Air University Review, July-August 1981
Colonel Ronald Barker
|A reflective reading of history will show that no man ever rose to military greatness who could not convince his troops that he put them first, above all else.|
General Maxwell D. Taylor
|Every thought is for the welfare of his men, consistent with the accomplishment of his mission.|
General Matthew B. Ridgway
During the drawdown of forces in Southeast Asia in 1975, returning organizations, airplanes, and people were scattered to as many places as there are points on the compass. My new wing commander in the States had some good news and some bad news for me. The good news was that I would be able to retain command of the fighter squadron I had in Thailand; the bad newsit would be at least two months before there would be any people to command because previous squadron members had all been reassigned. So there I was with the greatest job in the Air Force, and a modern, fully equipped squadron building, a boxcar full of memorabilia, outdated publications, and office supplies.
I wandered the halls for several days, strolled in and out of empty briefing rooms, made some meager attempts to sort some of the junk that had returned from Korat, and generally reaffirmed just how useless a commander can be without a command. Then it occurred to me that I had an opportunity to do something few commanders ever get to do. I had inherited a squadron whose designation, patch, and history were established; but because it was not a functioning unit, its procedures, policies, and personality had not yet been formed. Here was a fresh lump of clay to be molded into the form of my choosing.
I suspect that like most others who have aspired to command, there were many changes that I would like to make. I had been a student of the command/leadership/management debate since my university days, and in the preceding nineteen years of active duty, I had been in some pretty good outfits and some pretty bad ones. This time I would get it right or have only myself to blame.
Suddenly that big empty building became a very exciting place for me. Pushing aside the assortment of trophies on my desk, I took out a plain pad of yellow paper to develop a plan of attack. Where to begin? Start with the easy stuff. What did I already know about the squadron? Well, the number and type of aircraft were known, and the mission of the squadron was taken right out of the book, These facts in turn determined the number and types of people that would be assigned. Airplanes, mission, peopleobviously I needed an organizational chart so I could visualize the internal relationships and scope of the operation. From there I could get on to those innovative and dynamic changes I had been conjuring up. This would be a piece of cake; after all, its just a chart on the wall.
|Wars are fought and won by men, not weapons; in the last analysis it is the knowledge and courage of the men who fight and the officers who lead them that wins victories. Take care of your men first, last, and always.|
Revista Militar (Brazil)
But such was not to be, and after more than five years I am still chewing on that piece of cake. What was the problem? I had seen hundreds of squadron charts. Simply start with the small rectangle at the top, put my name inside, and fill out the rest of the pyramid. I did just that, and at first it looked pretty good. Then, as a finishing touch, I decided to add a mission statement to the chart as a reminder to all viewers just what we were all about. Obviously, the mission statement went directly across the top as the most important priority in the squadron.
I guess it was at about this time that I began to question just what an organization chart was supposed to show. One management book indicated that the chart should be "the arrangement of personnel for facilitating the accomplishment of some agreed on purpose through allocation of functions and responsibilities."1 Another source stated that "the formal organization is the official picture of how the organization is or should be structured."2 Great, but I wanted our official picture to show, if possible, not only the relationships between each element but also the relative importance. The mission statement across the top was a good start. So, what next? Who, within the squadron, actually converted those words into combat capability? Surely the aircrews who fly the airplanes are closer to the mission than the commander. So, I put them next: A, B, C, and D flights directly under the mission. As I worked my way farther along this logic path, it became apparent that I was turning the entire classic organizational pyramid upside down!
|The capacity of soldiers for absorbing punishment and enduring privations is almost inexhaustible so long as they believe they are getting a square deal, that their commanders are looking out for them, and that their own accomplishments are understood and appreciated.|
General Dwight D. Eisenhower
To illustrate how this looked on paper, let me use as an example the 86th Tactical Fighter Group (86TFG), which I later commanded. My tactical fighter group was made up of only those units directly associated with flight-line operations, i.e., maintenance, operations, and airfield management. It did not include any of the behind-the-line support functions such as security, services, supply, etc. We truly had a "fly and fight" mission. To accomplish this, the TFG was provided basically with airplanes, people, facilities, and an airfield. Responsibilities within the group were roughly as outlined below.
Delivering quality, properly configured aircraft on time was the task of the three maintenance squadrons: aircraft generation squadron (AGS), component repair squadron (CRS), and equipment maintenance squadron (EMS). Their commanders were responsible to the deputy commander for maintenance (DCM). Monitoring the status of the airfield and all of its associated equipment was the job of the base operations/airfield management folks who worked for the chief of operations and training (O&T). The aircrews who did the actual flying and fighting were assigned to one of the four tactical fighter squadrons, whose commanders reported to the deputy commander for operations (DO). The DCM, chief of O&T, and the DO were in turn responsible directly to me. The results, in a simplified format, looked like the inverted pyramid seen in Figure 1.
As an aviator and something of a renegade anyway, I was not particularly bothered by this topsy-turvy triangle. Like a good fighter aircraft, if the parts are properly arranged and connected, it should fly just as well inverted as it does right side up. I also got a certain amount of demonic pleasure thinking about the impact this would have on the patron saints of management. Would they ever accept the notion that I was looking for aggressive young officers who were willing to "descend the ladder of success" and "work their way down" to a place in "bottom management?
Anyway, I went ahead with the idea and found that the more I worked with it, the more it fascinated me. One of the most interesting things that happened was that people who normally imagined themselves to be at the bottom of the totem pole were elevated to a very high place in the organization. That young crew chief and aircrew, who always found their little organization rectangle smack at the bottom of the pyramid, were now very close to the top. Why? Because they were the ones out there in the trenches, getting the job done and making that mission statement a reality. Think of the impact this had when I briefed the new troops, showing them where they fit in. Their initial perspective of how important they were in their commanders eyes had a lasting impact on their attitude on the job.
And what could be more timely? Our military services are struggling to recruit and retain quality people in the service of their country not just to do a job but to serve. Are they important to us? No, they are indispensable. What harm could possibly come from putting them first?
Well, my inverted pyramid and empty building were eventually filled. And even though blood rushed to peoples heads when they first studied the strange chart on my wall, the squadron did well. Since then, I have commanded a combat support group and, as I already described, a tactical fighter group, each involving a thousand people or more. Shortly after each change-of-command ceremony, I would rearrange the organizational chart: mission first, then my people, and then me. The concept has served me well even in these larger units.
|If a leader will take care of the peopleprovide support, motivation, discipline, and communicationthe people will take care of the mission.|
Robert D. Gaylor
Now, I will be the first to admit that from an engineering standpoint an inverted pyramid would not appear to be a very stable structure. Yet, when viewed from an organizational perspective, some very interesting leadership and management concepts can be explored.
First, with a pyramid constructed in this fashion, the pressure would be greatest at the bottom. No hard working, dedicated commander worth his or her salt would argue with that.
Even more important, if the organization is to be properly oriented, it must remain in perfect balance. But, after all, is it not the job of the commander to provide that balance? For example, to enable the folks in maintenance to have the highest possible in-commission rates, they would prefer to keep the airplanes on the ground; that way they could keep them all in commission. Conversely, aircrews never like to stand a bird down for maintenance. Or, to cite a nonmilitary example in the business of producing and selling widgets, the sales department would like to offer many sizes and colors to their customers while the production department knows that one size and one color would be the most economical to build. The commander or manager must ensure that the proper balance is selected to achieve the units objective.
The commanders balancing act would obviously be easier if the bottom of the pyramid were not too narrowthats where the commander is. General Henry Knox once commented, "Officers can never act with confidence until they are masters of their profession." How broad a base does the commander have? Does the commander have expertise in all areas across the top of the chart? What kind of education, training, and leadership experience does the commander bring to the organization? What degree of integrity and physical and moral strength does the commander possess? A well-qualified leader has a broad personal base of experience, knowledge, and strength of character to rely on. The commander, then, constitutes the first level of balance.
Organizational equilibrium is further enhanced if the middle managers or intermediate commanders understand each others contributions and problems and if they work well together. If the deputy commander for maintenance and the deputy commander for operations have worked out a schedule between them that provides the proper balance of flying time and maintenance time, or if the widget production and sales managers have agreed on a suitable product mix, the organizations remain in balance with little or no help from the boss. Under ideal conditions the commander can by establishing realistic objectives, educating and supporting his subordinate commanders, and delegating the appropriate authority work himself or herself right out of a job. The more nearly perfect this lateral coordination is, the more the pyramid behaves as a trapezoid. The commander can then truly manage by exception and focus more time on such things as long-range planning and communicating with the folks at the top (formerly known as the bottom). See Figure 2.
We must also recognize all the dotted and dashed lines of communication and coordination that are an inevitable part of any organization. There are also the informal or covert organizations that never appear on the formal chart and all those individual interpersonal relationships that contribute to the units corporate personality. Some of these factors tend to pull a unit together, and some will tend to push it apart. Commanders must be acutely aware of these forces and their positive or negative contribution to the units equilibrium. The result can be a closely knit, highly motivated team or merely a divided, apathetic collection of people who happen to work in the same place.
In larger, more complex organizations, the commander will probably need additional balancing aids. This support is usually obtained by adding staff agencies where needed. Staff functions may be needed to provide technical or professional advice, such as lawyers or chaplains; activities such as personnel or finance are added at the staff level because they provide service to the entire organization; and still others are merely an extension of the commander, who cannot be everywhere all the time. My advice in choosing this staff would be to select it as you would select a balancing pole for a highwire act. Make it only long or broad enough to provide the necessary balance and make it as light as possible so that it does not contribute significantly to your burden.
I am still chewing on this one, but the more I study it, the better perspective it has given me about command and leadership. While this approach may not work for all commanders or managers, I would challenge you to see if it would affect any of the leadership or management hang-ups you have been struggling with. Perhaps in a world where up is normally considered good and down is seldom the preferred direction, we will not find leaders willing to work their tails off to get to the bottom. An event nearly 2000 years old may be worth considering:
And so they arrived at Capernaum. When they were settled in the house where they were to stay he asked them, "What were you discussing out on the road?" But they were ashamed to answer, for they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest! He sat down and called them around him and said, "Anyone wanting to be the greatest must be the least the servant of all!"
The Living Bible
Perhaps someday I will be convinced that upside down pyramids just wont work. But I do know for sure that I will never again believe that "its just a chart on the wall."
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
1. John M. Gaus, Leonard D. White, and Marshall E. Dimock, The Frontiers of Public Administration (Chicago, 1936), pp. 26-44.
2. Fred R. Brown, editor, Management: Concepts and Practice (Washington, Industrial College of the Armed Forces, 1967), p. 18.
Colonel Ronald L. Barker (B.A., Michigan State University; M.B.A., University of Alabama) is Commander, Tactical Air Command Liaison Office, United States Army Combined Arms Center, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. His assignments have included commander of the 86th Combat Support Group, Ramstein Air Base, Germany, 429thTactical Fighter Squadron, and 86th Tactical Fighter Group. He has flown the F-100 over 400 hours combat time in Southeast Asia and was in the initial cadre of the F-111. Colonel Barker is a graduate of United Kingdom Joint Services Staff College, Industrial College of the Armed Forces, Air War College, and was a Distinguished Graduate of Squadron Officer School.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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