, he said, but should be evaluated with caution.

"Your past is interesting only as it relates to what you can do today," Lamb said. "Your past is not going to define or predetermine your path in the Air Force or artificially propel you to places you never should have been."

Lastly, the Air Force has to improve its methods of ensuring accountability for the top leadership, Lamb said. He said there were two types of leaders: those airmen would follow to hell and back, and those they would rather quit the Air Force than serve under again.

The Air Force had to get better at weeding out the "toxic leadership" demonstrated by the second type, Lamb said.

"When we hire someone and they get fired for integrity issues, lack of judgment, creating a toxic or hostile work environment, I promise you, it wasn't the first time that they'd engaged in those behaviors," Lamb said.

When the system puts a toxic leader in a position of command, there is usually "a long line of more senior officers who pushed that individual along," he said.

"There's no accountability," Lamb said, "and until there's an accountability mechanism, and a way to follow up and have actual meaningful consequences, the system isn't going to change."

In response to Lamb's critique, Kelly said the changes to the promotion system would value "competence and character."

"Not everything that Jason espoused" would be implemented, Kelly said, but "we're a profession of arms and we want to make sure that we're driving our competence in a way that makes sense to us and that it's underpinned by the character we need to have as professional airmen."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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