The Four Letters: A Leadership Parable
Editor’s Note: The following was adapted from a speech previously delivered by the author on the occasion of the 72nd U.S. Air Force birthday.
A recently fired commander wasn’t bitter about what had happened, and so decided to offer some help to his replacement. He told the incoming commander, “I left you with four sealed letters. When you’re faced with a crisis you can’t handle, open the first envelope. Faced with additional crises after that, open the second, third, and fourth envelopes.” When the new commander encountered his first crisis, he opened the first envelope. The letter inside said, “Blame me, the previous commander.” It worked like a charm. Months later the commander encountered another crisis and so he opened the second letter. It read, “Reorganize and take on new missions.” That distracted people for a little while, but his effort started to flounder after less than a month. He tore open the third envelope which said, “Blame a lack of resources and authorities.” That didn’t work at all, so the new commander almost immediately returned to his office and opened the fourth envelope. It said, “Prepare four letters.”
While intended to elicit a chuckle, this parable is underpinned by some truth. Understanding the message behind the humor provides insight on what good leadership looks like (or does not) and how it can transform an organization.
The first element in the story is the issue of turnover and its impact on leadership. We live in an Air Force that rotates people a lot, even when they don’t get fired. It can get a bit ridiculous. As a case in point, my daughter had moved to her fifth state before she turned five. And no, I hadn’t been fired. Most leaders get two years at most before they move on. All they have with them when they go is a decoration, a couple of performance evaluations, and their reputation. Most people want to make the most of the opportunity to lead and they can almost hear the clock ticking in the background.
I remember as a brand-new squadron commander meeting with my group commander for the first time to receive her initial expectations for me. That terrific group commander (with the best of intentions) told me I had at most six months to figure out what I wanted to accomplish in my squadron because that would only leave me 18 months to get it done. No pressure, right?
This way of thinking puts emphasis on getting mission-oriented results and quickly — things easily captured on a performance report. Commanders and supervisors are incentivized to focus on their tenure because only the events that transpire during that time affect them professionally. The state of the unit the day after a person leaves is “the next guy’s problem.” This type of set-up encourages a transactional management style that relies on extrinsically motivating people using a system of rewards and punishments — carrots and sticks.
It’s useful to make some distinctions before moving forward. I view leadership as something you do — an activity — not a position you hold. Commanders and supervisors are positional. Being in one of those positions does not make you a leader any more than swimming in the ocean makes you a fish. Leadership is about influence, it’s not about ordering people around. I don’t view transactional management as real leadership because it does not inspire people to be better.
To be a real, transformational leader, one must influence and inspire. These are not things we measure very well, let alone put into performance reports. We don’t capture things like climate assessments, reenlistment rates, visits to hospitals, time spent with folks on working shifts from the middle of the night until oh-dark-early. With the best of intentions, we use proxy indicators that do not generate the best results. For example, we tend to track and reward things like bake sales, community service, and credit hours earned toward degrees. All good things, but activities that frankly can distract from leading our airmen.
The second element raised in the four letters story is the idea of reorganizing and growing mission. Most of us who have been around for a few years have seen this. Those of us who have been around for a lot of years have seen it a lot. Sometimes it’s necessary but sometimes it’s not. Regardless, many commanders and supervisors feel the need to leave their mark and so actively look for things to change or expand into.
Change is disruptive — people feel it and it can be unsettling. If people don’t understand or buy into the “why,” the rationale for the change, it can seem like needless pain or at worst an effort to pad the evaluation of the leader at the expense of the unit. Convincing people to hit the “I believe button” can take a lot of time and energy — time and energy that commanders and supervisors don’t always want to spend. Real leadership is inclusive and draws on the ideas and talents of everyone in the organization. Unfortunately, not every unit has a climate or culture where people feel like their voices are heard or valued.
When I first took squadron command, I sat down with my flight leadership teams. They laid out for me some pretty significant issues that needed to be addressed. When I asked them what they thought should be done about it, they looked at me like I’d sprouted a second head. It took them a minute, but then they started offering their thoughts. When I didn’t shoot them down or immediately offer my thoughts, a lively discussion ensued. They eventually reached consensus, and they looked shocked once again when I took their recommendation without altering it.
The solution the team came up with wouldn’t have been my first choice, but I recognized that they needed to be empowered more than I needed things done my way. I had to break the pattern of the commander deciding everything. An organization like that doesn’t produce the next generation of leaders and it is limited by the intellect and talent of a single person. Even if I were that smart, I am entirely too lazy to go that route.
Instead, over the course of my tenure as commander, I invested my time in creating a climate where people were encouraged to speak up and felt empowered to make decisions and move out. I spent very little time directing, and most of my time either coaching or attempting to remove obstacles. Instead of being the quarterback, I came to think of myself as an offensive line coach.
This brings us to the third letter, which encouraged the floundering commander to blame a lack of resources and authorities. It’s a pretty common refrain. It’s unfortunate because most of the time it’s a cop out that attempts to sidestep accountability and responsibility. “I don’t have the resources,” is the battle cry of people afraid to make hard choices or assume risk.
Entering some of the darkest days of World War II, Sir Winston Churchill is thought to have said to his war council, “Gentlemen, we are out of money; now we have to think.” Some may be saying to themselves about now, “great, another ‘do more with less’ pep-talk.” No, I’m not saying that either. Sometimes you can’t do all the things that have been asked of you. The laws of physics definitely apply. This is one of the times when weak leaders will rush to cry, “I don’t have the authority to do X or stop doing Y.” Funding authorities are a real thing and a valid concern when we are talking about laws. When many people talk about authorities, however, they are actually talking about policy, like Air Force Instructions. Other times they are unwilling to tell their supervisor the costs of what they are being asked to do or to simply say, “no.” It’s much easier to blame “authorities” and push our airmen beyond the breaking point in the name of the mission. Some commanders and supervisors act powerless when they aren’t. Sometimes they are made to feel powerless by lackluster leaders who have created an atmosphere where people cannot speak up or voice concerns. In those cases, it takes leaders of real integrity and courage to stand up, speak truth and do what’s right.
While he would probably be embarrassed to know I’m using him as an example, I’d like to point you to my war college classmate, Brig. Gen. (select) Tom Palenske. Some of you may know him or have heard of him. In War College, then Col. Palenske was a pretty quiet and down to earth guy. As a wing commander, Tom Palenske was a humble and pragmatic leader who took to heart Gen. David Goldfein’s call for wing commanders to move out and stop doing silly things. Col. Palenske started signing all kinds of waiver memos saying he wasn’t going to do some of the things contained in certain Air Force instructions. He wasn’t arbitrary. He looked at the intent to create more ready and lethal airmen and made the decision that his airmen were not going to be forced to do things that did not contribute to that. Some of these things he stopped doing were supposed to require three- or four-star general-level approval, but he stopped them anyway. Soon his subordinate commanders were bringing him all kinds of things to waive. He didn’t have authority granted by an instruction, he had moral authority and what he considered clear intent from the Chief of Staff. Tom Palenske’s airmen were more ready and lethal and they loved him for it. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of a wing that has that kind of climate and leadership?
If you buy into my thoughts on the three envelopes and hope to avoid the fourth, the next question is how do you go about creating a more positive organizational climate? Doing so is difficult and requires effort everyday much like when a person decides to get in shape. Skipping the fries with one meal is not going to produce six-pack abs tomorrow. Similarly, a tactical pause or resiliency day will not create the kind of climate I describe. An organizational climate worth having requires daily effort to cultivate. While there’s no single recipe for success, in my experience there are four required ingredients:
First, leaders at all levels must develop their capacity for self-reflection, character, and resiliency and encourage their subordinates to do the same. You must make the time to reflect on your behaviors, what those behaviors suggest about your character, and how you might improve. It means having pillars outside your work-life that include a community of friends to relax with, trusted advisors that will hold you accountable, and investing time to develop yourself in other areas, be they spiritual, social, physical, or otherwise. Understanding that well-being is more important than promotion, that relationships are more important than stratifications, and the knowledge that one day we will each walk away from the Air Force in our own way. These things will help you maintain perspective, but also allow you to share that perspective with those you lead.
Second, leaders must care about their people and that care has to be consistently communicated in both word and deed. President Teddy Roosevelt is believed to have said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” People can generally sense authenticity and are intolerant of imposters. What you prioritize, why you prioritize that way, and how you accomplish things will tell people how much you care more than your words ever will. No one will trust you if there’s a mismatch between your words and your deeds. Everyone wants to work for an authentic, self-aware leader of character who cares for them and enables them to achieve their best.
Additionally, leaders must demonstrate they care by taking the time to mentor, coach, and empower their subordinates in such a way that they feel like they are valued members of a team, and not simply a means to an end. Subordinate supervisors who are not modelling this behavior have to be mentored and coached. If those supervisors can’t or won’t lead, they need to be removed and someone else put in their place. I can’t overemphasize this enough — front line supervisors will make or break your organizations.
Third, leaders should instill a growth mindset in their subordinates. A growth mindset means that people learn from but are not defined or limited by their past. A growth mindset is inherently hopeful and focused on the here and now. When every day is a new day with new opportunities, subordinates don’t feel like their careers are over when they make a mistake or don’t get a stratification. Similarly, the people who win coveted stratifications and awards cannot afford to coast. In this type of environment our past does not prescribe or limit our future. A growth mindset is how we escape the “one mistake Air Force” to enable our people and our units to achieve new levels of readiness and lethality.
Fourth and finally, leaders must have a compelling vision that becomes shared among the members of the unit. This is where some people in leadership positions fail. They don’t take the time to make the vision personal for their team members. Poor leaders think it enough to provide intent and direct people to execute. People who rely on power and authority instead of influence are not actually leading and the lack of unity of effort will prevent people and the unit from reaching their full potential. You will know when people are fully vested in the vision when they can not only explain it but they get excited about it; that they not only see how the vision improves the organization but each individual knows how he or she contributes to the unit’s success.
Easy, right? Maybe not at first, but with practice, leading this way becomes second nature. It takes time to develop the mental muscle memory. Everyone has their own challenges on the journey to becoming a transformational leader. Introverts may have trouble putting themselves out there and connecting in social environments while extroverts may find solitary self-reflection a struggle at times. Have patience and keep at it.
Your airmen don’t expect you to be perfect, but they do expect you to do your best and own it when you fall short. It’s hard to be the kind of leader I’ve described sometimes because there are a lot of pressures out there. Not only that, but I’m essentially asking people to prioritize things that the Air Force doesn’t currently measure or reward. We’re moving in the right direction, but we’re still a little way off. In the meantime, I remain steadfast in my belief that making our service better begins with leadership, whether it is rewarded or not. The best among us do what is right regardless of the rewards or punishments.
As a leader you have to look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Did I lead in such a way that inspires others and makes them want to remain in contact with you after your tour ends, or are you going to be the person that makes a room brighter when you leave?” If you want to lead, if you want to really transform organizations and lives, it begins with influencing your organization’s climate. Can you imagine a place where your leadership really cares about you, a place where you know how you contribute to a mission that matters, a place where it’s okay to make mistakes so long as you are learning and getting better? Who would want to leave that place? Who wouldn’t want to follow the leader that cultivated that kind of culture? I sure would. I hope you are that kind of leader.
Col. Jason Lamb (U.S. Air Force) is the Director of Intelligence, Analysis, and Innovation at Air Education and Training Command, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. He has previously published at War on the Rocks under the pseudonym of ‘Ned Stark.’ His opinions are his alone and do not represent those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.