You might think that the leadership style used with a B-29 bomber crew might be, well, a bit bombastic shall we say? It is the military after all, and regardless of how many wars to save democracy the Air Force may have fought, applying those same hallowed principles to military decision making has never seemed to take hold. Yet, there's something unique about how this B-29 bomber 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, and can't claim any expertise about World War II leadership practices. But according to this veteran, here's how it worked, with my lesson notations added.
When a crew was assigned a new mission, the crew leader brought the entire crew together for a briefing. As the formal leader, it was his job to provide all the details of the mission objective, or target, along with various other important details like what would be trying to knock them out of the sky to prevent them from succeeding.
Lesson 1: Everyone knows the game, objective, rules, and challenges ahead.
Once the crew had a solid overview of what they were 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 mission flight plan.
Lesson 2: The leader doesn't have to be the expert. A good leader fully uses the expertise of others.
The navigator took the entire crew through every detail of the flight plan not just the areas for which they had responsibilities. In the meeting, the navigator 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 every crew member not only know the entire plan, but what each crew member had to do. Even though a gunner might not know much about the radio, he knew what responsibilities that crew member had and in an emergency could step in and do his best to plug a gap. Crew members were committed to the mission first and foremost and were willing to subjugate themselves to it.
Lesson 3: Successful execution requires everyone to know the whole system -- what they and everyone else needs to do.
Lesson 4: Each is trained to see him or herself as accountable to the group for the success of the whole mission.
With every crew 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 that told this story said that not every crew bothered to follow procedure and commit this much time to briefing each other like they 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. According to the speaker, these were the crews that had problems and, tragically, most of the ones that didn't make it back.
Certainly different circumstances call for different leadership structures. But some lessons are fairly universal. If we pay attention, we can learn many of those lessons in some of the most unlikely places, even from a member of a World War II B-29 bomber crew talking about anything but leadership.
Trying it on for fit:
1) Look for ways to break larger, more global, objectives into shorter term and 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) Ensure each team member understands the whole system. Ask team members to identify how their expertise can help to achieve objectives and at what points they can have the most impact or even act as "point person."
4) Help team members learn the roles of their fellow team members.
5) Develop an orientation or focus on team member commitment to team objectives and plans.
6) Help the team remain flexible to changes keeping in mind that in most cases it's the objective, not the process, that's critical.
Send an email and let me know what you learn from your experiences. I would love to hear from you!