When you think of an entrepreneur, perhaps an individual such as Henry Ford, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, or even the owner of your favorite local small business comes to mind. Quite often we think of entrepreneurs as men and women in the private sector who forge ahead on their own, armed with a dream, a plan and a bit of capital. Despite ample examples to the contrary, we tend not to envision entrepreneurs as men and women in the ranks of the military and government.
One example of entrepreneurship in the U.S. Air Force is Gen. Curtis LeMay. LeMay was a great strategic thinker who developed American bombing strategy against Japan in World War II. After the war ended, he used his entrepreneurial talents to take Strategic Air Command from a few disjointed B-29 bombing groups into a jet-powered force with the ability to strike globally. Upon assuming command from Gen. George Kenney, the force had less than half its bombers operational, and training was virtually nonexistent. When he left, SAC was a force with high morale, high readiness and at the vanguard of technology.
While not a comprehensive list of skills, LeMay’s career illustrates that an Airman can begin to develop an entrepreneurial mindset if he begins with these skills: be an owner, know your weaknesses, and seek and exploit opportunities.
The trait most identified with entrepreneurship is “ownership.” The fledgling business owner will find himself wearing multiple hats, performing multiple disparate tasks, and concerning him or herself with all aspects of the business. After taking command of SAC, LeMay found himself in an organization that didn’t have much focus or much of a reason for being. In taking ownership of SAC, LeMay involved himself in all aspects of the organization. He built new bases, approved development programs for new jet engine and space technologies, and refined training requirements for cold-war deterrence. He concerned himself with the morale of his Airmen by encouraging programs such as sports car races on SAC bases, and performing spot-promotions as a reward for good performance. Everything in SAC bore the fingerprints of LeMay. By involving themselves in all duties and aspects of their section, the entrepreneurial Airman learns to take ownership of the processes required for their unit’s success.
No entrepreneur encompasses the talent, knowledge or capacity to excel at all parts of the business. There will always be some aspect of business in which the entrepreneur is lacking. Successful entrepreneurs understand their weaknesses and seek out complementary individuals who possess the skills required to perform tasks successfully. At the onset of the Berlin Airlift, LeMay was charged by Gen. Lucius Clay to fly supplies into Berlin. Though he initially started those flights, he realized his limitations in the area of logistics and brought in Lt. Gen. William Tunner to successfully perform the mission. By understanding your own limitations, the entrepreneurial Airman seeks out the counsel of others and, if in a position to do so, brings complementary people into their organization and places them in positions that maximize their talents.
An entrepreneur, by definition, is an opportunist. These are the individuals most likely to create a fundamental shift in the way business is done. Bill Gates saw a need for an operating system that could be used in the burgeoning desktop computing environment. Thirty-five years later, Microsoft is the global leader in software for business applications.
LeMay was an opportunist. He also was a licensed amateur radio operator. It was his knowledge gained in the field of amateur radio that allowed him to see the advantages of the single sideband radio over amplitude modulation radio and apply this technology to SAC aircraft. This allowed for an increase in power and bandwidth of radio transmissions without the increase in weight or energy requirements. The entrepreneurial Airman seeks out opportunities to exploit information from other areas of his life by applying them to his job or unique situation.
While this is by no means a comprehensive list of entrepreneurial skills Airmen can develop to become more successful in their careers nor is LeMay the only example of entrepreneurship in the Air Force, it is a starting point for Airmen to develop their own entrepreneurial ways of thinking. Not only will entrepreneurial Airmen find their skills will benefit them in their military careers, but they will be better prepared for that inevitable transition from military life to the civilian workforce.