Leaders, Check Your Ego at the Door, Please

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steve-cockpit180x“Lead, do you have the target in sight?” Those words coming over the radio from my deputy flight lead, the third aircraft in our four aircraft formation of F-16’s, caused immediate consternation in the lead aircraft, of which I happened to be the sole occupant. It took just a few seconds to realize I had made a navigation error; I had inadvertently selected a navigation point beyond our target. Correcting the problem revealed that I was indeed overflying our assigned target. Now, what to do about it?

My options were: 1) Continue on our present heading several miles to give the flight room to maneuver back into the target area. I would remain at the lead of the formation and attack first as planned. While this may “save face” for me as a relatively inexperienced flight lead, it would also lengthen the time we spent over bad-guy land and increase our exposure to the risk of engagement from enemy defenses. 2) Allow my number three man to attack from his present position while I maneuvered my two-ship element for an attack after Three’s. This would maintain what element of surprise we currently had, engage the enemy sooner, and get us all heading towards friendly territory sooner. It would also put me in the position of “following” Three, a more senior flight lead than I was.

I radioed, “Three, are you in position to engage?”

“Affirmative,” came Three’s response.

“You are cleared hot. Egress south.” Indicating that I wanted Three, and his wingman, to execute their planned attack first and to leave the target area heading south.  I had opted for option 2.

Was this a humbling experience? Yes. I hesitate, even nearly 27 years after the fact, to write about it. It certainly wasn’t a shining example of the Steve Canyon fighter pilot image I wanted to live up to. But it does illustrate a lesson for leaders. I had realized that the mission and my people came before my pride.

Leaders need to recognize the fact that they are just as fallible as the next person. Admitting that we’ve made a mistake or that perhaps a subordinate has better information or a better idea isn’t a sign of weakness. On the contrary, showing humility is often listed as a desirable characteristic in our favorite leaders. So, want to be a better leader? Check your ego at the door.

Author’s note: The war-time situation described is based on real events during Operation Desert Storm. The event has been greatly simplified for readability and to illustrate a leadership lesson-learned.

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