Leadership, A Scenario

  • by Gitabushi

When I was in Officer Training School for the United States Air Force, I encountered a difficult leadership test.  I’d like to share this anecdote with you, for your edification, but also to get feedback.  I still think I did the right thing, but I still don’t know if I did.

The training system divided students into upperclassmen and lowerclassmen.  As in many similar situations, the upperclassmen engaged in activities, ostensibly intended to train their inferiors, that were often indistinguishable from harassment, although not outright hazing.

A new commander took charge at about the same time I advanced to upperclassman.  Along with the advancement in seniority, I also was nominated to be the assistant Student Squadron Leader.  That means I was second-in-“command” of three flights, or about 45 students.  I followed the orders of the Student Squadron Leader, of course, and we both followed orders, guidance, and instruction from the Instructors (who were active duty officers, mostly Captains).

One of the tasks assigned to me was the testing and board process by which the lowerclassmen leaders were selected.  In effect, I was tasked with handling the search for our replacements.

The event was scheduled for a Wednesday night.  The nominations were due to the cadre Thursday morning.

However, Tuesday evening, the new Commander disseminated new orders.  We were told, verbatim: “Upperclassmen shall not mess with the lowerclassmen during their study time, from 8pm to 9pm.”  This was because many loweclassmen were complaining they were doing poorly on tests because upperclassmen had found it entertaining to give them assignments or orders during their study time.

In order to make sure we finished the board process in time, we started at 6pm.

Unfortunately, it rapidly (by 6:45pm or so) became clear we were not going to finish by 8pm.  I called the Student Squadron Commander and asked her what I should do, if I should continue with the board process or stop prior to 8pm.  She told me to do what I felt was right.  To be fair, I asked her what she would do and she said she wouldn’t continue.  But she wouldn’t order me to stop, she merely repeated, “Do what you feel is correct.”  I asked what would happen if we didn’t have the nominations for the cadre tomorrow. She had no answer.

So I went back and tried to speed up the process.  When it again became clear we were not going to finish (by 7:30pm), I called the Squadron Commander again, and again she refused to give me a direct order, but told me to use my judgment.

So I called all the candidates together for a quick meeting. There were approximately 12, vying for 4 positions. I pointed out that we would not finish before study time began, and asked them if they wanted to stop or continue.  They all said they wanted to continue.  I asked them if they felt behind on their studies.  They said no. I asked them if they felt their academic scores would suffer if we continued. They said no. I asked them if they thought continuing the process would be “messing with them.”  They all said no.  So I decided to continue.  I called the Squad Leader to inform her of my decision, and the input of the candidates.

The next day I was called in to the office of the actual Squadron Commander, a Major (which is one level higher than most of the Instructors).  He yelled at me for half an hour.  He asked me what I was thinking.  I explained that I wasn’t messing with the students, I was trying to finish the task I was assigned.

He told me that he was extremely disappointed in me.  He pointed out that I was from the Army, and asked me if the Army allowed its soldiers to ignore orders like I did.

Sitting here right now, I don’t remember explaining my position to him. If I recall correctly, I felt that attempting to explain would be seen as either giving excuses or talking back, so I just told him I was sorry for misunderstanding the orders and would never do anything like that again.  My position was that I had been given conflicting orders and put into a no-win situation: Finish the board process, but don’t “mess with” study time. The time alloted to finish the board process was insufficient. I was not allowed to use two evenings to complete it.  I did not have any authorization to select nominees by any other process.  I went to my superior for orders on how to resolve the conflict, and received no guidance whatsoever.  So I made the decision to try to split the conflict: I analyzed the orders and felt that I could follow the spirit of the order (not messing with the lowerclassmen) while violating the letter of it (preventing the lowerclassmen from starting their study period on time), but I could not do the same with the mission of completing the board process.  There was no way to accomplish that mission without fully accomplishing that mission. I did what I could to mitigate the issues (checking with the candidates to ensure continuing wouldn’t negatively impact them), but in the end, I understood that I was the one who needed to make the call, and I did.

He told me he very nearly kicked me out of the training program.  To this day, I don’t know why he didn’t.  I suspect that my instructors all put in a good word for me. I had several instructors who thought I was one of the better students and better officer candidates, deserving of recognition and a higher student-leadership position than I had been given. I can only assume they stood up for me and explained that I wasn’t stubborn or stupid and wasn’t a risk to disregard direct orders in the future.  I had gotten excellent evaluations from the instructor I reported to every day as the assistant Student Squad Leader (the Student Squad Leader reported to a different instructor every morning).

Looking back, however, I still feel frustrated.  I am angry at Squadron Commander for questioning my integrity.  I am angry that he couldn’t see that this was not the time to install fear into me, but a perfect time to teach me how to deal with situations where I feel my orders are in conflict.  He could have taken the time to show me what I did wrong in how I phrased my request for guidance to the Student Squadron Leader.  He could have given me a better framework of how to resolve conflicts like that in the future.  His best response would have been to suggest incorporating my dilemma into the training program, because these are the sorts of conflicts that result in death and tragedy.

Yes, the military cannot function if subordinates decide to ignore orders, just as the Squad Leader said.  But the military also fails if subordinates blindly follow orders.  Commanders cannot know the circumstances their subordinates face. Subordinates must be able to think on their feet to resolve conflicts in their orders, or to recognize when a superior’s orders do not comport with the local circumstances. The subordinate must then do everything they can to minimize negative impacts, and still adhere to the spirit of the orders to the best of their ability.

I would like to speak to the Squad Leader again, based on the experience I gained as an Officer in the 15 years since graduating Officer Training School.  I think he was wrong to give me that verbal warning. I think he was wrong to consider kicking me out.  In retrospect, I think the sort of independence and evaluation/analytic ability I displayed is exactly what the United States Air Force and the United States military need.  At most, he should have taught me how to do it better.

What are your thoughts?  It’s okay to say I’m wrong, as long as you explain why.



8 thoughts on “Leadership, A Scenario

  1. I think that maybe the Squadron Commander was messing with you. I don’t think he really was going to kick you out, but he wanted to make an example of you and scare the bejeezus out of you. It would have been a waste of money to kick you out at that point for doing what you were ordered to do.

    If it were me though, I would have used my authorization based on what I (and my other squadron leaders) knew of the candidates and chosen the leaders without boarding them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you’re probably right on “scaring the bejeezus out of me”. Still, I don’t agree with it. He’d be more likely to make me indecisive at the worst possible moment than help protect my future career or even reinforce order discipline.

      I didn’t want to just select nominees because then the ones not selected would have grounds for complaint, not having been given a fair chance. These positions often had a big impact on whether you graduated with an award or not, which receiving one could significantly boost your career.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good story.

    I wonder if your Squad Leader was chastised, and if not, why not? I mean if she was your superior, shouldn’t the responsibility have ultimately fallen to her? Especially since you asked her for orders more than once and she deferred to your judgement. Sounds like some top-notch passing the buck, which isn’t something I’d expect to fly in the military chain of command.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s plenty of ass-covering in the military. Usually a war clears out the ones who value advancement more than accomplishing the mission, but for some reason, this didn’t happen with the Iraq invasion.
      I think she got chewed out, too.
      And I think the cadre Squadron Commander came down hard on me because he got slammed for one of his students not following orders. “Major, did I not say study time was inviolate? Why did one of your students take it upon himself to violate it? What are you teaching your students?”
      I can understand his anger with me. I think Ignatius’ J. Reilly’s comment is probably correct. I just think he handled it incorrectly.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think the major was right in chewing your ass (that’s what OCS is for–how bad do you want a commission?) and I think you were right saying he should have used this as a coaching/mentoring opportunity. Perhaps you could have adjusted the boarding process to fit the time allotted. Maybe you could still call it a board. We didn’t select candidates when I was in Army OCS, it was only cadre.

    I used to think majors knew a lot until they let me be one…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hmm…I never thought the chewing out itself might have been a test.
      If so, I passed; I stuck to my guns, didn’t buckle, and didn’t talk back. Being able to lock it up and take a verbal reprimand was one of the best skills I learned as an Army NCO, has come in handy dozens of times.


  4. I guess this made a huge impression on you if you’re still thinking about it, in this level of detail, 15 years later.
    Whether you did right or wrong, I suspect this experience shaped how YOU dealt with underlyings in the future…

    Liked by 2 people

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