Leadership Lessons from General Robin Olds

By Michael DiFrisco posted 08-27-2016 21:06


Whenever I read a biography, I try to extract lessons that can help me in my career. And as a pilot and certified aviation geek, I’ve read a lot of books about storied aviators, the most recent of which was Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds. 

Robin Olds was an American fighter pilot and general officer in the U.S. Air Force. He was a “triple ace”, with a combined total of 16 victories in World War II and the Vietnam War and was one of history’s most badass heroes. He retired in 1973 as a brigadier general.

See if any of these lessons I lifted from my reading resonate with you as they did for me:

  • Great generals, like Doolittle, Spaatz, and Patton, all connected with their troops on a personal level.
  • By knowing their mission, they knew what was expected of them and their people.
  • They learned everything they could about every part of their organization. Olds said…
    • Get to know your people; their attitudes and expectations.
    • Visit all the shops and sections. Ask questions; don’t be shy.
    • Learn what each does; how the parts fit into the whole.
    • Find out what supplies and equipment are lacking; what each worker needs to succeed.
    • To whom does each shop chief report? Does that officer really know the people under him? Is he aware of their needs, their training?
    • Does the NCO supervise or just make out reports without checking on the facts. Remember, these reports eventually come to you. Don’t try to B.S. the troops, but make sure they know the buck stops with you; that you’ll shoulder the blame if anything goes wrong.
  • General Olds also believed a leader should:
    • Correct without revenge or anger.
    • Recognize accomplishment; reward accordingly.
    • Foster spirit through self-pride, not slogan, and never at the expense of another unit.
  • It won’t take long, but only your genuine interest and concern plus follow up on your promises will earn you respect. Out of that, you gain loyalty and obedience. Your outfit will be a standout. But for God’s sake, don’t ever try to be popular. That weakens your position and makes you vulnerable. Don’t have favorites; that breeds resentment.
  • Respect the talents of your people. 
  • Have the courage to delegate responsibility and give authority to go with it. Again, make it clear to your troops that you are the one who will take the heat.

Are some of these principles outmoded for this millennium? Maybe. But most are still foundational to advancing your charges and making a difference in the world—and your association.