Disruptive leadership for the Air Force

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Dave Roll
  • 28th Medical Operations commander
Leadership is the process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.
Disruption is the usually deliberate or intended interruption of normal work or practice.

So how do we amalgamate the two and provide effective leadership? As leaders, we find our roles have evolved from those primarily as managers and problem solvers to one of leadership requiring innovation. Very often, leadership and management are considered the same, when in fact they are very different skill sets. That is not to say our responsibilities still do not require management of our resources. As leaders we have been given the resources, and tasking, to go beyond-- to manage chaos, continuously develop ourselves and master change. The archetypal "great" military leaders have not only been proven problem solvers, but they also went beyond to drive change, not afraid to disrupt the organization in order to avoid stagnation. While change and innovation can be chaotic and butt up against traditional thinking, they also give great leaders the competitive edge.

Let's point out some examples of leadership failures in the past that were results of complacent thinking and failure to innovate, to challenge the status quo, to disrupt, more so than from any other personal leadership shortcomings. In American culture it has become popular in recent years to assault French military leadership and their supposed inadequacies. In 1939 it was widely assumed that the French military was one of the finest in the world. Her navy was second only to the British; she had a 5-million man army, equipped with what was considered at the time one of the world's best tanks and artillery. Her massive eastern fortifications know as the Maginot Line had practically bankrupted France but was believed to be impenetrable.

However, a missing key piece was young, visionary leaders. France had survived World War I at a loss of 1.3 million dead and more than 4 million wounded. Entire towns had lost their young men, forcing military leadership to go on serving long after they should have retired. This leadership was slow to adopt the rapidly changing stratagem of maneuver, quick offensive movement and close combat air support. The French plan was to minimize French casualties, wait and stop the Germans. On May 10, 1940 Germany forces launched the "blitzkrieg" against Holland and Belgium. By May 19 British and French forces were pushed back to the beach at Dunkirk.

On June 22 France surrendered and was occupied by Germany. Thus in 44 days the rapid assault by German forces caused the French Army to capitulate; unable to answer the leadership challenges it was presented in a war its leaders were ill-prepared to fight strategically. A quote from France's Marshall Foch may subtly sum up France's military leadership failures: "The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad."

Sometimes success can be an organization's biggest enemy. Receiving high marks on past Operational Readiness Inspection's and Unit Compliance Inspection's can leave leadership thinking "if it ain't broken, there's nothing to fix", ignoring the constant change in technology, society and the young men and women we depend upon to replenish our ranks. Henry Ford was "disruptive," creating a "problem" with the goal of providing an affordable automobile for most households in the US, at a time in history when only 2 percent of the US population owned one.

His visionary creation of the assembly line allowed the cost of his Model T to drop from $1,500 to $290, increasing Ford's market share from 9 percent in 1908 to 61 percent in 1921. The problem with Henry Ford was his willingness to sit on his success and cease innovation, thus eventually losing considerable market share to General Motors and others who had the vision, or "disruption," to produce automobiles of varying colors and models, at a time when Ford was content to produce the lone Model T.

Leadership to be respected must be visible; the unseen leader is not followed. Gen. George S. Patton was one of the most loved and hated leaders of World War II, but he was successful. One of his leadership traits most admired among his men was his leading from up front.

One can only contrast this leadership style to that of Gen. William Westmoreland in Vietnam. As his infantrymen marched through rice paddies, fighting the tedium that alternated with brief periods of combat in this conflict, General Westmoreland "led" from the secure confines of Saigon, dining on gourmet food on fine china at the club. General Patton, while causing his share of problems due to his acrimonious personality, often saw his vision at odds with the established military doctrine. He was willing to "disrupt" and more often than not, succeed with his visionary maneuvering of the U.S. Third Army across Europe.

As leaders in today's Air Force we live in a time of great cynicism and doubt. Leaders from the banking and automotive industry, political arena, sports, and other institutions are often viewed with suspicion and lack of confidence by the American people. They have developed doubts in leaders' integrity and willingness to serve for the good of employees, customers, and other constituents.

Fortunately, military leaders are still widely held in high trust and regard. We must persevere as leadership remains one of the most relevant aspects of the organizational context. In the Olympics we do not see the coach of medal winners on the stand having a medal draped around his or her neck. As leaders we should shun credit and recognition for the success of our "teams" while taking responsibility for its failures.

We must make not only the hard decisions, but continuously develop ourselves and our units, to assure that while "creating problems" intentionally is counterintuitive, it is necessary if we are to lead our Airmen and develop the innovations required for future challenges.