Creativity and knockout ideas energize Americans in 2021, but proficient execution is often an afterthought. Bowing out of Afghanistan was the right idea, yet its tragic and incompetent execution demands scrutiny of our leaders and their decisions, as well as of the workforce implementing them. Americans have come to embrace ideation over implementation, frequently farming out complex executional work like manufacturing, engineering, coding, and logistics, while balking at preparation for such work ourselves. National security considerations impose limits on offshoring by the military and its contractors, leaving us vulnerable to operational fiascos in the face of domestic skills gaps.
Many Americans call themselves consultants. Our culture has come to devalue the hands-on in favor of advising, inspiring, conceptualizing, strategizing, motivating, coaching, influencing, lobbying, litigating, arbitrating, advocating, commentating, and awareness-raising. Yet for years U.S. airlines have been unable to replace all their retiring aircraft mechanics, and In the classrooms of technical schools training new ones there are no takers for 40 percent of the available seats.
Americans have come to embrace ideation over implementation, frequently farming out complex executional work like manufacturing, engineering, coding, and logistics, while balking at preparation for such work ourselves.
Skilled industrial toolmakers were highly respected lead actors in the "Arsenal of Democracy" crucial to winning World War II. Afterward, theirs were the smart hands animating American industry in the postwar boom years, zenith of the American Century. But something happened, and three decades ago Angela King, a journalist from Crain’s Detroit Business, recounted this story:
Meeting in Chicago one day in 1990, a roomful of toolmakers was asked a simple question. Who would encourage their children to follow in their own career footsteps? Among the more than 50 toolmakers present, not a single hand went up.
Lt. Colonel Shane M. Upton is a U.S. Army expert and leader in supply chain management and crisis action support. According to his 2018 report on readiness:
The ability of the military to surge in response to an emergency depends on our Nation’s ability to produce needed parts and systems, healthy and secure supply chains, and a skilled U.S. workforce. The erosion of American manufacturing over the last two decades, however, has had a negative impact on these capabilities....As America’s manufacturing base has weakened, so too have critical workforce skills ranging from industrial welding, to high-technology skills for cybersecurity and aerospace.
To appreciate how far we've moved away from recognizing execution, consider medicine. Clinicians get lip service during crises, but In the public imagination often take a back seat to researchers working on innovation, and analysts in public health. Obviously the latter groups are critically important, but many practitioners providing health care itself have to be imported.
After World War II, as our nation continued its ascendancy, the culture still celebrated hands-on executional roles.
There were three uber-famous doctors: Jonas Salk, Benjamin Spock, and Albert Schweitzer, noted for their work as researcher, writer, and clinician, respectively. In the United States the French clinician Schweitzer, working in Africa, was far more famous than the others, eclipsing even Dr. Salk, the American responsible for the first polio vaccine.
Dr. Robert Jarvik never practiced medicine, but four decades ago he developed an artificial heart, a celebrated innovation. Yet the South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard, a contemporary who transplanted cadaver-harvested human hearts in patients, was far more famous among Americans. Another household name was the Texas heart surgeon Denton Cooley.
Name a surgeon or other clinician active today who is well known to the public.
As examples for the young, people in such executional roles no longer prominently figure.
Today, fortunately, there is still an overhang of retirees with the right implementational capabilities, and the will, to step in and fill gaps short-term. Witness the recent rescue work in Kabul accomplished by unofficial, informally self-constituted groups of American military veterans, like an ad hoc organization dubbed the Pineapple Express. Veterans' rapid mobilization and intervention, in a violent and chaotic crisis zone on the other side of the world, will be something for history books. Yet what a shame for active duty ranks to be shorthanded, as it seems they were.
Recent failures in Afghanistan should prompt a comprehensive assessment of key skills and proficiencies -- and deficiencies -- from top to bottom, across American civilian and military ranks, and in the workforces of contractors and tiers of their supply chains. Investigators must also look around the corner, to understand current proclivities and aptitudes prevalent in the pool of capable youth from which future employees and recruits will be drawn.
American leadership will then need to level with the American people, and talk convincingly and often with the young about orienting their career quests around real needs, and not just personal dreams or intuitive passions. Strategists and their ideas can go only so far in fostering proficiency in the ranks of vital institutions, contractors, and industrial enterprises. The rest is ultimately up to us, to the heroes we choose and the stories we tell.