Date: 25 April 2008
Location: USS Nimitz; North of the Mariana Island Chain, Pacific Ocean
Dear Friends and Family:
A few weeks ago, I received a letter via snail mail from a cousin of mine who is in middle school. After relating some of the various adventures that girls of her age undergo, none of which, I might add, I had any inkling of as a shy, nerdy boy when I was her age, she mentioned her attendance at a leadership camp she had been selected to attend. As only a young mind could so eloquently put it, she summarized the experience by noting that "nobody really brought back any mental leadership ideas or effects on people if you will." The moment I read this, I burst out laughing at its precocious honesty. Only Heaven knows the number of leadership courses and camps that I have been to that hardly imparted anything of value to me. Here is someone, as a young teen, who has seen through the bureaucratic morass of the school of thought that believes leadership can be taught through seminars and bookwork.
One doesn't really appreciate this truth until observing the crucible of uncertain situations and how those assigned to leadership positions react. And while the military is obviously well known to have a plethora of crucibles to choose from, I think the same can be said for nearly all professional civilian pursuits as well. An MBA, JD or PhD does not confer upon the bearer's inherent experience that time and again proves to be the greatest teacher. But since a wise mentor once told me to only speak of those things that I am personally knowledgeable about, I will attempt to convey some of my acquired musings within the confines of naval aviation.
The first thing that comes to mind is the position that I hold. It is literally at the bottom of the tactical hierarchy. And even our skipper, who within a squadron is the final arbiter and dictator (in the most respectful sense) of policy, is at best within the middle regions of national policy. To grossly, but still somewhat accurately, simplify things, I am the junior aircrew in a two seat aircraft, the second plane of a two ship section of fighters. Above us is a division lead, in charge of two sections. He is tasked by the operations department who in turn reports to the skipper. Above our CO is CAG, the carrier air group commander, in charge of all the battle group's air assets (typically seven squadrons). He reports to the battle group commander, usually a one or two star admiral, who in turn is tasked by in our case, PACCOM (Combatant Commander for the Pacific Area of Responsibility). He in turn reports to the Secretary of Defense and the President. When one contemplates this organizational chart, I really am just a cog in the machine. But still one piece of many that makes theoretical policy a reality. We jet guys tend to see the world as revolving around us and our particular squadron, but the Big Picture is far from that perceived reality.
One of the unique things about "leadership" in the fighter pilot world is that when we are leading, we are leading other independent operators. It is the ultimate in mission control, where directives are passed down by higher authority, but must be executed without supervision. The most fun flights I have been on are large force strikes, where 20 or more airplanes are in the sky, all with various roles, simulating an attack on a significant target, including air intercept assets as well as the ground attack elements and other players with very important suppression of enemy air defense roles. There is a strike lead in one aircraft, but as soon as the fight starts, he necessarily must immediately delegate general authority to various component leaders. He has given a general directive during the brief, but has to trust that when he sends them on their way, his element leaders will execute appropriately. There are times when all of us are acting independently based on evolving circumstances, making split second decisions without consultation that may affect the entire strike package. Even all powerful CAG can be at the mercy of an inexperienced pilot who chooses the wrong course of action at a pivotal moment (not that this has happened in my case! Thank goodness for the WSO in my back seat…but theoretically… ;-) ). This is in the tactical, dynamic world of combat. Fortunately, we often do not face situations like these for real.
For more day to day operations, the face of leadership, no matter where the directives originate from, is our skipper. If we get news we are extending our cruise, our skipper tells us. He has nothing to do with the orders, but is responsible for their execution. In our case, I will unabashedly say his leadership is remarkable. In the two months I have been here, I have seen more good leadership traits, and nuggets of wisdom, that are worth emulating than in my entire life. This is a man who gets it, especially one who has successfully led men into combat, arguably the greatest test of leadership acumen. This is a man who is spoken of with reverence among both the officers and enlisted, not because of his rank, but because of his example. At the heart of this lies taking responsibility for all actions, and being honest with both successes, and especially, failures. What you see with him is what you get.
Perhaps one of the lessons that has had the greatest impact on me is his mantra that all decisions ultimately originate with a person. This may seem obvious, but we in the military have a tendency to depersonalize things. "The Pentagon is sending us here." " The Nimitz screwed me again." "I can't believe the Navy is doing this." His standard response is, "wait a second guys, lets look at this. Somebody made this decision, not an amorphous entity. If its wrong, blame them personally. If its right, then don't complain."
Most of the guys have been gone from home for 10 of the past 13 months, this current "Surge" cruise accounting for the latter half of that. Complaints have been rampant, understandably, and lots of invective directed towards Big Navy. The skipper sat us down one day, and said, "guys, don't blame this entity 'Big Navy.' If you want someone to blame, lets look at the guy who wanted us here, PACCOM. His name is Admiral Keating. For those of you who know him, you know he doesn't mess around, and knows his stuff. If he says we need to be out here, then we do." For me personally, that was enough. That doesn't mean being away from home is any less stressful, or living on the boat any less uncomfortable, but there is a method to the madness, and someone at the top who knows what he is doing. I personally met Admiral Keating at my brothers commissioning two years ago, and he gained my instant respect for what he said and his impressive track record. There was pretty much unanimous, if somewhat disgruntled, agreement within the ready room. Adm Keating was a fellow fighter pilot, has made more deployments and lived in more places than many of us have years in the military, and can be trusted. End of story. Same with Congress (not necessarily the trust part…)– as an amorphous entity, it doesn't make military appropriation decisions, individual congressmen do and they each have names with personal histories. They may be wrong, but there is always someone responsible, not the impersonal entity.
By the same token, his command philosophy is to make sure people come first. He isn't here to increase retention or drive his troops into the ground. His belief is that anybody who serves has done their part, and a career isn't in the cards for everybody. He just doesn't want anybody to leave because of the squadron atmosphere…leave that exodus to the individuals who set deployment schedules. It is rare to find a leader who knows when to push people to their limits, and when to stand up to higher authority to make sure they his people keep their sanity. When our squadron (sans me of course) was in the Gulf last summer, the skipper rightly drove the Aces to exhaustion by the end because our mission was to employ in combat, supporting the boots on the ground. This time around, our mission is different, and knowing where the breaking point is, he has specifically asked for our squadron to be tasked less. In raw numbers, a CO looking to promote to something higher doesn't do this. But a skipper who knows his people, and holds their welfare as paramount in a non-combat environment, is one that will get the best from them when the flag goes up, and their full devotion is required.
For many in the Navy, there is a prescribed career path, and jobs along the way, that are "highly encouraged" (note: that phrase in militaryspeak means mandatory) to rise to the upper echelons. It is something subtle, but noteworthy nonetheless, that our skipper tells us time and again to make the decisions about our job choice for us, not the Navy. Do what makes us happy, not what the detailer would have us do. This, for me especially, has been a great encouragement. I think it speaks highly of someone who truly wants the best for his subordinates, and gives them as much information as possible to make informed choices.
I was recently reminded of a quote in a speech given by the current Secretary of Defense that I believe is appropriate in describing our Skipper, and has many other general applications as well. It is from the late Air Force Col John Boyd (a man I have mentioned before):
"One day you will take a fork in the road, and you're going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go one way, you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises, and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club, and you will get promoted and get good assignments. Or you can go the other way, and you can do something, something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted, and you may not get good assignments, and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors, but you won't have to compromise yourself. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That's when you have to make a decision: to be or to do."
I believe there are cases where you can both "be" and "do," but are only possible when the latter is the focus, and the former just works out. Anyway, my point is that character counts, and in some commands the party line is encouraged, and in others, commitment to principles is. Ours exhibits the latter.
The philosophy of the skipper trickles down to the rest of the squadron, as the philosophy of any leader, good or bad, tends to do. I'm not sure I have ever been in such a tight-knit group of men, with virtually no personality conflicts. In a group of over 30 highly type-A ultra-competitive personalities, confined to the same piece of real estate for 5 months, this is nothing short of remarkable. Part of it may be the fact that we are the only two-seat tactical squadron in the air wing, are constantly (in good fun) assaulted by the single seat guys in the daily air wing cartoon, and thus band together to defend ourselves, but after so long away from home, it is much more than that.
In large part, I think this overall philosophy comes from his experience as a humble enlisted sailor responsible for waste management maintenance (that's the polite way of putting it...) prior to getting his commission and flying Tomcats and Super Hornets. It was those incremental learning experiences wrought from difficult situations, and many failures, that enabled him to lead what is now a remarkable organization. The squadron isn't perfect by any means, and there are always areas for vast improvement, but there is something significant going on. Experience counts, and those that take it to heart make their subordinates effective in their jobs.
Being in the Navy, deployed, is not the easiest thing in the world. But someone was truly looking out for me when I was quite literally randomly assigned to this squadron. The Department Heads, who have all been in other squadrons before this, are constantly amazed at the environment fostered by the current front office.
The squadron, however, is in for a quick evolution. The core of combat proven and experienced junior officers are all finishing their tours in the next three months. We have had five new jacks (myself included) since last January, with more slated to come once we return home. The current skipper is turning over with our XO in July. Our most experienced department heads are about to leave as well. So as with anything in life, change is on the horizon, and with the advent of a new administration, it will be interesting to see how the culture and atmosphere of our little band of brothers adapts. Chaser (outgoing) and Wimbo (incoming) have known each other for a long time, since going through Top Gun together. But they are very different in their approach to situations and people.
I think it will be fascinating to watch this evolution. Organizational change and cultures have always been an intense observational fascination of mine, and it looks like I will be directly exposed to yet another case study (wow, there comes the uber-analyst in me). I will be at the heart of it, probably taking on more responsibility than I am prepared for sooner than I think. I suppose however, that is where the real learning will occur, and I only hope that I will be able to absorb and implement lessons learned from the mistakes that are inevitable.
As always, I appreciate the thoughts and prayers that have been diligently sent my way. We are (hopefully) on the final leg of our journey, and I can't wait to take some R&R to see some of you in the coming months.
New Website: disruptivethinkers.org
5 years ago