Leading From The Air

by Doug Magill

A plethora of authors, consultants, and speakers purport to explain how leadership works in the modern organization.  But it is sometimes more instructive to look at leaders who have had to radically transform organizations under the pressures of wartime while simultaneously showing personal heroism.

At age 22 Robin Olds became one of the youngest majors and squadron leaders in the Army Air Force during World War II.  A celebrated fighter pilot, he was a triple ace and had a well-deserved reputation for leadership and personal heroism.

After the war Robin helped test the newly adopted jets for the Air Force, and led one of the first aerobatic teams in the service.  He raced as well, coming in second in the Cleveland National Air Races one year.

He became the first foreigner to command a British fighter squadron and later commanded U.S. fighter wings in Germany and Britain.  In each case he improved the performance of the wings he commanded, making them models for others in the Air Force.

His subsequent duty in the Pentagon allowed him a chance to write papers on war strategies that became prophetic when America engaged in the Vietnam War.  During that war then-Colonel Olds was assigned to command the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing in Thailand which had achieved a reputation for lack of aggressiveness and sense of purpose.

As with so many challenges in his life, Robin showed what dedicated leadership can mean when addressing organizational and motivational issues.  He went at it head-on.  He met every member of his unit, learned how each team performed its duties, and started flying combat missions with the wing.  He challenged the other pilots by starting as the lowest man in a flight and guaranteed that he would improve to the point where everyone acknowledged he should lead the wing in every combat mission.  He did so in a matter of weeks.

Olds led his men from the front, in the air.

His record with the 8th Wing is considered the best of any wing commander of the war, both as a pilot and in the performance of his wing.  During his tour of duty he was limited to 100 missions, but in order to continue leading his men he stopped counting, and ended up flying more than 150 missions.  That total exceeded the efforts of any other wing commander.

In his memoir, “Fighter Pilot”, Olds discussed how he was able to turn complex organizations around and get the loyalty, and best efforts of his team.

He got to personally know his people, their attitudes and their expectations.  He made them believe he wanted to know what they did, and why it was important to the entire effort.  The Olds Method: “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.”

Then he wanted to know about the hierarchy, what worked and what did not.  For each level he wanted to understand who reported to whom, and if the supervisors and managers really understood the needs of those under them and made those clear to those above them.

Individually and collectively Robin made sure he was honest with his organization.  “[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 promise, will earn you respect.  Out of that you gain loyalty and obedience.”

And he advised humility in leadership.  “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. “

Olds was famous, and beloved by his men, for battling with the chain of command when assignments and orders didn’t make sense or created difficulties for personnel who were tasked with risking their lives every day.  His men knew that he represented them and would take the tough assignments. But, though he was argumentative, he believed in discipline.  “I have a pet definition of discipline.  It’s what makes a person do the right and proper thing under many different circumstances.  That doesn’t mean by sheer instinct or innate ability, it means through knowledge gained by life experience, training, and learned judgment.”  He believed discipline was learned.

Lieutenant General Michael Dunn described Robin Olds after his thirty-four years in the Air Force: “I have encountered no one – repeat, no one – who was a better leader, wartime commander, or judge of men.”

A retired brigadier general, Robin Olds died in 2007.  His approach to leadership and managing is sorely needed today in many of our large companies and institutions.  Although he was also a warrior, he knew how to lead in any situation he found himself in.

He was not a fan of the Vietnam War.  After his tour of duty with the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing he was asked to meet with President Johnson, who wanted to glean some insights from Robin’s service.  Throwing caution to the wind, and again displaying that uncompromising leadership trait of his, he told the President “It’s simple sir, and with all due respect, the way to end this war is just to win the damned thing!”

Clear and precise, with unswerving devotion to his men, Robin Olds knew what was needed, though the solons in the government managed things with the complex prism of multiple nuances.  Which extended the war, and ultimately lost Vietnam.

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Doug Magill is a former executive and radio host who resides in Solon, Ohio and works as a consultant, freelance writer, and voice-over talent.  He can be reached at doug@magillmedia.net

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