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Joint Strike Fighter and Wingmen

Developing Leadership Qualities in Junior Employees

“I may be the boss, but today I’m going to be the best wingman I can be”.

Leader and Wingmen Photo by Lance Cpl.
Michael Thorn

Leader and WingmenIt’s a philosophy that is familiar to fighter pilots, but less so in the business world.

When we fly tactical missions in the military, it is very rarely a senior officer like a colonel or general who leads.  Normally a mid-level captain leads our mission (the business equivalent of a director or manager). In some cases a first lieutenant (the business equivalent of an associate or analyst) will take the lead. Inevitably, the newer recruit will be leading a senior officer.

Our generals could lead these missions and certainly have in the past, but for tactical purposes our junior officers are better suited to lead.  After all, they have led the planning of the mission,they are most current in the jet, and they are most familiar with the threats in the battle area. Letting a captain or lieutenant lead also serves another purpose. It allows our young officers to increase their responsibility, innovate and continue their development as pilots and officers.

Let’s assume for a moment that our young captain is leading today’s mission with a 0930 takeoff. On this mission, he will be leading a flight of four F-16’s into a heavily defended target area where the objective is to destroy a weapons plant with laser guided smart bombs. Flying with our leader today is a lieutenant colonel as #2, a two-star general as #3, and a brand new 2nd lieutenant as #4. Clearly the Lt Col and the general out rank our flight leader, and without a doubt, this team will spend many hours planning and preparing. Although our leader will carefully weigh inputs from his other flight members, ultimately the final decision for the plan rests with the flight leader, and when the briefing starts, the plan is already complete, and now it’s time for the flight to execute the leader’s plan.

Because it is standard to brief 90 minutes before takeoff time, when the door to the Briefing room closes precisely at 0800, and the flight leader briefs the team on his plan, their job is to embrace that plan and be the best wingmen they can be. Unless our leader briefs the general on something that is either going to run them out of gas or get them killed, the general will fall back on the mantra, “I’m going to execute the plan and be the best wingman I can be”.

This does not mean that the general won’t provide his Flight Lead feedback.  In fact, when the mission is complete and everyone has landed, the team will always conduct a Debrief.  The purpose of this debrief is for everyone on the mission to learn and improve.  This is inevitably where the general will share his praise, his constructive criticism and his wisdom with the younger pilots so that all can benefit from his experience. This is not a quarterly review, this is not an annual 360, this is real-time feedback that allows our junior officers to take a leadership role and receive critical inputs and comments so that they can continue to improve.

In business, there are many similar opportunities for eager young employees to lead.  Yet, I have witnessed numerous employees who are given the reigns only to have them snatched back again at the first sign of imperfection.

One example is the President or VP who is invited into a sales pitch by one of his junior sales people.  The sales rep has often been working the account and building the relationship with his customer for many months.  He invites his senior colleague to the meeting as a way to strengthen the relationship and oftentimes to help close the deal.  But many times the VP shows up unprepared and tries to “wing it”, or feels a need to “take control of the meeting” instead of playing the role he was briefed for by his sales rep, that of the supporting “wingman”.  This can end in a team that looks uncoordinated and out of sync and may even kill the deal.

Great leaders have to start somewhere. If you don’t give your younger employees the chance to lead and possibly to make mistakes (as well as recover from them), they will never learn. In doing so, you are not only building leadership skills for your employees, you’re also building the future of your company.

As business leaders we constantly tell our workers to take the initiative, to take a leadership role, to take pride in their work. Yet, the words “give and take” go together. In order to have your employees “take the lead” you must be willing to give them the lead. Great leaders lead from the front, the rear and the side. The most valuable gifts you can give your junior people are not just opportunity, but also trust and time. So the next time you are letting someone else take the lead and you are tempted to intervene, or save them, ask yourself, “Am I being be the best wingman I can be?”

2 thoughts on “Developing Leadership Qualities in Junior Employees

  1. Great article AB – thanks!! As the “new guy” here – but also someone expected to lead – I have been referring to these concepts often to my direct reports. I use the staff planning phraseology of “supported/supporting” relationships to help them understand what it takes to get a job done. Another element to this analogy is the trust required by the senior member of the team to actually let the junior leader – or the “supported” – team member fail. In aviation it’s about not getting killed or violated. In business, the stakes are a bit lower so letting a junior person fall on their sword takes some real trust up the chain.

    Thanks!! Aaron Brodsky, Account Executive, Prudential Office of Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance

  2. Inspiring article for me as I’m delegating out speaker roles to other people as part of a growth strategy at my business, Henry’s Avalanche Talk (HAT).

    Since I’ve realized that I can’t be in two places at once – no matter how I try, I’ve been building and supporting a team.

    I took your advice from this article yesterday. I felt that I wouldn’t be able to refrain from interfering if I attended one of my team members talks. So I scheduled a talk for myself at exactly the same time. That way I was able to provide the valuable ‘Briefing Room’ support, but it guaranteed that he could take the ‘Flight Lead’ without interference since my focus was engaged in another mission.

    … the feedback from his presentation was so positive that I’m starting to think that he may be doing a better job than me which, while that was never my conscious objective at the outset, is crucial for the success of my business.

    Thanks AB!

    Henry Founder of Henry’s Avalanche Talk

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