This is the first in a new series of posts titled “Things I’ve Learned.” The topic is intentionally broad. I intend to write about some life lessons I’ve learned during my career thus far, which have helped me become a more effective officer.
#1: Don’t get angry unless you mean to.
Credit for this goes to General Stephen R. Lorenz, current commander of AETC. I heard him give a talk about leadership lessons while I was still a cadet at USAFA, and again when I was at Squadron Officer School. I don’t remember most of his lessons (sorry, General), but this one stuck with me. I think about it all the time.
When you work within a large bureaucracy like the US government, there’s a lot to be angry about. It starts with little things, like the fact that the most highly trained warriors in the world must wear reflective belts when they go jogging, that the Air Force spends inordinate amounts of time and money designing PT uniforms that everybody hates, or that in the midst of two wars, Squadron Officer School tasks students with writing a paper about how to keep a struggling Officer’s club in business.
The anger often comes from mission-related factors. This was common in the C-17, where an Aircraft Commander has to coordinate and move a mission with a hundred moving pieces: stateside command and control, mission planners, passenger/cargo terminals, local command posts, maintenance, refueling support, billeting, etc. It was rare to have a mission without at least two or three things going wrong. The hardest part of an ACs job isn’t flying; it’s getting on the satellite phone and trying to untangle the knot when somebody drops the ball. How do you keep the mission moving when pax terminal is three hours late getting the pax out to the jet, or when command & control calls you three minutes after takeoff to tell you that you need to pick up a piece of cargo they forgot about?
It’s easy to get angry about life back in the squadron as well. I was eager to make Aircraft Commander, but had to wait an extra year because of a SNAFU with ordering the right AC school slots. It’s complicated to explain, but I was watching pilots junior to me make AC–and then Airdrop AC, and then IP–well ahead of me, because they were being routed through a different pipeline. Another example that every C-17 pilot can relate to is coming home exhausted from a 2 or 3 week mission to find a voicemail waiting from the scheduler: “Sorry dude, you’re leaving again in three days. You were the only one available”, even though you know there are plenty of pilots in Group and Wing level staff jobs who haven’t flown once this quarter. The strain from this turbulence is incredible on the young lieutenants and captains who fly the line, and especially on their families.
Finally, it’s easy to get angry at big-picture problems. I’ve written before on this blog about how disillusioned I was by around 2006.
When we work in an organization as large and as rigid as the government, we will often have experiences that make us angry. Where do we go from there? We have two choices. First, we can stew in our anger until we’re so bitter and used up that we have nothing left to contribute and are toxic to our units. Second, we can commit to maintaining a positive attitude and we can dedicate ourselves to making the system better. When properly harnessed, anger can be a powerful motivator; however, we usually can’t be effective until we get past the immediate rage.
When we’re angry, we want someone to blame. We want to vent on somebody. Occasionally serious problems really are the consequence of one bad leader, but I’ve learned that in most cases there is nobody to blame. The problem is usually with the process or the bureaucracy, not with the individual (this will be the subject of my next “Things I’ve Learned”). I’m a pretty even-keeled person and have only taken my anger out on people a few times in my career, but I regretted it every time. In most cases I was angry at someone who had no responsibility for the mistake. I was the copilot on one mission where the AC got so angry at a young Command Post airman that the Ramstein AFB Wing Commander–who was listening on the radio–personally came out to the jet to have a conversation. Oops.
I’ve learned that the best way to deal with anger is to get over it, stay collected, and figure out the right levers to pull to improve the situation. When a C-17 mission got tied up in a knot, the best solution was to call our command & control with a suggested plan of how to remedy the situation. 90% of the time, C&C would sign off on it. When C-17 pilots were suffering so much volatility and stress in their schedules, I was impressed with a group of Majors and Captains who created a working group to brainstorm ideas and make proposals on how to bring more stability. Commanders up the chain were supportive. Writing can be a powerful way to address institutional problems. To cite just one of many possible examples, Maj Niel Smith was dissatisfied with the lack of COIN in Army PME. In response, he wrote a professional essay recently hosted at SWJ that is elevating the issue to the right authorities. My anger at certain deficiencies in US policy led me to totally change my career track. I competed for a scholarship program to learn Arabic and study in the Middle East, so I could hopefully bring useful experience to policy sometime in the future. I also hope this blog can play a small role in strengthening the US military as a learning organization.
I’ve had a few role models who really exemplified this lesson. My best squadron commander to date was remarkably cool when things went wrong. I never, ever saw him get angry. His calm manner of dealing with challenges inspired a lot of trust in our squadron and bolstered our morale. He was also a dedicated problem solver. He responded to the crushing C-17 ops tempo by proposing a radical restructuring of C-17 deployments, selling it to the right generals, and then executing it. He took on a problem well above his pay grade and, through patient and diligent work, implemented a solution.
Lorenz has one caveat on his advice to not get angry; sometimes, you mean to get angry. You want to make a point. If a subordinate does something boneheaded, you might need to appear angry to let him know you’re serious. That has a place, but you still need to be in control; if you’re still in a white-hot rage, it’s not the time to call him into your office.
Don’t get angry unless you mean to. I’ve learned that I can’t begin to be effective until I get that right.