Chapter 11. Learning to Lead. Part 1.

First off, remember everything’s your fault.

During our six years in Omaha, I learned from the opportunities I had to manage people, make mistakes and then manage even more people.  I learned far more from these experiences than all the schooling I would receive. 

Most of my Squadron Commanders were excellent leaders and great role models.  In our six years in Omaha, I had six of them.  Each were great leaders.  Some were outspoken and loud while others were downright shy.  I learned from each of them.  I learned that leadership wasn’t a personality contest.  Leadership was commitment and dedication to the mission and the folks in your charge.  

My new job as an Intelligence Officer would require a very “high” security clearance.  This did not come overnight.  I had to fill out a ten-page questionnaire with circles and arrows on the back.  A criminal background check and credit history were mandatory.  My photograph taken and my fingerprints recorded.  I filled out my answers to a host of questions.  These questions were either about the Communist Party or farm animals.  Anyway, it would take ten months for my clearance to come through.  During this time, I learned a lot about leadership.

During the ten months of waiting for my clearance, my time was spent sitting next to the largest film processing operation in the DoD.  I wasn’t even allowed in the door. 

My first job as a new 2nd Lieutenant was to manage a small accounting section of twelve to fifteen young airmen.  Young airwomen was more like it.  The majority of workers were young female enlisted troops.  The toxic chemicals of the photo lab were deemed to be unsafe for expectant mothers.  So, there I was, leading a gaggle of young mothers-to-be.  Many were thankful to have a desk job and sit down for their shift, but most wanted to be back in the lab at their real job.  They were upset at being pulled out of the lab and singled out for special treatment. 

My section’s job was to account for the material and expenses of all the work from the lab.  We managed a budget of millions of dollars with byzantine accounting practices.  It defied logic and was difficult to learn.  To this day, I am thankful I was in management and not the one with the abacus. 

Was I supposed to learn the Airmen’s names?  Wasn’t it the Master Sergeant’s job to handle all that people stuff?  Besides, by the time you did start to recognize them, they’d up and had their baby and you’d have to start all over again. 

Once the pregnant airmen had their babies and took a few weeks off, they were deemed safe to return to the lab.  They no longer needed the non-lab job I was tasked to lead.  Luckily for me, there seemed to be no end to the supply of pregnant young airmen to populate my section.  At times it felt like a revolving door.  “Paid family leave, maternity leave, etc.” were all merely concepts at that time.  Most of the request for leave I processed were due to “medical conditions” vice any insightful policy.  Medical Conditions because a doctor could write a duty excuse for any length of time.  Family leave, maternity leave were just social experiments in the early 80’s.

The Section Superintendent was a Master Sergeant named Cecil Cutler.  Cecil was always there to listen to the complaints of the troops and solve any “issue” that came up.  Cecil had the happiest demeanor of anyone I’d ever met.  He came in with a story that made you laugh and then you had to cry to stop all your laughing.  He ended every working day by telling everyone to “cool their pencils”.  “Go home everyone, big day tomorrow.  People are counting on it!  Get it?”  Cecil had a keen radar.  He knew when he was being played and when he needed to be the boss. 

Once, Master Sergeant Cutler and I were called to report the next morning for a random drug test.  Everyone was subject to these tests.  At that time marijuana was thought to be a direct link to heroin and slipping secrets to the enemy.  Anyway, Cecil and I showed up around seven at the Base Hospital for the famous “pee in the cup” ritual.  So, we stood in line around twenty strong, together with Airmen Basics through Major.  I didn’t know at the time, but it made sense, Colonels and above had their own special room to pee.  Rumor was, they were old and needed to sit down.

Cecil set his cup down on the counter. The counter now had a dozen or so sample cups full of urine. Cecil looked at all the specimen jars.  

“Hey, this one looks a little light.” Cecil looked squarely at the nurse and grabbed what I thought was a random cup of urine and proceeded to drink it!  I swear one or two people fainted.  I knew the nurse was none too happy.  I knew something was amiss when the nurse said, “Damn you, Cecil, stop scaring the airmen!”  Apparently, this was one of Cecil’s favorite jokes.  Apparently, a sample cup full of apple juice is all that’s required to make some people happy.

So, what’s my job Cecil?  I asked after a few months.  Cecil replied. “First off, remember everything’s your fault.” With authority comes responsibility and accountability.  If this section fails, nobody would care if the Superintendent did his job or the troops did or didn’t do theirs. 

So, for the next several months I kept my head down.  While Cecil “handled” the day-to-day issues, I focused on the things not seen.  Supplies, training, better efficiency reports.  I guess I really did keep my head down.  Nobody seemed to know or care if I came or went.  Although my desk was in the same large room, I rarely spoke to anyone and never in public, after all, that was Cecil’s job. 

Then one day, the Wing Commander made a surprise visit.  The “Full Bird Colonel” made the four-mile drive in his staff car just to walk through my section.  I nervously calling the room to attention.  I then proceeded to introduce the Commander to the young women in my Section.  Now some 2nd lieutenant was introducing someone whom he rarely spoke with to the big, big boss.  The Boss whose picture was on the wall.  As we walked from desk to desk, it seemed that the Colonel knew the airmen better than me.  He called them by their first name, knew their due dates, and if there were young brothers or sisters at home.  At the end of his visit, he turned to the room and said congratulations. “No other section in the entire Wing has as many promotions as you.  Great work everyone.  Thank You.” With that, the Commander drove away. 

I had focused on the invisible stuff.  I focused on supplies, training and efficiency reports.  I focused on writing more accurate efficiency reports for the young airmen who worked for me.  I also took an additional step and attached a handwritten index card to each efficiency report with more personal details. 

I just wanted the “chain” to know how hard these folks were working and who they were, as airmen.  I guess it worked.  The Chain of Command knew the young women of my section and to their surprise, I knew them too.  So, six months after receiving my commission, I lost my first and last name. I was now only Sir or Lieutenant.


  1. So about the communists and farm animals…which did you rank more likely to threaten American soil in this quiz of yours?


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