On the evening of Election Day I watched I movie I had never seen before – “Command Decision”, released by MGM in 1949.  Set in England during WWII, it tells the story of a group of general officers in the US Army Air Forces during the strategic bombing campaigns of 1942-43.

The movie essentially centers around three characters: 1) a experienced operational bomber wing commander (Clark Gable); 2) his boss (Walter Pidgeon), whose realm is the world of budget battles and congressional committees; and a senior staff officer (Brian Donlevy), who suddenly is put in charge of an operational unit with its accompanying pressures.

Setting aside the “Hollywood-isms” of the story, I was struck by the realistic portrayal of how different individuals handle stress.  I was fascinated by watching Donlevy’s character struggle with making his first “command decision”: the targets for the next day’s mission.

But it wasn’t about the targets per se – it was about the battle between what he WANTED to do (an easy mission) and what he believed he SHOULD do (higher risk, but more important).  He goes through all sorts of machinations – ordering research, getting staff opinions, etc. – to obtain the data “required” to make the call.

But what he was REALLY doing was looking for an out: a logical, rational, defensible reason to take the safer course.

I can so identify with this.  In my first deployment as an officer-in-charge I faced several key decisions.  As this was my first command deployment, more often than not I chose the safer course.  As a matter of fact, one of my big goals was to bring all my troops home alive uninjured, and to bring the aircraft home intact.  Sounds like lofty goals, right?  But what I really wanted, deep down, was to not fail.  I achieved that big goal, so by that standard my first command deployment was a success.

However, in terms of mission accomplishment we came up short.  It’s not that we didn’t do what we were supposed to do – it’s that we could have done so much more.  That first command taught me a lot about managing vs. avoiding risk, and on my next deployment I had a much broader perspective.

My big surprise: I thought making command decisions would get easier.  Not in my case.  I made better decisions the next time out, but the same pressures were always there.

If you’re at all interested in leadership, I highly recommend renting “Command Decision” (I saw it on Turner Classic Movies).  Some other big names of the era – Van Johnson, Charles Bickford, Edward Arnold – appear as well.  It will be 2 hours well spent.


Many of my early studies in military leadership centered around the concept of “loyalty”. 

Emotionally, I was unprepared for my first summer at the Naval Academy.  Overnight I went from being a high school “top dog” to becoming the “lowest of the low”, under continual assault from the upperclass.  It was a complete shock – my constant thought during those first weeks was “what am I doing here?”  (Note – many upperclassmen asked me that very same question!)

I took some comfort in the fact that I wasn’t singled out – all of my classmates were getting the same treatment.  Eventually we started to band together – it became “us vs. them.”  We looked out for each other, we backed each other up, we became loyal to each other.

And I figured out that that was the whole point: to take 1200 “top dogs” – each an individual star in his previous life – and forge them into a cohesive unit.  My thinking changed to “I BELONG here, dammit!  And I’m not leaving!”

Later in my leadership classes I heard about loyalty everywhere: loyalty to my people; loyalty to my classmates; loyalty to my chain-of-command; loyalty to my ship; loyalty to my country.  And occasionally, I was even reminded to be loyal to myself.  In the classroom, I was a loyalty expert.

One lesson I was soon to learn – through experience – was that loyalty was a two-way street.

In my sophomore year, two of my classmates approached me: they had broken a regulation and wanted me to cover for them – to lie.  At first I considered it (hey, I was 19, and these were my friends!), but eventually I said no – lying meant automatic expulsion, and I wasn’t about to risk that.

Several of my friends immediately turned on me, accusing me of not being loyal to my classmates.  A rift developed in the group and I felt responsible.  I was miserable.

However one of my early mentors pulled me aside and said, “Those guys have no right to cry about loyalty.  True classmates would NEVER have put you in that position.  They’re thinking only of themselves, and using ‘loyalty’ to manipulate you.”  It was a valuable lesson. 

(To update you on those two guys: one later left the Academy voluntarily; the other graduated, had a successful military career and today is a prominent businessman.  He also is one of my good friends!)

Many situations of conflicting loyalties are not so clear cut.  Take the case of a boss who is approached by one of her best employees, asking for advice.  The employee received an unsolicited job offer and wonders what he should do.  The boss, naturally, wants to keep her best people, but what if this new opportunity is better for the employee’s career? 

I just went though this kind of situation myself.  I was recently given a tremendous opportunity to do something that, without exaggeration, only comes once in a lifetime.  My problem: I had already committed myself to another organization.  I was torn between what I wanted to do (go with this new opportunity) and what I felt I should do (stay with my previous commitment). 

So I called the leader of my current organization – the one to whom I was previously committed – and told him of this other opportunity.  His response completely floored me – and was another valuable lesson.  So check out today’s podcast – and let me know what you think!  (4:55)


The Boss Wants It

February 13, 2008

When I was a teenager my oldest brother once brought his whole family home for a visit.  One evening we’re about to sit down to supper, and I went outside and called to my three-year-old nephew, “Come on in the house, Tom.”  This blond, red-cheeked “angel” stopped and, with a big smile on his face, […]

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Responsible Leadership and Bad News

February 6, 2008

During my early teen years only my mother and I were still living at home.  I was the youngest – my brothers had all left home for the service and my father . . . well, let’s say that my parents were going through some rough times in their marriage.  So essentially I was being […]

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Keeping Your Powder Dry

January 29, 2008

The first flag officer I ever had any real contact with was Vice Admiral McKee – he was the Superintendent of the Naval Academy during most of my years there.  An accomplished naval officer, he commanded nuclear submarines during the Cold War (some of those missions are only now being declassified).  Now by “contact” I […]

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Stress and Its Effect on the Combat Leader

January 17, 2008

Today, January 17th, is the anniversary of the start of Operation Desert Storm, AKA “Gulf War I”.  In many ways, that operation is the exact opposite of the current conflict in Iraq – it was quick, decisive, and fairly clean, with relatively few casualties.  It was fought against an organized army that was quickly demoralized.  […]

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Leadership from My Old Roommate

January 3, 2008

One of the serendipities of my military career was being able to associate – on a regular basis – with some truly phenomenal men and women.  One of my closest friends is a fellow helicopter pilot.  We began our military careers on the same day, received our commissions together, and received our “wings” together.  At […]

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This Lady Has It Together!

December 13, 2007

In an earlier post I mentioned I had taken a business trip to Hawaii.  For several years after I retired from the Navy, I worked as a civilian contractor at Navy base here.  Going out to sea as a civilian contractor (as opposed to a senior officer) is quite a different experience.  I’m the same […]

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Walking in the Presence of Heroes

December 7, 2007

Several years ago, I flew out to Hawaii on a business trip.  I asked my wife if she wanted to go with me, because I knew she’d never been there.  Much to my surprise, she said no: she knew I’d be working, and she didn’t want to spend her first trip in Hawaii doing things […]

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Authority vs. Leadership

November 20, 2007

In his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, author John Maxwell writes that “Leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.”  I didn’t necessarily buy that at first.  Sure, there was an influence component in leadership, but I felt there was certainly more to it than that.  In my world as a military officer, […]

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