"...do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..."

"For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism..."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Maxwell AFB, April 21, 2008

"You will need to challenge conventional wisdom and call things like you see them to subordinates and superiors alike."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, United States Air Force Academy, March 4, 2011

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Good Leadership vs Great Leadership

Great leaders embrace accountability in all that they do, and are willing to accept criticism from within or outside their organization. Holding leaders to a high standard of performance and ethics is a credit to the Air Force.

- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, United States Air Force Academy, 4 March 2011

What's the difference between a good military leader and a great military leader? Secretary Gates nailed it above. He absolutely nailed it.

As I used to tell students in my previous assignment, a great commander is the commander you can forcefully disagree with on matters important to him or her, and who will not destroy you as a result. It takes a measure of security and confidence to be such a leader, and it seems to me those characteristics are only observed in competent individuals who have a healthy dose of perspective.

I recently got back in touch with a man I consider to be the best squadron commander of my career. He's retired these days, but he is the epitome of the great commander in my mind. He worked long hours, cared about his people, was unwavering in his commitment to the mission, went out of his way to work magic to provide any comfort to his folks that he possibly could without sacrificing the mission, and had a wonderful personality and amiable character. Those qualities define a very good commander. He was more than that, however, he was a great leader like the kind Secretary Gates discussed at his alma mater. While deployed, he disagreed with a decision I had made concerning my crew. The issue at hand was one that was important to us both, an issue that invoked the passions, a hot button item. He didn't change the decision I had made for my aircrew, but he invited me to reconsider it before my next deployment. There were people above him who wanted my head for the decision I had made, and while this commander disagreed with my course of action, he provided me the breathing room to fight him on a matter he was invested in. He provided me the space to disagree with him, and didn't punish me for doing so. He was a truly great commander. I'll leave it to the reader's imagination whether or not he ultimately agreed that I had made the right decision, but I can honestly say it doesn't matter if he did or not.

A great leader is somebody who doesn't agree with you, who doesn't agree with your approach, who thinks you are a quixotic officer tilting at windmills and picking battles that are better left not fought....yet who who does not punish you for having a different viewpoint. In the dangerous and complex world we live in, we need to recognize the value of different views.

Fortunately, I have recently witnessed another display of great leadership from several commanders in my current organization--the same organization that produced the great squadron commander I discuss above. I remain convinced that military organizations most closely involved in actual combat produce superior leadership, just as I remain convinced that organizations removed from actual warfare tend to produce inferior leadership.

I'm happy to say that the fabricated and dishonest Letter of Reprimand (LOR) I received in my previous assignment no longer exists thanks to great leadership. This fact changes nothing for my career. Its value to me, however, is immense.


  1. Grab a copy of "The Ghosts of Cannae" by Robert L. O'Connell. There are leaders, and then there are LEADERS. The Romans had many brave and competent commanders who nonetheless were found lacking against Hannibal. How the survivors of Cannae were treated is rather illuminating. The values of any society are reflected in its leaders and their leadership, but the truly great leaders do not emerge fully until they are needed.

    America is on the brink of creating a military empire. Will our republic fall to oligarchs as did the Roman republic? Will we remain a republic in the spirit of Washington, or will we become an empire in the spirit of Augustus? As an USAF officer, you are sworn to uphold and protect the Constitution. What happens if our political leaders undermine that document and the government that is built upon it? Two years ago, I would not have thought such a scenario possible. Now I am not so sure. Veterans are protected from abusive bank practices, but ordinary taxpayers are not, r.e. http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/03/administration-acts-on-mortgage-fraud-against-military-denies-it-exists-anywhere-else.html.

    (You are welcome to delete this comment since it is tangential to your post. I offer it as food for thought.)

  2. Thanks JB, I'll check that book out. As far as my oath, I think my place is simply to refuse to obey any unconstitutional orders that might come down from political leaders. Our political leaders undermine the Constitution not infrequently, and it's nothing new. It's not right either, but of course there is room for healthy debate on what is violation and what is not. The Constitution isn't the clearest of all documents. Jefferson sent troops to Tripoli without Congressional approval, we locked up the Japanese, etc etc. We have processes to "remedy" these violations, and a judiciary to correct them. The way I see my professional part in all of this is to disobey unlawful orders. By saying that, I know I open myself up for criticism. What if I'm ordered to a conflict that hasn't been officially blessed by Congress, but that Congress and the people allow, as seems to be a trend in recent history and there is some legal justification for it. Do I refuse that? It's not all black and white, but the broad answer to your question is for those who have taken the oath to disobey unlawful orders. In my opinion. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, as usual.