Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Leadership , Mentoring and Payback

Steve Croker, LT GEN, USAF (RET)

GeneralCroker.png In our academy days, then Captain Edgar F. Puryear Jr. gave a series of “OPPO” lectures. For those of failing memories (or who were asleep) that’s POOP spelled inside out. At the time, I grasped that early sponsorship of bright junior officers was a critical factor in their later success. I came to appreciate, if not during the lectures themselves, but soon after in Thailand, in Robin Olds’-led 8th TFW, that leadership is what it is all about. The old man was an incredible combat leader and the Wing’s success was directly attributable to his leadership prowess. In later years, I learned first-hand that General Olds actively kept in touch with his guys and mentored them along the way by letter, calls, and visits. That mentoring continued long after he retired to the ski slopes of Colorado. The rolls of future Air Force Wing Commanders and General Officers would contain the names of many Robin Olds counseled and mentored and cajoled and helped.

The first practical lesson for me: leadership doesn’t stop when you leave the unit.

Later I had the good fortune to work for General Russ Dougherty when he was the Air Force Operations Deputy and later when he served as CINCSAC. He was a very different person than Robin Olds, but the common leadership thread was there. He never gave up on his guys. He treated everyone, I mean everyone, as though they had unique self-worth. He gave people leadership challenges they never would have dreamed up on their own. He too never stopped caring, asking you to examine your true motives, working with and for you long after you (or he) moved on. He was always kind and thoughtful.

The second practical lesson for me: “Be thoughtful, be nice. There is nothing in your job description that requires you to be an unmitigated S.O.B."

As a general officer I worked for General Jack Chain while he was CINCSAC. He excelled at all Robin Olds and Russ Dougherty were great at. He used to keep our medical records in his office. We had to check them out to go to the hospital. He rode roughshod over anyone who smoked or was overweight and made sure his guys’ physical health would support the physical and mental challenges he provided. He and Judy were a great team and they worked to ensure their folks were successful teams.

The third practical lesson for me: leadership is about all aspects of life, personal as well as professional.

In the Joint Staff I worked for General Jack Vessey and Admiral Bill Crowe while each served as Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. They were just as smart and just as people-oriented as the officers I’ve already mentioned. They each had an amazing grasp of the obvious and an ability to make complex truths and realities understandable. But what stood out for me was their ability to laugh at themselves and to use humor as an effective leadership tool.

The fourth practical lesson for me: Don’t take yourself too seriously. Laughter and self-deprecating humor are wonderful leadership tools for your kit bag.

When I retired I became a senior mentor (at the operational level of war) for the Joint community and worked for General Gary Luck, US Army and a past commander of the Joint and Combined Commands in Korea. Although he had a Ph.D. in Operations Research, and was every bit as smart as anyone I’d ever worked for, he excelled at making others feel good about themselves and their efforts to solve knotty problems. He regaled people with simple, funny stories about the truths he’d learned along the way struggling with the same challenges they were wrestling with at present. He never did one single thing that was self-serving the entire twelve years I worked for and with him mentoring US, NATO and coalition flag and general officers. Wherever we went, people would line up at his door to say hello, remind him of their service together, and Gary Luck always took time to welcome them, remember them, joke with them, call them by some nickname he’d made up especially for them.

The fifth practical lesson for me: leadership is about them, not you. People will do amazing things if someone loves them and cares for them, and wants them to do well.

Now I am retired from mentoring and have assumed the role of apprentice to a custom furniture maker and artist in a small town in the Maryland countryside. I make more mistakes, and do more dumb things than I ever thought imaginable. My boss never gets mad, never raises his voice, never gives up on me and my efforts to learn the trade. He always reminds me he has already made all those mistakes many times over. He helps me fix the problem and pats me on the back when I do something right.

The last practical lesson: Leadership is understanding that someone else can’t make any mistake you haven’t already made. Your job is to help them correct the errors in a positive way, to be patient, and to encourage them to keep trying.

In my 36 years in the Air Force, the twelve plus years of mentoring new flag and general officers, and more recently during three years as a now humble, wet-behind-the-ears apprentice, I have arrived at one

Final lesson: leadership is ultimately about payback.

I didn’t make it on my own. I didn’t get to be a general officer on merit. I didn’t even succeed solely on good fortune (though there was a lot of that). I did as well as I did because others invested nickels and dimes, time and energy, in me. I owe them. They deserve a return on their investment. They succeeded because others sponsored and mentored them.

They gave back to their larger community a great deal in return. I now understand, late in life, what they never told me. They expected me to pay them back by helping others where I could – on active duty as a part-time or full-time informal mentor, retired and working as a formal senior mentor, or now in the community helping our school superintendent take on some very tough academic and fiscal challenges.

The ultimate test of leadership is payback! That is what it is all about. When you get to the point where you can provide your sponsors and mentors some return on their investment, please do so. You’ll find it is most rewarding.
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