In the beautiful countryside of Fulda Germany, the Thunderhorse squadron was conducting a night training exercise, with multiple aircraft flying at high speeds and low altitudes. The squadron was the air component of the famed tank-heavy 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the first line of defense during the Cold War.
Although a few years had passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 11th ACR was still in place along the “forward edge of freedom” in the event that the Russians changed their minds.
The unit still participated in military pagentry complete with cavalry officers riding black stallions to the sounds of a marching band, and troopers wearing the Stetson hats, riding boots with spurs, swords and scarves. We simply traded in the old cav’s horses for modern helicopters and tanks.
All pilots had to earn their spurs by demonstrating physical fitness, aviator competence, soldier skills (like marksmanship and land navigation), and of course, a highly motivated attitude. Of course, there was a bit of the harmless initiation that was a mixture of soldier and fraternity pledging fun.
One task necessary for a pilot to earn his (at the time, it was an all male unit of 2,000+) spurs was to demonstrate the ability to navigate the aircraft along sensitive borders.
Although I had already earned my spurs, the purpose of this training flight was to sharpen our night navigation skills, so we flew with night vision goggles (NVGs) to see without lights, a significant tactical advantage. It is similar to looking through two toilet paper rolls, with everything tinted in green.
Our Air Mission Commander was an excellent leader named Captain Hastings, flying in an aircraft towards the end of our group. He had delegated the navigation of the flight of Blackhawks to the pilots in the lead aircraft, who happened to be me and another guy named Patrick.
The Squadron Commander, a tough and demanding old-school U.S. Cavalry Colonel, was flying above us to observe our proficiency. He later wrote one of my best recommendations to get into business school when I discharged from the Army.
The Colonel, in an attempt to simulate real world conditions, pressured us to launch before we were actually ready to fly into the darkness of the night. We somehow got really disoriented…also known by the crude and non-sensical soldier slang, LBS (Lost Bigger than S**t). Under NVGs, it is easy to mistake terrain features.
That was when the hollering started over the radios, and it was downright ugly.
The Colonel, testing our ability to manage choas, was screaming at Captain Hastings with every combination of words that were imaginable about how bad this training exercise was going, and why he needed to demonstrate better command and control over his formation.
It was painful to hear, and I know that Hastings felt embarrassed and humiliated over the public chewing-out, even though it was not his fault that we were “LBS”.
It was ours.
This was a surreal radio exchange to hear, with the Colonel dogging him to get this problem corrected ASAP, and Hastings then talking to us as if nothing was wrong.
It was like we were chillin’ on the beach. Star Trek’s Spock had nothing on this guy Hastings. He never passed the venom down, which would have been understandable. He simply took the pain, and worked to solve the problem.
Do you know what he said to us in between the Colonel’s tirades?
Not much, because he knew we were good pilots simply in a bad situation.
He calmly helped us figure out our position, and guided us back on course. It was a moment of leadership that I will always remember.
Every pilot on that training mission, had an immense amount of respect for his leadership ability under pressure, and decision to filter out the noise and work calmly.
After all, this occurred as several helicopters were slicing through the night by skimming the treetops at more than 100 mph, in the dark…
What did I learn from this episode that I try to remember?
Don’t criticize people in public, especially in stressful situations.
It rarely produces a better outcome, because it adds unnecessary negativity to an already bad situation. Public criticism puts people on the defensive, it demoralizes them, and creates resentment, which leads to lower productivity and inhibits forward thinking.
Think about a time when someone has publicly criticized you. What did you think about over the next 24 hours of your life ? Probably every conceivable reason why you were in the right, or not really at fault.
Rarely does it motivate the person to make the changes necessary to correct the problem. Even if the criticism is accurate, it forces the person to rationalize, justify and explain the behavior. It is human nature to protect our pride, rather than to admit fault.
Think about a time when you screamed at, or criticized, a person in front of others. How did it turn out? Were they appreciative of your perceived “constructive criticism” that probably came across as a public rebuke? Did they enthusiastically accept your “advice”?
Remember, some people carry the resentment of public humiliation with them their entire lives..
“As much as we search for approval, we dread condemnation”. Hans Selye, a renowned psychologist.
The next time a family member, co-worker or friend is “LBS” and their mistake is exposed for the world to see, avoid the impulse to criticize, and instead calmly, privately and positively help them to solve the problem.
You will immediately have an ally, and not a resentful person, waiting to return the pain.