Sunday, April 22, 2012

Leadership Lessons from a Carrier Based Fighter Squadron

In February 2008, three days after graduating initial F/A-18 Super Hornet training in Lemoore, CA, I was sent overseas to join my new squadron, the VFA-41 Black Aces, in Sasebo, Japan.  After spending one day in port, I boarded the USS Nimitz and spent the next four months at sea.

Trim, Nasty, Chaser and the Shoe Admiral...Larger than Life
To say it was a culture shock would be an understatement.  As a "Nugget," the term applied to first deployment naval aviators, I was wide-eyed and uncertain.  I wrote about many of my adventures in long emails home.  Some were harrowing and unforgettable, some humbling and thought provoking.  I was surrounded by giants of our profession, namely our Carrier Air Wing Commander, "Trim" Downing, and the Captain of the Nimitz, "Nasty" Manazir

The best piece of advice I got upon arriving was "keep your mouth shut for the first six months."  Being a quiet person by nature, this was easy.  But it also helped me focus on the first part of John Boyd's OODA Loop - Observe and Orient.

During those months of hardship, I kept a little black book of leadership lessons and questions about Grand Strategy that I would return to nightly.  I forgot about them until recently; I found the book and started reading through them.  Many of my observations are not new, and in fact, aphorisms pounded into us from the beginning of training.  I've even violated them at times myself, unfortunately.  But they were all learned through things I observed first hand. 

Leaders would be wise to know their underlines are ALWAYS watching.  Here are some of the lessons I wrote down, from both good, and especially, bad, leaders:

1.  There is always a person responsible for and behind the decisions of a "faceless" organization.  Don't blame the esoteric "Big Navy." 

2.  Always own up to and take responsibility for your mistakes -- especially if you are a squadron commander.

3.  Keep your people well informed, and ALWAYS give them the unvarnished truth, good or bad.  They can handle it.

4.  Volunteer for the hard assignments and do them well.

5.  Foster camaraderie and a healthy competitiveness in your charges.

6.  Lead from the front.

7.  Don't be afraid to challenge tradition, but have evidence to support your new course of action. 

8.  Only speak of things you know and are well informed about.

9.  Observe and take stock of your people to know their strengths and weaknesses.  Know which people need direction, and which need to discover things on their own.  The latter may take longer to develop, but will be more useful and adaptable in the long run.

10.  People are the most important thing.  "All technology eventually becomes obsolete, but high quality personnel never do."  Victor Krulak

11. Leadership cannot be taught in a classroom.  The best lessons are those experienced, especially those that end in failure.

12.  If you are taking questions from your subordinates, and don't know an answer, be honest and admit you don't know.  Then tell them you will find out, promptly do so, and given them the answer.

At least I didn't catch the Ace...this time.
13.  Have confidence in your subordinates and put them in challenging situations.  The only way they will grow is through situations that push them beyond what they think they are capable of.

14.  Never do anything in the presence of subordinates that you wouldn't allow them to do also.  Like, say, light a cigarette in the middle of the Ready Room...

15.  Competition among different departments breeds innovation.

16.  Be conspicuous when distributing praise.  Make sure their peers seem them get the award.

17.  Support subordinates who challenge entrenched ideology.  Develop methods to ensure their ideas are considered, and then implemented if superior to the prevailing status quo.

18.  It is in the nature of innovative, high achievers to challenge one another.  Let them do so. 

19.  Don't discount or distrust the value of advocates outside your organization. 

20.  "Never tell people how to do things.  Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity." Gen George Patton

21.  A personalized, hand written note to a subordinate is one of the most powerful tools at a Leader's disposal.  This requires knowing your people well -- but they will move mountains in the most challenging circumstances if they know you care. 

More are in the book.  Perhaps fodder for another post. 


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  2. Ben - enjoy your site!

    How much of your work on disruptive thinking came about while serving on the USS Nimtz?

    I have a hard time thinking of a better example of linear thinking and entrenched ideology than supercarriers!

    The US Navy refuses to budge from this 50-year old concept, despite mounting evidence that carriers are increasingly vulnerable and may prove irrelevant to the future security environment. They are the battleships of our time.

    I'd also think one would be hard pressed to come up with a better example of the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex 'at work' than a supercarrier.