Stepping into a Leadership Mess

By | June 26, 2021

[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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

16 thoughts on “Stepping into a Leadership Mess

  1. Flo from Mississippi

    A real American HERO.

    1. Commissioner Janey

      .,. And a real man. How could any lady pass him up?

  2. JT Patterson

    Thanks for another spot-on article, Gen. Satterfield. This is the kind of list of important leader characteristics that make reading your website worthwhile.

    1. Harry Donner

      👍 Yep, you got that right, JT. I know, you and along with a few others have been long-time readers and commenters on this site and what you write is something I will read. Helps keep me focused on what experts see as necessary to be a good/great leader.

  3. Eric Coda

    Excellent article on a real hero from WW2 and Vietnam. I like seeing this kind of article on Gen. Satterfield’s leadership blog. Keep them coming our way. Oh, yes, I’ve said that before but needs repeating. Whenever I read a good article that is useful, I’m going to say so.

    1. Tom Bushmaster

      Eric, you’ve been on this site for a long time like I have. I too agree that highlighting the fact that a certain article is good is useful to us all. I know Gen. S. reads these comments.

    2. Roger Yellowmule

      A real hero, not some fake one like we see in Hollywood, is crucial to measure our behavior by.

  4. Bryan Z. Lee

    #3 Don’t tolerate your men being treated poorly. This one is a great suggestion for new leaders. It will mean confronting your boss and letting him know that there is a problem. Maybe the boss already knows and nothing can be done but even if your folks know that at least you went to bat for them is a good start. Maybe, just maybe you can make a difference being new and they will start to respect you more.

  5. Lynn Pitts

    Wow, nice list of lessons. Good contrast to Gen. Satterfield and his list from yesterday.

    1. British Citizen

      I like this list a lot. Gives a real down to earth view of leadership. Give you have a mess or not, these are great guidelines.

      1. Valkerie

        You got that right BC. Thanks for being on our leadership blog.

        1. Tony Cappalo

          IMHO, this site and those like you and me who comment are a great part of understanding leadership and those elements that go into it.

        2. Ronny Fisher

          Yep, the more folks we have from across the world, the better. But it is not the diversity of skin color or national origin that matters, it means bringing in good comments and giving good examples to help make the point that Gen. Satterfield is making.

    2. Billy Kenningston

      It would be good at some time in the future, that Gen. Satterfield somehow would design a matrix that put the key leadership issues into a form that is easier to follow. Perhaps something that could be downloaded if too big. Just use the main leadership traits, and skip the small stuff.


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