Leadership in Today's World
To talk about this, we need to consider the requirements, the risks, and the rewards that go into making the choices of leadership. To prepare for this discussion I pulled up the Darryl F. Zanuck movie, “Twelve O’Clock High.” When I was a young officer this movie was often cited as an example of the challenges of a commander. Although a dramatic story, it captures the essence of leadership and perhaps some of the pitfalls we in the AF fall into. For those not familiar with the story, it centers on the fortunes of the 918th Bomb Group operating out of RAF Archbury in 1942. Accordingly, they are one of the first groups attempting to implement the USAAF concept of daylight precision bombing. They are a “hard luck” group led by a Colonel Keith Davenport whose men love him, and who defends them even when they make mistakes. The Commander of 8th AF relieves the Colonel and he is replaced by a former Group Commander, Brig Gen Frank Savage. The story is told from the perspective of his ground exec, and shows the Commander’s struggle to bring the organization up to combat effectiveness and support the “Maximum Effort” the 8th AF is attempting to achieve. In a small, almost unnoticeable scene, at about 35 minutes into the movie BG Savage is arriving at the station to assume command, and has his driver stop short. He had been sitting in the front seat and refers to the driver by name, they share a smoke and then moments later he says “Alright Sargent!” He climbs into the back seat of the staff car and heads into base where he is casually waived through. He has the car stop, gets out and chews out the sentry. He is setting the tone for what is to come.
My takeaways from this film reflect the unmistakable need for a commander to establish clear expectations, build unit cohesion and pride, and recognize both the good and bad in the organization and deal effectively with both. It also shows the fine line between the commander’s involvement, the emotional stress of command and the dedication needed to see the organization succeed. So let’s talk about those qualities briefly.
Setting clear expectations. We hear much in the service today about expectations and performance, but those expectations from on high seem to change on a constant basis, partially as a result of societal changes, but more often from the political influences of the civilian leadership charged with supporting the President’s agenda while shaping the service. Young men and women enter the service knowing only what they’ve been taught by the educational system, their views of acceptable behavior and the traditional views of the service have grown further apart. So the question for leadership today is how to form those impressionable young airmen into adults who understand the mission and the consequences of their acts? That is always the challenge.
In an ideal world, every future leader would understand that every decision and choice they make is an opportunity to set expectations and follow through with them, unfortunately in today’s world of second guessing and senior commander’s who are more worried about their own careers than the organizations success – young men and women are often not allowed the opportunity, or are so cowed by the possibility of failure, that those choices must be approved by others before they are made. The conflicting messages sent by commanders and the reality the young officers observe around them confuse even the clearest thinkers. We are not “a one mistake AF” and the crucifixion of pilots who text what their commanders believe to be inappropriate messages sends a clear a signal that we no matter what the CSAF says, the AF leadership under him believes something different. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize we are, in fact, a one mistake Air Force where you career can be derailed for being a 27-year-old with a $35-million-dollar airplane and spare time on your hands.
Building unit cohesion and pride. As shown in the movie, and as has been proven time and time again is at the heart of any successful organization, whether it be a squad of soldiers, a flight of airman or a ship on the high seas is the pride and commitment that the humans in that organization make to accomplish the mission and support each other. Studies have show that one of the great failures of the Vietnam conflict was the replacement of individual soldiers with new people who would be there for a year. The Army ground units lost a lot in terms of unit pride, directly relating to combat effectiveness. I watched a squadron in England almost destroy itself when the commander and the operations officer chose to conduct a personality battle over who would run the squadron. Everyone had to choose sides and when the operations officer eventually replaced the commander, much like a lion taking over a pride, he killed the careers of all the people who had sided with his predecessor. Today we call this toxic leadership, then it was overlooked to the point they were both promoted for successful command. Which brings up the next point.
Recognizing both the good and bad in an organization. Most of us are kind and forgiving by nature, and in the AF we are trained to highlight the successes of our organization and its personnel. The personnel evaluations have become so cryptic and nonsensical as to require special decoder rings to determine if one is a good evaluation or a bad evaluation. We seem to have little problem praising our people, but a terribly tough time telling the airman where they are failing, or are not as good as others. This holds true for all levels of command. It is, as it probably should be, that officers are rarely removed from command, but that role has now become a square to be filled, rather than a challenge to be sought. As long as we have an evaluation system that is obtuse, expectations for performance based on personal likes or dislikes, and criteria that makes performance at academic institutions more important than actual job performance we will grow future leaders who care more about their careers than the mission. We need to start with honest evaluations of all officers, not just perfunctory feedback sessions, but honest feedback on where a subordinate is strong and where he or she is weak. Perhaps an evaluation form that required the rater to identify strengths and weakness, rather than accomplishments and key praises like “combat proven” and a fixed assessment against his organizational peers, with the removal of various tactics like “thin slicing” might be useful. How to overcome this human desire to be the good guy and get all the people promoted is the real challenge.
There are always challenges… today we live in a politically correct world where sensitivity to others, the second guessing of decisions made, and the spotlight of the instant global communication grid are always lurking in the wings. Yesterday there were other issues, tomorrow there will be still others. The question for a leader is how to blend those outside political aspects with the need to accomplish the mission and inspire your subordinates to achieve more than they think possible?
A great organizer can accomplish remarkable things as far as establishing an organization, acquiring or selling a product, or reaching a milestone, but a great leader will inspire the next generation of humans who will carry out the mission both now and in the future. The success of an individual in command is not an insular success, it depends on the successes of those he or she leads. Take for example, John F. Kennedy, if you look at the actual accomplishments of his career they are not all that remarkable, but if you look at the vision he put forth, and the accomplishments of those he inspired through his leadership and death they are spectacular.