[June 26, 2021] Earlier this month, I wrote a book review of Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds. Today, I’ll be highlighting some of Robin Olds’ thoughts about how to improve your situation when given a leadership mess.
Leaders interested in improving their organizations are often assigned positions where things are bad, sometimes very bad. I’ve had those, and perhaps that is why I was drawn to one of his chapters, “The Phantom and the War.”
In 1966, Colonel Olds was selected to command the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing out of Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand. When selected, Olds packed up his household goods, shipped his personal gear to Thailand, and sent his family to live in Washington, D.C., where his wife enjoyed living. He headed out to his new command and to direct involvement in the Vietnam War.
To read Olds’ book, you immediately know the war was not proceeding well. He wondered how he could cope with the Washington, D.C. bureaucracy pulling the military strings. Balancing this was the aggressive PR campaign conducted by Communist North Vietnam, a growing anti-war sentiment in the U.S., and political restrictions on what targets in North Vietnam the U.S. military was allowed attacked.
In that context, Colonel Olds’ job was to make things better. Moreover, he knew he was stepping into what he called “a mess.”
“There were few of us who believed that airpower could work if truly sensitive targets were left unchallenged.”
The following summarizes what he did to make things better to defeat the North Vietnamese enemy and save his men. Olds is showing what leadership is about when handed a mess.
- Get familiar with the situation on the ground. Walk around, see people and talk to them. Get to know your job responsibilities. The first few days on the job are the right time to get this done. Regardless of rank, most folks will tell you the truth right away if you ask.
- Find where the roadblocks are and do your best to fix them. Get in line with everyone at lunch, HR, the bathroom, different departments, the shop floor, everywhere. Experiencing problems firsthand gives you a real perspective on what needs fixing.
- Don’t tolerate your men being treated poorly by your own organizations or the bureaucracy from other entities. Use your rank (or position of authority) to make things happen correctly and quickly. Focus on who is in charge, educate them, and make them do their job right.
- Talk with people in the organization that you can trust to give you the inside skinny. Protect those people from the hangers-on and higher-ups that accumulate in any organization and don’t do their jobs.
- Go to where your people hang out to relax (in a local bar, lunchroom, etc.). Be part of the scene; let them know why you are there, and that you won’t tolerate people being treated like cattle or disrespectfully.
- Let your people train you. Be upfront about it. In addition Olds told his men that he would be better than them at their jobs in only a few weeks. He was giving them a challenge.
- Know the mission, get to know the people, what is expected of you and your people. Get to know their attitudes and expectations.
There are more. I’ll weave his other suggestions into future articles.