Modified excerpts from the book, “Expected End”
“You were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” the flight lead barked at me in the debriefing. Inside, I already knew this but how could I improve for the next time? Several of us had gone out on what was to have been a routine “Dart ride” where we live-fired the air-to-air gun against a towed target. My brain-fade this day was especially dangerous because of real bullets. As a new mission-ready pilot to the F-4, I was still adjusting to flying with a group of very experienced but non-instructor type of pilots. Still, by any standard, this flight had not gone well.
One of the basic skills required of a fighter pilot is to predict geometry and fly accordingly. I had calculated wrong and put myself in an unsafe position. The debriefing did not help much as it was long on my failings and short on fixes. However, what happened next was very useful.
After the debriefing, one of the experienced pilots took me aside and described what I had done, what I should have done, and, most importantly, why. The counsel of the more experienced pilot made sense although it clashed with my current mindset. I was then required to make a decision on whether or not to change how I saw the issues for improvement.
I finally decided the other pilot’s straight-forward explanation made great sense and tried it on the next Dart flight. It worked! Rather than being a hazard to the several other airplanes swirling in the sky, I was part of the team.
A few years later in an F-15, I finished a fight with a simulated tracking gun kill on the opponent. This is considered a macho way to take out a bad guy and made the many hours leading up to the moment all worthwhile. On this day in the debriefing, another experienced pilot was very complimentary of my contribution to the mission. The encouragement I received that day from the other pilot in the flight was very gratifying. I had produced a great result while honoring expectations and took a few moments to enjoy the fruits of learning.
There is a time for both counsel and encouragement. Counsel will likely produce a collision of paradigms. If the hearers are open to improvement, the counsel is put to good use to look at current mindsets and adjust as needed. If good counsel is rejected, growth will not happen.
In most learning environments, the conversations should be weighted to the counsel side but encouragement must not be neglected. Each of us has some need for recognition at least in some small way. If counsel is the main dish for improvement, encouragement is the spice that makes the meal taste so much better.
As an upgrading pilot moving from the F-4 to F-15, I had the chance to fly with an instructor who found a great balance of counsel and encouragement. He was very exacting in his expectations and there was nothing soft about his standards. On the other hand, he consistently pointed out successes in the building block flights that fueled my motivation exponentially.
One of the questions we ask in the military is, “Would I be willing to go with this person into combat?” The answer speaks volumes. In the case of this instructor, it would have been my honor to team up with him in combat.
Next time, I will suggest five concrete application steps for the leadership thinker.
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