Just a couple o' things from "Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds." There was a LOT that impressed me about this book, but these two vignettes pretty much capture the spirit of a guy who was a true leader of men... and a guy for whom the mission came first, above all else. First, Gen. Olds on leadership:
Here’s what I’d learned over the years. Know the mission, what is expected of you and your people. Get to know those people, their attitudes and expectations. Visit all the shops and sections. Ask questions. Don’t be shy. Learn what each does, how the parts fit into the whole. Find out what supplies and equipment are lacking, what the workers need. To whom does each shop chief report? Does that officer really know the people under him, is he aware of their needs, their training? Does that NCO supervise or just make out reports without checking facts? Remember, those reports eventually come to you. Don’t try to bullshit the troops, but make sure they know the buck stops with you, that you’ll shoulder the blame when things go wrong. Correct without revenge or anger. Recognize accomplishment. Reward accordingly. Foster spirit through self-pride, not slogans, and never at the expense of another unit. It won’t take long, but only your genuine interest and concern, plus follow-up on your promises, will earn you respect. Out of that you gain loyalty and obedience. Your outfit will be a standout. But for God’s sake, don’t ever try to be popular! That weakens your position, makes you vulnerable. Don’t have favorites. That breeds resentment. Respect the talents of your people. Have the courage to delegate responsibility and give the authority to go with it. Again, make clear to your troops you are the one who’ll take the heat.
Those thoughts are DIRECTLY translatable to any organization, military or civilian. And there's more wisdom therein than in any six issues of the Harvard Business Review.
Gen. Olds' philosophy in action... where he describes one of his IG visits to a SAC base in the early '70s:
At another base, I asked a CO, “What’s your jet engine test cell reject rate?” This guy, who was on the general’s list, looked at me and answered, “Oh, my staff keeps track of details like that.” I said, “I sat at your standup this morning, Colonel; your major briefed you and he gave you some figures. Have you got any idea what he said, even sort of?” “Yes, sir, it’s around 25 percent, which is quite acceptable. These are old engines, you know, the old J-47s, and . . .” Blah, blah, blah.Now do ya see why Gen. Olds was one of my biggest heroes while I was in the AF? The flying stories in his memoirs are good... very good... but the meat of the story lies in how he fought "the system." There ain't many like him today, and that's my BIGGEST beef with the services in this day and age. And it ain't just the Air Force, either... it's ALL of 'em.
“Well, that was close, Colonel, but I’ll tell you what, either the major was lying to you or he is awfully dumb, because that figure isn’t really close.” He said, “General, I don’t see how you can say that. The major is a good man. He—” “All right then, he’s just dumb! He did not check his figures. Right now your test cell reject rate is running above 50 percent. If you don’t believe me, let me show you how I know this, and let me show you why it is important and let me show you why it is happening.”
I told the colonel, “Let’s get in your staff car and go out to your jet-engine test cell.” A look came across his face and I thought, You sucker! He’d been there two years and he didn’t know where the test cell was—not even the vaguest idea.
We went and I introduced him to his maintenance chief. I said, “Sarge, let me have those records,” and I showed the commander. “Now, Colonel, here is your true reject rate. What does this mean to you? You are manned 130 percent in your jet-engine maintenance facility. The rest of the air force, outside of SAC, is manned about 75 or 80 percent in their jet-engine maintenance facility. You have all the people. Now, let’s see why your maintenance is so lousy.”
So we went to a huge maintenance hangar and I continued, “Now, Colonel, I want you to walk from this wall down to that wall and by the time we get across this floor you’re going to tell me what’s wrong with your maintenance.” Well, of course, he couldn’t do it. I walked him back and forth a couple of times, finally saying, “Don’t you see anything?” He replied, “Nope.” “Show me a four-striper. Show me just one out here in this big repair setup.” There weren’t any. “Now, let’s go find those 130 percent. You are about 200 percent manned on the top three NCO grades. Let’s go find them.”
The few we found were sitting around in offices with their feet up. “Now, let’s go over to the NCO club.” It was about eleven o’clock in the morning. There they were. All the E-7s, E-8s, and E-9s were sitting around drinking beer and coffee. And he wondered what was wrong with his jet-engine maintenance! Hell, he didn’t even know that anything WAS wrong. Now, that is ignorance. He was working in a system designed to promote this guy and to reward his ignorance.