Leadership Lessons of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

One of the things I learned while advocating for repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the military’s ban on lesbian, gay and bisexual service members who came out, which was repealed ten years ago, is that leaders lean into controversy. Leaders do not avoid problems, they confront them.

A couple of moments stand out to me. One of them was Air Force Under Secretary Whit Peters’ response to gay discharges at Lackland Air Force Base.

Let me give some context. When Congress passed “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” there was an expectation that it was a more humane law and that gay discharges would drop. General Colin Powell, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee: “We will not ask, we will not witch-hunt, we will not seek to learn orientation.”

Gay discharges, however, surged from 617 in 1994, the year “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was implemented, to 1,273 in 2001. For the period of October 1, 1997-September 30, 1998, one of the worst offenders was Lackland Air Force Base, a basic training base. “Of the Air Force’s 414 homosexual discharges last year — a record high number — 271 were at Lackland,” Eric Rosenberg, a national correspondent for Hearst Newspapers, reported in January 1999. Not only did Lackland account for 65% of the total airmen ejected, Lackland’s discharges were a significant percent of total discharges servicewide. The question was why.

Rather than ignoring the question, Whit Peters wanted to understand it. Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, the group I had co-founded to repeal “Don’t Ask, don’t tell” and provided direct legal services to service members impacted by the ban, had repeatedly documented that the services continued to ask, pursue and harass service members for being gay despite promises not to. The regulations, however, provided no protections against persecution and leaders had no incentive to do otherwise.

It was in this context that Peters invited me, my co-founder Michelle Benecke, and a respected military personnel and readiness expert to investigate. He arranged for lodging on the base, meetings with the command and with drill instructors, and focus groups with airmen.

Our report to the base command and to Under Secretary Peters synthesized what we had learned. We noted four factors contributing to the disproportionate discharge rate at Lackland: confusion about the law, anti-gay harassment among trainees, lack of recourse when targeted, and a reflexive response to immediately discharge airmen, regardless of the facts.

We offered a pragmatic solution. We suggested a two-strike policy: that when an airman came out as gay during basic training but prior to their receiving the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” training that would follow later, they pull the airman aside, in private, and tell them what the law required. They had to shut up or they would be discharged. We also asked that they train that harassment of any kind, including using anti-gay epithets, would not be tolerated. Those changes were made, and gay discharges at Lackland Air Force Base plummeted 600 percent from 1998 to 1999. Peters leaned into the problem, gathered data from diverse sources, and tried to solve it within the constraints of a terrible law.

While Peters did not have the ability to change “Don’t Ask, don’t tell,” what leaders say and do matter. The second leadership lesson is how the best leaders anticipate and prepare for events so that they can create systemic change. Admiral Mike Mullen, the 17th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, paved the way for repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” by being prepared.

Mullen did not wait for President Barack Obama to announce his intent to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the 2010 State of the Union address. In fact, as he would tell me in an interview, the timing of the announcement caught him by surprise. Mullen formed a five-person committee to advise him on the law, its implementation, and pros and cons, when Obama was still a candidate for the presidency. His preparation paid dividends.

Mullen testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee six days after the State of the Union: “I have served with homosexuals since 1968,” Mullen told the committee. “Everybody in the military has, and we understand that…. No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me, it comes down to integrity — theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.”

Mullen’s pronouncement was the first time a sitting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs had called for repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and it created the space for others to do so. In short order, General Colin Powell; General David Petraeus, the head of Central Command and perhaps the most dynamic general since Powell; Army General Raymond Odierno, who led the surge in Iraq; former Vice President Dick Cheney; and others all rallied in support of repeal. The leadership support in favor of repeal in 2010 stood in sharp contrast to the overwhelming opposition to gays serving openly in 1993.

Mullen understood the issue because he had prepared, he understood the strategic intent of his boss, and he grasped the historic import. At an event celebrating the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2011, Mullen told the crowd, “It’s pretty easy to stand up and represent the values you have held close for your entire life and be fortunate enough to be in a leadership position where that value actually crosses over in a time and a place and in a way where you as a leader can really make a difference,” Mullen told the crowd. He also had the best one-liner of the evening: “Gay hero was never part of my career plan.”

Leadership leans into problems and tries to solve them whether you serve an NGO, a Fortune 500 company, a small business, an agency or are a legislator. Leadership gathers data and opinion. It frames issues in a values-based argument. It builds support. It solves the problem. It may create a new service or product or address a personnel issue. And on some days, it helps civil rights make a leap forward.



C. Dixon Osburn is a noted advocate for domestic and international human rights and security.

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C. Dixon Osburn

C. Dixon Osburn is a noted advocate for domestic and international human rights and security.