1: General Curtis LeMay’s mission “was to make the American nuclear force a perfectly functioning machine,” Daniel Coyle writes in The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.

“All rubbed up, no corrosion. Alert,” Curtis once wrote.

He was a larger-than-life figure. Life magazine called him “The Toughest Cop of the Western World.” 

“One time he stepped into a bomber with a lit cigar,” Daniel writes. “When a crew member warned him the bomber might explode, [Curtis] replied, ‘It wouldn’t dare.'”

In the 1940s, Curtis designed the Minuteman missileer program: “750 or so men and women who work as nuclear missile launch officers,” Daniel notes. 

“They are stationed at remote air force bases in Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota, and their job, for which they are extensively trained, is to control some of the most powerful weapons on earth, 450 Minuteman III missiles.”

The missiles “are sixty feet tall, weigh 80,000 pounds, and can travel 15,000 miles per hour to any spot on the globe within thirty minutes,” he writes, “each delivering twenty times more explosive energy than the Hiroshima bomb.” 

The Minuteman system worked “well enough” for several decades. But in recent times, failures and errors began to occur, Daniel notes:

• “August 2007: Crews at Minot Air Force Base mistakenly loaded six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles onto a B-52 bomber, flew them to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, and allowed them to sit unattended on a runway for several hours. 

• 2008: A Pentagon report noted “a dramatic and unacceptable decline” in the air force’s commitment to the nuclear mission. One Pentagon official said, “It makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.” 

• 2009: Thirty tons of solid rocket boosters ended up in a ditch near Minot when the tractor-trailer carrying them drove off the road. 

• 2012: A federally funded study revealed high levels of burnout, frustration, aggravation, and spousal abuse in the missileer force, and it showed that court-martial rates in the nuclear missile force were more than twice as high as in the rest of the air force. As one missileer told researchers, “We don’t care if things go properly. We just don’t want to get into trouble.” 

• 2013: Missile officers at Minot Air Force Base received a ‘marginal’ rating—the equivalent of a D grade—when three of the eleven crews were rated ‘unqualified.’ Nineteen officers were removed from launch duty and forced to retake proficiency tests. Lieutenant General James Kowalski, commander of the nuclear forces, says the greatest nuclear threat to America ‘is an accident. The greatest risk to my force is doing something stupid.’

• 2014: Minutemen maintenance crews caused an accident involving a nuclear-armed missile in its silo.

2: How did commanders react when these incidents occurred? By “cracking down,” Daniel writes. 

As General Kowalski put it, “This is not a training problem. This is some people out there having a problem with discipline.” 

After the string of incidents in the spring of 2013, Lieutenant Colonel Jay Folds wrote to the combat crew at Minot: “Bring to my attention immediately any officer who badmouths a senior officer, or badmouths the new culture we’re trying to reconstruct. There will be consequences!”

The emphasis on discipline appears impressive. The only problem?

“None of it worked,” Daniel writes. Mistakes continued to happen. 

Late in 2013, Major General Michael Carey, the official overseeing the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, was fired for misconduct during an official trip to Moscow. 

Then, two missileers were charged with illegally possessing, using, and distributing cocaine, ecstasy, and bath salts.

“When investigators examined the cellphones of the accused officers, they uncovered an elaborate system for cheating on proficiency tests,” Daniel writes, “sparking another investigation that ended up implicating thirty-four of Malmstrom’s missileers, plus sixty more who knew about the cheating and failed to report it.”

While spending time inside successful cultures is valuable, it is also illuminating to examine cultures that fail.  It was clear the missileer culture was broken.

The bigger question is why. 

If we believe culture is “an extension of a group’s character—its DNA,” our assumption is that the missileers are “lazy, selfish, and lacking in character,” Daniel writes.

Which leads to the “get-tough remedies” the air force leadership attempted.

The failure of these approaches confirms our original assumption: The missileeres are lazy, immature, and selfish.

3: We can, however, take a different perspective to understand what was happening: “If we look at missileer culture through the lens of belonging cues, the picture shifts,” Daniel writes.

The questions we ask are: “Are we connected? Do we share a future? Are we safe?”

o Are we connected? 

“It is hard to conceive of a situation of less physical, social, and emotional connection than that of the missileers,” Daniel notes. “They spend twenty-four-hour rotations paired up in chilly, cramped missile silos with Eisenhower-era technology.”

Conditions are deplorable. “Sewage lines are corroding. Asbestos is everywhere,” one missileer told Daniel. “People hate being there.” 

o Do we share a future? 

With the end of the Cold War, the missileers are “training for a mission that no longer exists,” he observes. 

“No one wants to stay in missiles,” says Bruce Blair, a former missileer. “There’s no chance of promotion. You’re not going to make general coming through missiles.”

o Are we safe? 

“The biggest risk in the missileer’s world is not the missiles but the constant barrage of proficiency, certification, and nuclear-readiness tests,” Daniel notes. “These tests often involve memorizing a five-inch-thick binder filled with two-sided sheets of launch codes. Missileers must score 100 percent on certain portions of the tests, or else they fail.” 

Another missileer told Daniel, “Every deviation is treated as if it’s violating a presidential launch order. Make a critical error? You’re done. You’re the shitty guy. There is no such thing as doing an outstanding job. You either do it right, or you get punished.”

No connection. No future. No safety. 

“The missileer culture is not “a result of an internal lack of discipline and character but of an environment custom-built to destroy cohesion,” Daniel writes. “The difference wasn’t in the content of their character. It was in the lack of safety and belonging in their culture.”

More tomorrow!


Reflection: What lessons from the missileer program can I apply in my organization?

Action: Discuss with my team or with a colleague.

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