B-29 Leadership

Jan 24, 2019

After nearly 25 years of working with leaders I have extracted leadership lessons from some pretty obscure experiences. But when a World War II veteran described his experiences as a member of a B-29 bomber crew, the lessons leaped right out at me. Even though the point of what he had to say had nothing to do with leadership, there were obvious leadership lessons embedded in his message.

You might think that the leadership style used with a B-29 bomber crew might be, well, a bit bombastic. Yet there's something about how this man’s crew worked together that seems to defy both stereotypical military and corporate leadership logic.

I never served in the military, much less the Air Force, so I can't claim any personal expertise about World War II leadership practices. But, after hearing what this thoughtful veteran had to say, I was able to draw some clear parallels between leadership and teamwork in the military arena and in the corporate suite. 
Here's how it worked, with my lesson notations added:
Lesson #1: Everyone understands the game, objective, rules, and challenges ahead.
When a crew was assigned a new mission, the leader brought the entire crew together for a briefing. It was his job to provide all the details of the mission objective, or target, along with other important details about the challenges they would face.

Lesson #2: The leader doesn't have to be the expert.
A good leader fully uses the expertise of others.  Once the crew had a solid overview of what they had to do—and watch out for—the navigator took over the meeting to lay out the flight plan, or tactical details, for the crew. Note that it was the navigator, not the leader, who created the actual mission flight plan.

Lesson #3: Successful execution requires that everyone knows the whole system—what they and everyone else need to do.
The navigator walked the entire crew through every detail of the flight plan, not just the specific areas for which each had responsibilities. He discussed with each crew member what must happen at critical junctures and what the crew member must do at those junctures. It was important that each man understood the entire plan and what each crew member had to do. For example, even though a gunner might not know much about the radio, he knew what responsibilities the radio operator had and in an emergency, he could step in and do his best to plug a gap.

Lesson #4: Each crew member is trained to see him or herself as accountable to the group for the success of the whole mission.
Crew members were committed to the mission first and foremost and were willing to subjugate themselves to it.  With every member having a detailed understanding of what the group as a whole had to do, and some cross-functional knowledge, they were reasonably well prepared to handle the unexpected. In their situation, that meant they were prepared not only to get the job done, but make it back to base, afterwards.

The veteran who told this story said that not every crew bothered to follow procedure and spend time briefing each other like his crew did. Some got lazy, leaving everything up to the leader and navigator to tell crew members what to do each step of the way. So when something went wrong, it created a disaster for the crew members who didn't have a clue about what to do since they were so dependent on the leader and navigator.  Not surprisingly, these were the crews who had problems and, tragically, were often the ones who didn't make it back.

Certainly different circumstances call for different leadership structures. But some lessons are universal. If we pay attention, we can learn many valuable lessons in some of the most unlikely places, even from a member of a World War II B-29 bomber crew who may never have worked in the corporate world.

Here are some strategies business leaders can try:
1. Look for ways to break larger, more global, objectives into shorter term, more manageable missions without losing sight of larger organization requirements imposed by the marketplace.
2. Engage experienced team members to create a "path forward" for meeting objectives.
3. Make sure each team member understands big picture goals. Ask team members to identify how their expertise can help achieve organizational objectives and at what points they can have the most impact or even act as “navigator.”
4. Encourage team members to share information about their roles.
5. Develop an orientation or focus on team member commitment to team objectives and plans.
6. Help the team remain flexible so members can adapt to change, keeping in mind that in most cases it's the overall objective, not the process, that really matters.

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