Control Captain Charisma

20th October 2006 at 01:00
Have you ever had to work with a brilliant maverick - someone who only obeys the rules when it suits them, late for lessons, missing meetings, undermining other people's discipline, then getting away with it all through a combination of chutzpah, long service and on-the-job brilliance? Such a person was Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur "Bud" Holland of the United States Air Force.

From 1971 into the mid-1990s, Bud Holland flew B-52 bombers - those monsters with eight jet engines that we've seen in news footage dropping bombs from the stratosphere on a range of countries from Vietnam to Iraq.

An immensely skilled pilot, he flew the big beast like a fighter plane, breaking the rules wholesale - high-speed runs just above the ground, tight turns, steep climbs. Just to underline the point, he always parked his car in a prohibited zone on the base. And what did higher authority do? It shook its head indulgently and said, "Well, that's old Bud for you!"

So have you known someone like that? If so, perhaps you'll also recognise something else that's typical of the breed, which is that authority is more tolerant of them than are the people who have to share their workload. "Bud is as good a B-52 aviator as I have seen," says one senior commander's report on Bud Holland, written at a time when colleagues of equal or lower rank were trying to get their concerns noticed. "I'm not going to fly with him," said one crew member. "He's going to kill somebody some day and it's not going to be me."

Morale plummeted. At least one officer left the service, disgusted with the failure of senior leadership to tackle the problem. Others feigned illness to avoid flying with Bud. Then in June 1994, the inevitable happened.

Attempting an expressly forbidden steep turn close to the ground at his own base, Bud crashed his B-52, killing himself and his crew.

Since then, the Bud Holland tragedy has generated endless debate in the military and beyond about the leadership failings that led up to it. (Major Kern's paper, reference below, is a good example.) What emerges is that Lt-Col Holland thrived in a culture where top management excused or ignored out-of-control behaviour partly from fear of seeming to stifle initiative and partly from straightforward distaste for confrontation. Major Kern calls it "an unhealthy state of apathy and non-compliance".

Leadership isn't all sweetness and light. Sometimes it's necessary to face down Dr Charisma. But the interesting thing is that once the deed is done, the nettle grasped, the first thing you hear is a widespread murmur of approval.

Darker Shades of Blue. A case study of failed leadership by Major Tony Kern, USAF. www.crm-devel.orgresourcespaperdarkbluedarkblue.htm

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