ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. — Our collective failure to lead boldly and teach others to do the same has led us toward the end of our runway.
Airmen are watching
Young military leaders vicariously learn the easiest path to promotion is through conservative decisions, and a single mistake may cost a career.
In light of these realities, too many NCOs and company-grade officers are frightened to fail. For far too long, NCOs and CGOs witnessed those who swerved slightly off their path risk career-ending consequences.
The flight path to success is clear — no mistakes. The easiest way to avoid a misstep is to bypass high-risk decisions and to avoid unpredictable outcomes.
Unsurprisingly, much like a football game, in a fourth down and one-yard to gain situation, the proverbial Air Force playbook has only one strategy, punt the football.
Sadly, we routinely punt on fourth-and-one regardless of field position. We punt from our own 20-yard line or our opponent’s 10-yard line. Can you imagine the embarrassment and the force-shaping board that awaits the Airman who misses a 27-yard field goal? I can.
The Air Force’s playbook lacks risk. As a result, the playbook has been stripped of any real value. It’s electronically tossed through the bureaucratic chain of command until it lays absent of ideas that dare to challenge the status quo. The book is written not to lose.
Williamson Murray correctly pointed out that, “The problem lies in the fact that these so-called strategic documents are the products of bureaucratic processes that aim to remove every contentious issue.”
Going even further in his analysis of these type of documents, Murray posited that they’re “written by large groups of the unimaginative; they are passed up the chain of command to insure there is nothing daring or controversial that might upset the conventional wisdom with its comfortable assumptions about the future.”
Time to rewrite strategies
Our strategy is designed not to win, but to avoid failure. There is a difference. The entire playbook should be discarded and started anew. It’s time to rewrite bold new strategies that are driven not by fear of failure, but by a tenacious will to win.
On fourth-and-one, encourage every Airman, fast or slow, tall or short, great hands or stone hands, to go deep and look for the ball in the end zone. Demand your quarterback throw the ball deep.
The focus of this commentary is to ask every squadron commander to author and approve new and audacious fourth-and-one options.
It examines how adding the long ball to the fourth and short playbook inspires trust and confidence in Airmen, and it asserts that the bold play on fourth down values failure as a learning opportunity.
Having the audacity to plan and execute a 50-yard throw on fourth and one instills confidence and demonstrates the value of calculated risk. Most importantly, Airmen will recognize genuine trust and will understand the end state is to win.
When trust and intent are unmistakably established, Airmen will Fly, Fight, and Win. To be sure, the intrepid play may not execute exactly as planned. Don’t worry. With trust and intent, instead of running a post route, Airmen may read the defense at the line of scrimmage and have the conviction to take a risk and run a fly pattern.
Leadership expert, Simon Sinek recognized that trust is, “Critical for humans because when trusts exists, we dare to take risks, experiment and explore because we know that somebody is watching our back.”
In essence, Sinek was describing our organic wingman culture.
Trust is paramount
As squadron commanders, our highest obligation is to be that wingman. Trust and confidence is paramount to winning, as is the willingness to fail and learn.
Throwing long on a fourth down recognizes failure as a teachable moment and establishes a command culture that values learning. Airmen will not fly every mission perfectly; Airmen will not catch every ball. Undoubtedly, we disappoint from time-to-time. If we don’t practice throwing the long ball in peacetime, we will never have the confidence to throw it in wartime. This lesson is not new.
Red Flag was created for this very reason. The first 10 missions at Red Flag are designed to replicate the first 10 combat missions. Playing it safe in Nevada’s desert is easy and low risk. Those same safe choices may not be possible or feasible in combat.
If an Airman is encouraged to make calculated risks during peacetime, he or she will be confident to execute decisions when danger is imminent. Fear of failure should not drive decision-making. Failure in the Nevada desert, during peacetime, is a teachable moment. We should encourage these moments.
Changing our playbook is not easy. We will be challenged by those entrenched with the idea of punting. Worse, if we call a deep throw on fourth-and-one, and are unsuccessful, our command may be in jeopardy.
It’s a price worth paying. Find comfort that Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell was challenged when he questioned the establishment, too. Remember, Mitchell publicly questioned the Navy’s role as America’s first line of defense. Secretary of War, Newton Baker, did not believe an aircraft could sink a battleship and requested a front row seat.
In fact, Baker declared, “That idea is so damned nonsensical and impossible that I’m willing to stand on the bridge of a battleship while that nitwit tries to hit it from the air.”
To the consternation of the Navy and many others, Mitchell’s publicity stunt worked. His bombers sank the German battleship Ostfriesland in July 1921. Mitchell didn’t punt on fourth down, in spite of the forces that were actively encouraging him to do so. We shouldn’t and our Airmen shouldn’t either. Throw the ball.
A better runway for those who follow
During an assumption of command, no one reaches for their squadron’s flag because they seek to continue the status quo antebellum. We grab that flag with pride and an intent to lead boldly. We grab it with visions of grandeur. We seize the guidon to pour a better runway for those who follow.
That starts by leading. On fourth-and-one, tell your Airmen to go deep. After you score, instead of attempting the simple and easy extra point, go for two.
Why? Because we’re Airmen, and risking all for victory is in our soul. The Air Force exclusively breeds air-minded thinkers to provide solutions to national security problems. This is the way it has always been.
Truly, the behavior is in our DNA. We are the service that superciliously sings, “We live in fame or go down in flame. Hey! Nothing can stop the U.S. Air Force.” It’s time to unapologetically live in fame. Your Airmen deserve it. The nation requires it.