top of page

Not the Smartest Person in the Room (Book Excerpt)

This excerpt comes from Leadership from 30,000 Feet: Attributes of Effective Leaders as told by Five Air Force Generals, an anthology by Two Blue Aces’ contributors. To read the rest of this story and many others like it you can purchase your own copy on Amazon!


Title: Not the Smartest Person in the Room

“I have always looked at my competencies before accepting any responsibility.” —N. R. Narayana Murthy

When I first started flying fighters, I read the biographies of the commanders I wanted to emulate. I soon realized they all had similar career paths.

For the first fifteen years of their respective careers, they established themselves as highly competent fighter pilots. Then they spent two to three years in non-flying staff assignments and attending professional military education before returning to the cockpit to command a squadron—the Air Force’s basic war-fighting unit.

More often than not, the squadrons these leaders commanded were comprised of the aircraft they had flown earlier in their careers. To me, the path to a command position was clear: the most respected pilots were selected to lead our flying organizations.

At the time, it made perfect sense.

As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more mistaken.

Leadership involves so much more than mere technical competence: motivating the people in your unit to do more than they thought possible, deriving a vision for the organization and inspiring others to willingly work toward attaining that vision, effective communication up and down the chain of command, the willingness to make tough decisions when required, driving change when it’s required to remain relevant in a dynamic environment, and much more.

Those lessons were hard won though. I almost broke my neck to learn them.

Early in my career, the unexpected happened: I had to eject from my F-16.

I suffered neck damage that, after years of continued high G-force flying, would ultimately require surgery and the placement of metal retaining gear high on my neck. And that unfortunately occurred in the midst of my squadron command assignment.

Consequently, I was medically disqualified from flying ejection-seat aircraft. There would be no more fighter assignments for me.

I was devastated, both to lose the opportunity to do what I truly loved—flying fighter aircraft—and also because I was no longer on the perceived track to leadership I had tried to follow for years. I felt that, due to my disqualification, I wouldn’t be able to command at higher levels and my career opportunities would be limited at best.

That’s when I learned my earlier premise about pursuing senior leadership was all wrong.

Thankfully, the Air Force general officers with the responsibility to select the next generation of leaders knew they didn’t need the best pilots to command a flying organization.

They needed flyers who knew how to lead.

To read the rest of this story and many others like it you can purchase your own copy on Amazon!


bottom of page