THE JOURNAL OF LEADERSHIP APPLICATIONS
Vol. 9, No. 5
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102
©2012 William A. Cohen, PhD
“Dare the Impossible – Achieve the Extraordinary.“
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The 8th Universal Law of Leadership: Get Out in Front
© 2012 William A. Cohen, PhD
Perhaps because of Shakespeare’s immortal play, we tend to focus on the final hours in the life of Julius Caesar. We think of him primarily in his role as a politician and of his assassination. Yet, he was first and foremost a great military leader. That’s what brought him to the front rank in politics.
Julius Caesar had one trait that set him part from other successful Roman generals and emperors. It was not that he wasn’t a deep thinker. He was. However, others like the “philosopher emperor” Marcus Aureilius, were even deeper thinkers. It was not that he wasn’t a good strategist or tactician, either. Again, he was, but there were other Roman generals who were at least as good.
No, what set Caesar apart, was the fact that he spent an inordinate amount of time up front in the company of his soldiers. It was said that he committed not only the names of his officers, but the names of thousands of his legionnaires to memory. He greeted all of them by name.
Because of this, Caesar’s troops knew they were not just numbers to him. They were important! Wherever the action was, and whatever happened, they knew he would be there with them to share in it with them.
There is no way of leading from the rear in combat, and there is no way of leading from the rear, in corporate life. You have to be “up front” where the action is. That way you can see what’s going right and what’s going wrong. You can make critical decisions fast without those decisions having to work there way up and down the chain of command for approval. You can see your employees, and they can see you. There is no question in anyone’s mind as to what you want done, and the fact that you are there on the spot lets people know just how committed you are to getting them done. It lets them know that you think what they are doing is important. It lets all who would follow you know that you are ready, willing, and able to share in their hardships, problems, successes and failures in working towards every goal and completing every task. Moreover, going where the action is gives you an opportunity to set the example. Remember to be a leader, you have to lead. To lead means to be out in front.
You Don’t Need to Be the Commander or the Manager to Get Out in Front
A couple years ago, the town of Montgomery, Alabama offered to purchase and donate an aircraft for a memorial at Air University. Air University is located at Maxwell Air Force Base near Montgomery. It offers advanced professional military education for Air Force officers, senior non-commissioned officers and officer trainees. Among its schools are the Senior NCO Academy, Squadron Officers School, Air Command and Staff School, and Air War College.
Lieutenant General Charles G. Boyd, the then Commander of Air University made a counter-proposal to Montgomery’s offer. “Why not a statue of an Air Force leader who had a major impact on the Air Force?” he suggested. The town enthusiastically agreed to raise the money for such an award. They left it to General Boyd to suggest the Air Force leader to be portrayed.
Who would General Boyd select to inspire future generations of Air Force leaders? The list of potential honorees was long. Perhaps Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, who fought hard for an independent air force after World War I? Or General of the Air Force Hap Arnold. He held the highest rank any Air Force officer ever held – five stars – when he led the Army Air Force during World War II. Or maybe he would chose General Curtis LeMay. He built Strategic Air Command and through strong deterrence, did much to prevent World War III. He also served longer wearing the four stars of a full general than any other. And there were many other candidates.
General Boyd chose none of these distinguished leaders to represent an Air Force leader who had a major impact on the Air Force. Instead he chose a young lieutenant by the name of Karl Richter who lost his life in the Vietnam War. How could a mere lieutenant inspire others more senior? Why would a young lieutenant even be considered over these distinguished senior officers each of whom served the Air Force and the country in positions of high responsibility?
Karl Richter graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy, went on to pilot training, and completed operational training in the F-105 “Thud” fighter-bomber. 1st Lieutenant Karl Richter had leave coming. “Leave” is the military term for vacation. It is short for leave of absence. However, he turned it down to fly his fighter-bomber directly to Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand and join the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing. He arrived in April 1966.
The 388th attacked targets in “Downtown” Hanoi in North Vietnam. These were considered the most heavily defended targets in the history of air warfare. Five months after arriving, he became one of the first F-105 pilots, and the youngest, to shoot down an enemy MiG-17. This he was able to accomplish even though the F-105 was used to attack ground targets, and was not considered to have the necessary maneuverability for air-to-air combat.
These were tough days for our Air Force. Losses were high. Pilots needed to complete 100 missions to go home. This was far from easy. Forty-three percent were either killed or declared missing in action before reaching 100 missions. Richter completed his 100 missions successfully. He promptly volunteered to fly another 100. He felt that his extensive combat experience could be used to further the war effort and help others to complete their 100 missions. His superiors agreed to let him fly an additional 100 missions. He personally led many raids. He taught many more senior officers, including some of his commanders, how to survive while flying and fighting in this intensely hostile environment. Along the way, Richter won numerous decorations for his heroism and leadership. On one occasion, he was awarded the Air Force Cross, the second highest decoration to the Congressional Medal of Honor, for leading a flight which successful suppressed enemy anti-aircraft artillery and surface-air-missile crews despite bad weather and intense fire. This enabled the strike force to destroy an important railroad target.
Karl Richter completed his second 100 missions. He had already volunteered for a third tour of combat duty, this time to fly F-100s in missions supporting our soldiers on the ground in South Vietnam. Before his transfer, he was once again out in front, checking out a newly assigned pilot. Their target was a bridge. The defenses could be heavy. The enemy knew that bridges were primary targets because they were logistical lines of supply for military material heading down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam. Richter told the new wingman to stay high and observe while he attacked the bridge by himself.
But Richter’s luck had run out. His aircraft was hit and disabled on his first pass. His wing-man saw him eject successfully and his parachute open. Air Rescue Service aircraft were on the scene as rapidly as they could get there.. They heard the beeper from his emergency radio. With other armed aircraft suppressing the flak, a helicopter landed and pararescue personnel, nicknamed “P.J.s,” rushed to his aid. When they got to him, they saw he was near death. Richter had sustained multiple injuries, probably caused by being dragged into rocky karst formations by his parachute. He died aboard the rescue helicopter.
The statue of 1st Lieutenant Karl Richter bears an inscription from the Bible. It quotes the prophet Isaiah who says: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Here am I. Send me.” Lieutenant Richter wasn’t a squadron commander or the wing commander of the units he flew with. Still, he got out in front and led, and more senior leaders followed him gladly. He continues and will continue to lead and inspire other Air Force leaders into the future.
We don’t expect business leaders to sacrifice themselves to this extent. However, there are occasions when they, too, take risks when they get out in front. When they do, others follow for the same reasons as they followed Karl Richter.
A Texas CEO Gets Out in Front with the Headhunters and Piranhas
As president of Inland Laboratories in Austin, Texas, Dr. Mark Chandler led a $100 million company with a different kind of product. Inland sold toxins, viruses, and other biochemical products to medical researchers.
On one occasion, Inland needed two rare plants to refine into a cancer medicine. Unfortunately, these plants grew only in a Brazilian rainforest hundreds of miles from civilization. Chandler couldn’t buy them anywhere. Someone had to go into the jungle and harvest the plants right from the jungle. Perhaps he could have ordered employees to this distant Brazilian destination to find this rare foliage. However, their job descriptions did not include facing piranhas, deadly snakes, and headhunters. He knew this was one trip that no one else could lead. So, Dr. Chandler got out in front.
Mark Chandler personally organized and led an eight-day expedition up the Amazon. And this wasn’t easy. Several days into the journey, he contracted a jungle disease and others thought he was going to die. Burning up with fever and wracked by diarrhea, he plunged into the river to cool off, forgetting about piranhas and poisonous snakes. He was so sick, he just didn’t care. Two days later, the fever broke. A little after that, with the help of native guides, he got his plants. David Nance, president of Intron Therapeutics and a customer for more than ten years said, “Mark is equally comfortable in a loincloth, lab coat, or a three-piece suit.” Do you think employees want to work for a leader like Dr. Chandler? Do you think customers want to do business with him? They know that Chandler can be counted on to be out in front where the action is.
How a Young Businessman Became Time Magazine’s Man-of the-Year
Peter Ueberroth was still in his forties when Time Magazine named him Man-of the-Year. President Reagan invited him to the White House, and he was routinely introduced to audiences as “the man who brought honor to America.” Ueberroth didn’t win these accolades in uniform. Ueberroth wasn’t a military leader, and he didn’t win these honors on the battlefield. Ueberroth is a self-made businessman who made a great deal of money in the travel business. A head-hunting firm suggested Ueberroth’s name to a Los Angeles Committee searching for someone to run the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles. Ueberroth took the job at a 70% cut in pay. Later, he changed his status to volunteer worker. He refused to take any money at all for his work at the Olympics.
Some said Ueberroth declined to take a salary because there was no way the games could turn a profit. Many experts said that it was unlikely that the LA games could even break even. The media agreed. This was during the “cold war.” The Soviets and their satellites were likely to boycott the games in retaliation for the American boycott of the Soviet games previously when the games were held in Moscow. Other countries in the Soviet sphere of influence would follow. Other cities had had financial problems hosting the Olympics even without the Soviet problem. How could Los Angles do any better? The conventional wisdom was that the U.S. Olympic Games in Los Angeles were going to lose a lot.
His first week on the job, Ueberroth couldn’t even get into his own new office. He and members of his staff could hear the phones ringing inside. But, the landlord, like many others in Los Angeles were so certain that the Olympics would lose money and not pay its bills, that the landlord wanted his money up front.
But as Harry Usher, who functioned as Ueberroth’s Chief of Staff said, “Leadership and inspiration are his managerial gifts.” Ueberroth plunged right in. He managed by getting out in front and wandering around and going where the action was. Taking over an old helicopter hanger as headquarters, he encouraged everyone to eat lunch in the hangar’s cafeteria to save time. Ueberroth ate lunch there with everyone else.
Frequently, he would stroll through the hangar talking to his employees and asking questions. “Peter is demanding and self-demanding. That makes you try as hard as you can,” noted Agnes Mura, one top staffer.
Ueberroth personally negotiated contracts totaling millions of dollars. As the cash flow started in the right direction, he went out of his way to cultivate the ministers of sport from each country. Once the Soviets announced they wouldn’t be coming, Ueberroth spent even more time up front with his troops that were making things happen. He kept the pressure on and did everything he could to stop other countries from joining the Soviet boycott. He flew to Cuba and met face-to-face with Fidel Castro to try to persuade Cuba to come. While Castro said he had to follow the Soviet lead, he did agree not to pressure other Latin American countries not to come.
Once the Soviets made their boycott official, the experts again announced that there was no way Los Angeles could do anything to avoid losing money. Big money. Ueberroth ignored the naysayers and stayed in the front lines. He claimed that even without the Soviets, they would make $15 million profit. The naysayers laughed. Make $15 million profit? Impossible!
As the games opened, Ueberroth continued to go where the action was. According to Time Magazine, he was constantly on the move racing to the scene of action and even riding a helicopter over Los Angeles freeways to check the traffic. Every day, he wore the uniform of a different Olympic worker as he made the rounds. One day it was a bus drivers uniform, the next an ushers blue and gold, the day after, perhaps a cook’s whites with apron. And every time he spotted a security worker, he ran over to shake his or her hand. Ueberroth had been warned that Los Angeles was particularly vulnerable to terrorists, and Ueberroth was determined that they would not strike successfully at “his” Olympics.
When the smoke cleared, Ueberroth was proven wrong. The Los Angeles Olympics didn’t make $15 million. But, the experts were wrong too. Under Peter Ueberroth, the Los Angeles Olympics made $215 million profit, $200 million more than he had predicted.
And so Ueberroth got to dine with President Reagan and his photograph graced the cover of Time Magazine. Many Americans thought he should run for president. But others said he was just very lucky. Ueberroth didn’t say very much. He accepted an appointment as Baseball Commissioner. Ueberroth continued to be lucky, because he knew his real luck was that he went where the action was.
Why You Must Get Out In Front to Lead
There are leaders who feel they must maintain total detachment. They believe they must coolly and carefully analyze the facts and make a decision without being influenced by outside complications. From their viewpoint, this must be done away from the action, where the noise, pressures of time, and other problems distract from their ability to think calmly and clearly.
There is a place for contemplative thinking and measured analysis in leadership. But many leaders have their priorities all wrong. The first priority is that the leader must get out where the action is; where those that are doing the actual work are making things happen. They cannot lead from behind a desk in an air-conditioned office. John Keegan is a military historian. He has written many professional books on command and strategy. In his classic treatise on the essence of military leadership, The Mask of Command, he concluded, “The first and greatest imperative of command is to be present in person.”
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THIS MONTH’S THOUGHT FOR LEADERS
If you want an army to fight and risk death, you’ve got to get up there and lead it. An army is like spaghetti. You can’t push a piece of spaghetti, you’ve got to pull it.
– General George S. Patton, Jr.