Introduction: Major General Jack JoBu McMullen retired from the Air Force after 30 years of service in 2018 as the Deputy Commander of Air Combat Command at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia. He joined Two Blue Aces as a Senior Consultant in 2019. You can read more on his biography here.
During my Air Force career, I was lucky enough to attend the United States Air Force Weapons Instructor Course (WIC). For those not familiar with WIC, it’s an intense 6-month instructor course to build the Air Force’s cadre of tactical experts. Simply put, graduates go off to squadrons and are expected to be the tactical leader of the squadron. Their major charge is to build and execute a training plan to ensure that squadron members are ready if called upon to go into harm's way.
I learned many lessons at WIC but one really stuck out to me that remains a part of my life today. The WIC instructors hammered into our heads that to be a truly successful weapons officer you needed to be approachable. As I reflected on my experiences with weapons officers at the time, I began to better understand what those instructors meant.
I’ve been in many squadrons where the weapons officer was the tactical focal point. These airmen consistently took the time to mentor squadron pilots. Many of them mentored to a point that they spent a good part of their day talking tactics to the newer pilots. Often they were forced to rearrange their day when a budding new fighter pilot wanted to sit down and talk about something. The good ones always took the time to mentor, answer questions and generally just talk tactics.
I’ve also been in squadrons where that wasn’t the case. I’ve been around weapons officers that were anything but approachable. They were often arrogant, standoffish, and self-centered. Some were by far the best flyer in the squadron, yet they were failing at their mission to ensure the squadron was ready for combat because they didn’t take time to mentor pilots.
This leadership quality goes well beyond these tactical warriors; this applies to leaders at all levels. I truly believe that an approachable leader can make the difference between a good organization and a great organization. When I took over one of my new commands, I quickly noticed something was off. The people that worked for me didn’t want to come to me with questions and tended to tell me what they thought I wanted to hear versus what I needed to hear.
I eventually figured out that the previous commander was not approachable. He had no time for alternative ideas and was immediately on the defensive during meetings. And god forbid if you were the unlucky individual to give him bad news…because you were about to get shut down. Even in this leadership environment, the organization was good. It was good because it was filled with a bunch of airmen that cared about the mission and cared about the people they worked with. They did this in spite of their leader.
I’m not trying to ring my own bell but will say that once my people began to understand and trust my leadership style, morale skyrocketed. We brought more good ideas to the table and found innovative solutions to complex problems. We took that organization from a good one to a great one. This happened because I set an environment where people felt valued, they weren’t intimidated by me and felt free to ask questions and bring up new ideas. Remember that your organization will not flourish if you do not truly take care of the people that work for you, and I strongly believe that being approachable is a significant attribute toward taking care of your people.