Spending any significant time in the ranks of the U.S. military teaches an individual a thing or two about life, its process and how the world turns on a daily basis. How do I manage finances? When will I see my family again? What will I be doing a year from now? The answer to questions such as these can change with the tides. Nothing is certain in this world, and despite the public’s view of military job stability, we are no different. Everyone knows the two things in life that never change, though, are the same two things that apply to everyone, whether in uniform or out. Death and taxes are here to stay. Democrat – Republican, left – right, liberal – conservative, these two elements of life will never transform from the reality we know regardless of political conditions. I, however, would like to add a third element of rock solid everlasting existence. It is an aspect of our everyday life regardless of occupation, income, living situation or government allegiance. Effective leadership can significantly alter a person’s status in any occupational or social circumstance. It is a highly transferable skill set that can be applied to a myriad of situations throughout our time here on this earth. The military is known throughout the civilian sector as being a cornerstone of leadership in private organizations. While we may have the blueprints to such a skill, our execution in this generation has been in error, sometimes grossly.
One of the greatest leaders in history, though, wore Air Force wings. Yes, that’s correct! When American military historians think about famous leaders who wore the uniform, hardly anyone would have the initial instinct to recall someone in Air Force blue, but Brigadier General Robin Olds was that man. The late General Olds was an icon to the men he led. Earning 40 Combat Air Medals, 5 Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Legion of Merit, Distinguished Service Medal, 4 Silver Stars and the Air Force Cross, some would think that this astronomical resume would be the pinnacle of any leader. General Olds was not one of those people. Often times he was a hindrance to higher leadership by frequently defying rules that he determined irrelevant to his existence as a fighter pilot, his intolerance for stupidity no matter the source and twice he turned down promotions to higher ranks. His men adored his tenacity and attitude. His superiors cringed at his very sight – especially during the mustache years! However, what this man had from everyone was respect. As I evaluate our ranks in the modern era it is extremely difficult, if not outright impossible, to find such a leader at the strategic level. Early in his career a young Major Olds was given some advice by a European theater commander after World War II. General Spaatz sat Robin down to convey the following:
“Now, I know advice is cheap and often suspect, but here goes. You’ve had a good start and there’s a long road in front of you, but always remember this: Your most difficult problem will be the people. In the military, they mostly divide themselves into four major categories: There are the ‘me-firsters’, the ‘me-tooers’ the ‘deadwood,’ and the ‘dedicated’. You are among the minority, the ‘dedicated’. Stick with them, search them out, and work hard to be worthy of their company. You won’t be popular with a lot of your bosses who act dedicated but really aren’t, and that can make life difficult at times. Beware of the ‘deadwood’. Most of them mean well and, in their own way, try hard, are loyal, and even useful. But too often they’ll botch things up and get you and your outfit in trouble.
Watch out for the ‘me-tooers.’ These guys will tell you whatever they think you want to hear. They borrow thoughts and ideas from others and present them to you as though they were their own. They are opportunists who look for every avenue to advance themselves, without sticking their own necks out. They ride someone’s coattails and try to make themselves indispensable to the boss. Believe me, they are not to be trusted. You don’t want yes-men around you. But you can’t always avoid them.
The worst and the most dangerous are the ‘me-firsters.’ Most of them are intelligent and totally ruthless. They use the service for their own gain and will not hesitate to stick a knife in your back at the slightest indication you might stand in their way. They seem arrogant, but don’t be fooled; they are really completely lacking in true self-confidence. Do you understand that?”
In today’s highly technical and extremely regimented military, I have yet to find someone who met the Robin Olds standard of dedication to his people. Every military leader caters to someone else so they can either get promoted, not get brought up on harassment charges, not present an image of ineffectiveness and just survive the assignment. It is so easy for an admirable man or woman to have a fantastic career derailed in an instant because some female sailor or airman broke up with her unauthorized boyfriend and now wants to file assault charges. A high DUI count on base expresses a bad message to higher headquarters. And God help the poor leader who is just trying to get his people combat ready when an individual elects to take his or her own life. The truth is that strategic leadership is an absolute minefield today, and no one makes it through without acting like the antithesis of what a combat leader should be. How is it that we have arrived at this point?
One of the absolute worst moves a leader can make is to punish the people who give everything for the cause. If an incident occurs under someone’s watch, the immediate response is reactionary restriction for everyone. This conveys to higher headquarters that the person in charge is handling the problem when really there is no problem – just an incident. Every O-6 wants that next rung up on the ladder, and they are willing to sacrifice their unit’s morale and respect to get it. The ‘me-tooers’ and ‘me-firsters’ are so much more prevalent now because of a broken military structure model that says, “We have a zero tolerance for incidents.” Of course these things are going to happen, we are human. And anyone who tries to create perfection out of imperfect material is pushing its units to their tolerance when it comes to miscellaneous BS that does not matter. Not knowing your people, or what they are capable of, is definitely in the top 5 of gross violations of leadership. Today’s Air Force definitely leads the way in this respect.
One day in 1977, General Olds stood up in front of a local social club and said the following, “I am a warrior, and peace is not my business.” Some of General Curtis LeMay’s Strategic Air Command protegés were in attendance. The irony of the situation was that SAC’s motto was Peace is Our Business. Too often we, the warriors, are forced to incorporate the non-warriors into our mold of everyday life. With that comes their opinions, problems, complaints with working more than 6 hours a day, and constant bickering of why we do not necessary follow uniform regulations. They want to know why they cannot have what we have. So to squash the grumblings, leadership gives in – thereby altering the warrior’s state of mind and thus lifestyle, to believe that dedication to the mission no longer matters. Superior training is now an afterthought so that Private Smith may have his cookie and eat it too. This is the message the actual warfighter receives – “If I complain enough I will get what I want.”
What was unique about the way Robin Olds led his people? Stay tuned for part 2 and find out.