I learned a ‘first hand’ lesson on leadership while serving as the Investigator on a T-38A aircraft accident board in January 1979.
A T-38 had crashed at Ellsworth AFB, ND and I was appointed as the Investigator. Typically on a Accident Board, at the time, we would have 5 members: The President, the Investigator, a Pilot Member, a Maintenance Officer and a Flight Surgeons. Others were brought in on an “as needed” basis. Specialists if you will.
For the most part this investigation was proceeding pretty well. We had a few ‘challenges’ but they were being met, and the investigation was progressing. Or so I thought.
One night after our evening debrief we all headed to the bar, as we were inclined to do. We had a few beers then folks began departing – all except the Board President and me.
I liked the man, Col. F, and enjoyed working with him. He could be a bit “high strung” at times, but I got along with him just fine. Somehow, after a ‘few’ more beers that evening the conversation gravitated to ‘leadership.’ It was then that Col. F. hit me, right between the eyes.
“Bob,” he said, “you are, a good officer, but you probably will not go far. You don’t listen to your people!” I sobered up instantly! That hit me right in the chest.
He then continued on, “There have been numerous times when your team members have had something to say, and you have cut them off. That tells them that you don’t care about what they have to say, or contribute.”
Until then I had never thought of myself in that vain. I just sat there that evening, and glared at him – somehow knowing he was “spot on.” And, the longer I sat there the more determined I became to change my ways.
As I mentioned earlier, I sobered up immediately! And later, alone in my room that evening, I had a bit of a “Come to Jesus” meeting with myself. I knew that he had spoken the truth. And so, I became determined to (actually) listen to others, rather than discount them. Furthermore, I committed myself to produce an accident report beyond reproach. I was so inspired with Col. F’s honesty with me – although it was difficult to listen to – that I was determined to put out a product that we could all be proud of. This included a product with inputs from everyone on the board…
An Accident Board in those days was given 30 days to investigate an accident and produce a report. The report was to determine ‘Findings, Causes and Recommendations’ in order to prevent follow-on accidents of the same nature. To this end, once a report was produced it would typically be provided to the assigned Wing, Command then eventually to the Air Force Inspection and Safety Center (AFISC) for comments and concurrence or non-concurrence. It was very rare to see a report reach AFISC without objections of some kind or another – but ours did! And I attribute this to everyone contributing to the effort at hand, not just me…
I will be forever grateful to Col. F for taking the time and interest to have that talk with me that evening. It made a difference, not just in my career, but my Life…