Leadership Wisdom from the Memoirs of a Fighter Pilot and Ace
General Robin Olds
was perhaps the greatest Fighter Pilot and Leader that ever lived. Robin Olds was a triple ace with sixteen total kills spanning two wars. During WWII he flew the P-51 Mustang, the P-38 Lightning, and downed 12 German Fighters. He also shot down 4 MIG Fighters in the famed F-4 Phantom during the Vietnam War. Robin was a warrior and a leader of men.
During Vietnam he lead the acclaimed “Wolf Pack” of the distinguished 8th Tactical Fighter Wing dubbed the MIG Killers. The 8th was one of the most successful fighter wings of the Vietnam War.The success of the 8th was due to Robin’s leadership and was a direct result of the professionalism, guidance, warrior spirit, and espirte de corps Robin instilled in his men.
Recently I read Robin Olds Memoirs, Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds, written by Robin Olds, Ed Rasimus, and his daughter Christina Olds. The book is absolutely fantastic, a great read, told in the “no shit” vernacular of the larger than life Warrior’s Warrior. I cannot say enough about this great American Warrior; he was truly one of the last of the gun fighters. I highly recommend this book.
One of my favorite sections of the book tells of young Major Robin Olds, a two time Ace with 12 kills. He was being summoned to Paris, France by Four Star General Carl A. “Tooey” Spaatz at the end of World War II. Robin Olds’s father and General Spaatz had been close friends when Robin was a teenager. During the meeting, General Spaatz imparts some career advice to the young Major Olds. Keep in mind that this is 1945 just after the Germans had surrendered. Below is the advice Spaatz imparted to Robin as recorded in his memoirs:
“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 indispensible 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?”
How profound! And that comes from 1945! I served in the United States Air Force and United States Army and even today this nugget of wisdom still holds true- sixty-seven years later! In fact, this advice about people not only holds true for the military, it holds true in the modern business world.
Managing and working with people is the most difficult and the most rewarding aspect of running a business. I view small entrepreneurial companies much like a fighter squadron. You have the Squadron Commander (CEO), the Operations Officer (COO), the Flight Commanders (Directors), and the Pilots (Rest of the Team). Each person is an autonomous unit capable of acting independently yet part of a team; that when operating cohesively as a unit, can achieve great things.
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great discusses getting the right people on the bus and creating a culture. Jim Collins states that you need to hire motivated, self-disciplined, people who do not need to be managed. I think the culture is actually a type of esprit de corps: A feeling of pride, fellowship, and common loyalty shared by the members of a particular group. In order to create this in your company you need dedicated people.
One of the main differences between the military and a civilian business is that in the military you seldom have the luxury of assembling your own unit. You usually get the luck of the draw when it comes to the members of your unit. As a result, you more than likely end up with a mix of ‘dedicated’, ‘deadwood’, ‘me-tooers’, and ‘me-firsters’. Fortunately, in the business world you can shape your company. If you learn to recognize these types of people you can weed out those that are not desirable.
When equating General Spaatz’s advice to Major Robin Olds in today’s modern business world, I would say this:
Dedicated – Seek these kinds of people out, hire them and cultivate them. They will take care of business because they are motivated, self-disciplined, and do not need to be managed.
Deadwood – Every company has a little deadwood. They mean well, but you need to identify them and get rid of them. They will drain your resources.
Me-Tooers – As a leader you need good information. These guys will not give you the information you need. They are butt kissers and take credit for other peoples work. Get rid of them, they are bad for morale and they will kill your culture.
Me-Firsters – You will be tempted to hire these kinds of people. They may be smart, capable, and get the job done. However, they are prima donnas; these people will destroy your company like a cancer. They will eat away at morale by putting themselves first in favor of feathering their own nest. They will not foster teamwork; they will instead foster fear, jealousy, and a cut throat atmosphere.
The wrong people can destroy your company and hold your business back from achieving greatness. There is an adage in business: Be slow to hire and quick to fire. As a business owner, the biggest mistakes I have made have come from not identifying the ‘deadwood’, ‘me-tooers’, and ‘me-firsters’ and taking the prompt swift action to get rid of them. The hardest ones to get rid of are the deadwood, mainly, because they mean well. But by keeping the deadwood, you do them as well as your company a huge disservice. Companies with great corporate culture often are like one big family but, just as in a family, everybody has to pull their weight.
Robin Olds is perhaps one of my greatest heroes. He exemplifies the meaning of leadership. Lessons in leadership transcend time and lessons in military leadership translate into civilian leadership. Great military leaders like Tooey Spaatz and Robin Olds have many lessons on leading people that we can apply as leaders today. As a leader, you need to adapt your leadership to the situation. As a leader, you need to become astute in reading people and their personalities. By taking time to understand people and learning to identify the ‘dedicated’, ‘deadwood’, ‘me-tooers’, and ‘me-firsters’ you can shape and build your organization with the type of people that are critical to success. If you practice, you can learn to spot the types of people that can be destructive to your organization and weed them out early. You may not become a two time ace and a military hero, but you can lead your company to greatness.