In business today, good leaders should approach personnel management in much the same way as the designers of the U-2 reconnaissance program. Whether you were selected for a leadership position because of years of dedicated service to the company or you were placed in that position to be a ‘change agent’, you will be faced with important decisions on who to hire, who to fire and who to promote as the next leaders in your organization. If you commit yourself to placing the best people in key positions in the company, you’ll give your team a fighting chance to succeed.
In my military career, I had the honor of commanding two USAF wings that included the famed U-2 as one of the jets in our inventory. I also had the distinct privilege of learning how to fly the U-2 during my Command, becoming the 826th mission qualified pilot in this sensitive Reconnaissance Program, eventually flying 21 combat missions in the Dragon Lady during my last year in the Middle East. The early U-2 pilots nicknamed the aircraft “Dragon Lady” since flying the aircraft often felt like dancing with a beautiful lady while other times it was like wrestling with a dragon – especially during landings. My whole time in the program was a humbling experience for a seasoned fighter pilot, and as a result of these missions, I will always respect and admire the men and women who continue to fly, fix and control the U-2 all over the world today. During my flights, I was reminded almost daily of the importance of surrounding yourself with professionals who know their job better than anyone else in the world. This is definitely the case in the U-2 reconnaissance program even though there is only one person in the cockpit during long flights, there are many people involved with a successful mission.
During my second-to-last flight on a mission from our base in the UAE into Iraq, the U-2 aircraft I was flying had a total hydraulic failure resulting in significant loss of capabilities – both aerodynamically and navigationally. This failure mode was the ‘in-flight emergency from hell’ my Instructors warned me about during my early training days. It would require all my skill and knowledge to land the jet, plus many more well-timed inputs by talented people who would assist me as I tried to land safely from an altitude of almost 60,000 feet. I will never forget their professionalism and dedication in dealing with this serious in-flight emergency, and the experience of being on this hand-picked team carries over to my business dealings today at ground level.
My combat mission a few years ago ultimately succeeded because of the skill and dedication of every individual on the communications network. This memorable flight reminds me just how important it is to treat all your people with dignity and respect all the time – even the most junior person in your organization. That person might just save your life in the rarest of circumstances but regardless, it’s a lesson you would be wise to embrace as you lead your team to success, and it's something I’ll never forget. Essentially, what it takes to be number 1 - or in my case number 826 - comes down to teamwork from top to bottom.
High-performance teams are the result of hard work and thoughtful personnel management.
Jake Polumbo is a retired Major General, who served as the 9th Air Force Commander prior to his retirement in 2015. A Founding Partner and Senior Associate of Two Blue Aces, LLC.