The Stolen Leadership Secrets of Szabo the Hun (1999)
I am often asked to pontificate about leadership and have been meaning to get around to it. In fact, Volume 4 of the Eddie series is all about command and leadership. I somehow got a twenty-year lesson while in the Air Force, much of it in classrooms but most of it “out there.” My last “out there” experience in uniform was during the last year of my last assignment in the Air Force: 1999.
Drawing: Attila the Hun, from Fredrik Sander, Poetic Edda (public domain)
Drawing: USTRANSCOM emblem, from DoD
"This should be your name, sir," she said as she fastened the new tag on the door. As our office secretary, she would be working very closely with the new boss. But she needed time to adjust.
"The CINC deserves his top pick," I said. "Colonel Szabo will be good for us."
"It still stinks," she said. "Sir."
That seemed to be the consensus. The legislative liaison office worked directly for the CINC, pronounced "sink." As the CINC of the United States Transportation Command, USTRANSCOM, General Roger Craft was responsible for the wartime roles of the Army, Navy, and Air Force components of the military transportation system. The previous chief of legislative liaison had just retired and I was the odds on favorite to take his place. Sometimes the odds do not play out.
As the deputy chief, my job was to corral the efforts of officers from each service to provide the CINC with the advice he needed to lobby Congress and members of the President's staff. It was a fun job that required a "big picture" focus of all things transportation. After playing second fiddle for two years everyone thought I would take over. I knew that would never happen and I knew why; but I had to keep that a secret. It was the only fair thing to do for the new boss.
Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Szabo was the CINC’s favorite pilot from a past life and appeared to have everything I lacked. He was an accomplished KC-135 tanker pilot, flying a major weapon system owned by our command. By comparison, my flight log only included passenger type airplanes that did not have war-fighting roles. At six-foot-three his stature was not apparent until he stood next to me. He wore those extra three inches well. He greeted everyone with a broad smile and clear blue eyes that placed a laser lock on you and made you feel important.
“Eddie, I’ve been looking forward to meeting you,” he said while boring his eyes into mine. “Everyone says you know the command’s business like nobody else and the Congress like the back of your hand.”
“I suppose,” I said.
"I am frankly surprised you didn't get the job," he said. "Your reputation casts a long shadow."
“I’m not sure the CINC shares everyone else’s enthusiasm,” I said.
"We all have flaws and need to work every day to become better leaders," he said. "That's rule number one in 'Szabo's Secrets of Leadership.'"
"That's a good one," I agreed. I recognized the rule from a book going around with many of our Army officers, "The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun." Few Air Force officers bothered with it, thinking it more for the "ground pounders." It was written with guidance for the Hunnish, but many of the secrets applied to just about any organization.
“I can see we are going to get along, Eddie. Get everyone else in here and we’ll have our inaugural staff meeting.”
I left his office and returned to the trenches where the other three officers waited. Major Michael Houghton was an airlift pilot and was probably the smartest person I had ever met. It would only be a matter of time before he outranked me. Lieutenant Commander Richard Grafton was a Navy officer with a variety of shipboard experiences that made him pretty smart about all things sealift. He was a clever officer who could latch onto concepts but may have been a bit lazy in execution. A Navy lieutenant commander has the equivalent rank of an Air Force or Army major. Grafton was up for promotion, but his chances were poor. Finally, Army Major Steve Christ was our class clown. He started his career driving the M1A1 main battle tank but took a detour to the quartermaster corps. Unlike the rest of the office, he wrote poorly but could hold his own in a conversation. The three looked at me. I held both hands upward with index fingers aimed skyward. With a flick of both wrists I pointed to the boss’s office and we four marched in, followed by our secretary.
Szabo greeted everyone warmly and with a firm handshake. He devoted a minute to each, in turn, about family, career, and life in general. Once everyone was made to feel suitably warm and fuzzy, we all sat. He gave us a peek into the future, saying every Monday morning we would start with a staff meeting where he would give us our marching orders for the week, and a quick talk about a “Szabo's Secrets of Leadership.”
“I believe in mentoring,” he said. “Part of my responsibility as your leader is to impart what I have learned over the years. So I will unveil one of my leadership rules at each meeting.”
“That kind of mentoring is rare in the Navy,” Commander Grafton said.
“I am Hungarian,” Szabo said. “It is part of who I am.”
My brain locked up on the connection between Hungarians and mentoring, realizing there might be a relationship I didn’t know about.
“But there is one more item we need to discuss,” Szabo continued. “The CINC says he relies on this office for coming up with things the rest of the headquarters can’t. He says we have better ‘out of the box’ ideas than anyone else, so that’s what we’re going to do. Each week, I want one of us to present an idea that comes from left field. You will explain your idea with some detail and nobody else can speak until you are done. And then we can all punch holes in the idea to really flush it out. Since I am the leader, I’ll start.”
The Case of the C-21 Learjet
“I think we in the Air Force are wasting a tremendous amount of money on the C-21 Learjet fleet,” he said. “I think we can better put that funding into a major weapon system.”
Photo: C-21A, from Paul Nelhams
Szabo spoke at length and in great detail about the cost of running the 70 Learjets the Air Force used throughout the world versus using the local airlines to do the same job. He said the number of pilots used by the program would go far in answering the shortage of pilots in our airlift and tanker fleets. The rest of us sat patiently as he pontificated.
“So, what do you think?” he asked finally. The two majors and the lieutenant commander looked at me, perhaps with a bit of deference. Or perhaps they knew what I knew and wanted me to catch the spear surely to come to anyone daring the mention the new emperor’s lack of clothing.
“The idea certainly appears to have its merits,” I said. “But the airlift provided by the C-21 is not the purpose of the program but a side benefit. The original and continuing purpose of the program is to season pilots. It takes four to five years to bring a brand new pilot from copilot to aircraft commander in a tanker or airlifter. Then he or she only has four or five years left before they might jump to the airlines. Putting them in C-21 first gets them to the left seat of the bigger airplane in half the time.”
He sat silently as I spoke but at my first pause jumped right in. “Yes, but we need copilots too. You might as well season them in the big airplane.”
“When the program was first proposed, they went through the numbers,” I said. “We don’t have a shortage of copilots, in fact we have too many. We just can’t get them ready for upgrade soon enough because training in the big birds is expensive. The C-21 is a bargain.”
“Well, then!” he said. “Good discussion. You all have work to do and I have a meeting with the CINC. Commander Grafton, how about you come up with an out of the box idea for next week’s meeting?” Grafton shot him a thumbs up. “Good! Everyone dismissed; except you, Eddie. Stick around a few minutes.”
Everyone filed out and Szabo closed the door behind us. He aimed his normally friendly eyes and spoke, leader to follower. “Szabo’s Second Rule For Leaders, Eddie, is that loyalty is critical. It never helps to badmouth the boss, especially in front of others.”
“Loyalty is important,” I agreed. “In fact, loyalty to the mission is paramount. A leader should expect loyalty but should also realize that well-intentioned and honest disagreement from the troops is a form of loyalty designed to protect the mission first, the leader second.”
“That’s right,” he said. “And don’t you forget it. Dismissed.”
I thought about that for a few hours. He was right, of course. It would have been better to shoot his idea down in private, but he told us that we were clear to “punch holes” in the ideas. Perhaps that didn’t include his ideas.
The Case of 3 Knots
Drawing: Carte Generale, from des Principaux Caurants Marin En 1910
I returned to my desk to see Rich Grafton hovering in a holding pattern.
“How can I be of assistance?” I asked.
“I wanted to bounce my ‘out of the box’ idea, sir.” He just couldn’t give up the “sir” routine and I had given up asking that he call me Eddie. He pulled the nearest chair toward my desk and spread an ancient mariner’s map in front of me.
“I’ve heard brown shoes talk about flying faster in a headwind and slower in a tailwind to improve fuel consumption and was wondering if I could apply that to our container ships.”
“You’ve heard brown shoes talk, Rich?”
“Sorry, sir,” he said. “That’s navy slang for navy pilots, who wear brown shoes. Us surface guys wear black shoes.”
Rich went on to say most of their sealift ships cruised at 25 knots because that got them to their destinations sooner. But he had heard their fuel consumption would drop 25 percent if they simply pulled it back to 22 knots. “If it works for airplanes, why not ships?”
“Truth is, it doesn’t,” I said. “For most jets you cannot vary the speed enough to make up for the difference in wind speeds. Most jets can only vary their speeds at altitude by ten or twenty knots. Since the winds can vary by as much as 200 knots, the percentage difference is very small. We would almost never see a 25 percent drop in fuel consumption at our flyable speeds.”
“So if the percentage of the speed variation is higher relative to the wind, you could do it?” he asked.
“Sure, what kind of current speeds are we talking about?”
“Usually only one or two knots,” he said. “But if you get into the Atlantic gulfstream, it could be as high as 6 knots.”
I saw where he was going with this. I pulled out a blank sheet of paper and started to scribble. “What’s the distance between a typical port in the east coast of the United States to one in Europe?”
“Four thousand nautical, give or take,” he answered.
“So at 25 knots, we get there in 160 hours,” I said. For the next bit I needed my pocket calculator. “At 22 knots, that makes 182 hours; that’s 22 hours or just under another day at sea. What about fuel burn?”
Rich opened a book he had been holding and turned to a dog-eared page. The chart showed a burn of 350 tons per day at 25 knots and 250 tons per day at 22 knots. I realized we had the information we needed but to convince our aviator bosses, we would need to translate everything to aeronautical speak. “So that comes to 14.6 tons per hour fast, and 10.4 slow. That’s even better than 25 percent. What’s a ton of fuel cost?”
Rich turned a few more pages. “Four hundred, fifty dollars a ton, give or take.”
So that came to 160 x 14.6 x 450 = $1,051,200 for the fast trek, or 182 x 10.4 x 450 = $851,760 for the slow. “Arriving a day later saves you almost two hundred thousand dollars.”
We sat back and basked in the glory of his idea. I had worked with Lieutenant Commander Grafton for nearly two years and knew he faced long odds on his upcoming promotion board. He needed some kind of zinger for his recommendation and this just might be the idea that gets him promoted. “Well done,” I said, handing him my notes.
The next week Szabo offered us another of his “Rules For Leaders,” this one about accountability. “Bob Dylan said 'you have to serve somebody,'” he began. “We serve the CINC and he holds us accountable for doing the right thing for USTRANSCOM.”
The younger officers dutifully recorded his words verbatim while I simply wrote “accountability” with a question mark. There was more to it than Bob Dylan.
“So now it is time for out of the box thinking. Commander Grafton, the floor belongs to you.”
Rich got up and handed us each a hand drawn map of the Atlantic with a course from Charleston to Antwerp and my calculations. He finished with the bottom line he had come up with just a week prior. “We delay the containers by a day, we save two hundred thousand dollars. With our current deployment schedules, that saves the U.S. taxpayer nearly seven million dollars a week, over 300 million dollars a year.”
“That is brilliant,” Szabo said. “Commander Grafton that is exactly what we are looking for. Let me see how far I can take this.”
Rich beamed a smile and the rest of us took turns shaking his hand and patting him on the back. I started to visualize writing his next performance report and seeing him with the three broad stripes on his sleeves of a Navy Commander.
None of us could touch the beauty of Rich’s out of the box solution in the next month but we kept trying. We also never heard about the container ship idea. Rich would ask and Szabo would say, “be patient, I’m working on it.” I thought it would be best to have Rich work on it, but it wasn’t “in my rice bowl,” as we often said in this kind of staff work. I returned to my speech writing chores.
Photo: USNS Bob Hope, Large, Medium-Speed Roll-on/Roll-off Ship, from US Navy.
A few weeks later, Szabo was attending a legislative liaison training session in Washington, D.C., which left the weekly CINC meeting for me. Two Army generals, an Air Force general, and a Navy Admiral sat around a large conference table with the CINC at the head; I took the lone remaining seat at the opposite end. After a few words from the CINC, each flag officer took a turn. The Admiral’s normally dour countenance was missing and he seemed eager to speak. When his time finally came he spoke rapid fire.
“We have the results of our study and it is fantastic. Yes, everything is confirmed. We can slow the ships from 25 to 22 knots and only lose an average of one day transit time while saving a butt load of fuel. Sure we have to pay the crews for another day and there are some insurance costs, but that is chicken feed compared to the cost of fuel.” The CINC shot him a double thumbs-up. “And it’s not just the fuel. Maintenance costs are expected to drop as well. We estimate annual program savings at half a billion dollars!”
The flag officers broke into enthusiastic chatter, which the CINC ended with a raised hand. “Colonel Haskel, please pass on to Colonel Szabo our thanks and a well done. It figures that an Air Force tanker pilot would come up with a way to save the Navy gas money!”
The other flag officers added their thanks and noted how lucky I was to work for such a creative boss. “He is pretty creative, all right,” I agreed.
The following Monday, after Szabo’s return, I entered his office without asking and closed the door behind me. “The Navy is pretty happy with your 22 knot container ship idea,” I said. “The CINC was singing your praises all week.”
Szabo looked up from a stack of paperwork and briefly smiled. “That’s good. Anything else.”
“Did you stop to think, for even a moment, it would have been a good time to credit the inventor of the idea?”
“Commander Grafton works for me," he began. "All of his ideas belong to me. If it weren’t for me asking for out of the box ideas, he would never have had it in the first place.”
“Rich is up for promotion and this could have made the difference,” I said. “Instead he is going to end up demoralized that his idea was stolen and he may eventually be passed over.”
“Don’t lecture me about morale,” he said. “I am responsible for everyone’s morale. When the office receives recognition, everyone benefits. As the leader, my achievements are reflected by all who follow me.”
“I think you have that backwards,” I said.
“You are being overly dramatic,” Szabo said. “He works for a great office and the glory I collect on our behalf is shared by everyone. Even you.”
“I have my own rules about these things,” I said. “A true leader passes along credit where it is due and does so generously, while at the same time accepting responsibility for his actions and those of his subordinates. Quote others; you can get a lot more done if you don’t worry about credit. I doubt you get anymore out of the box ideas worth a damn once your subordinates figure out you don’t give a damn about them personally.”
“Well, colonel,” he said. “You are wrong. That’s why they put me in charge of the office instead of you. It seems I have better instincts on these things.”
“That is probably right,” I said.
“Get everyone else in here,” he said. “It’s time for the staff meeting.”
I did as told. Szabo's meeting started with another of his leadership secrets, this one about responsibility. "We are all accountable for our actions and we have to accept the consequences, good or bad."
He didn't assign anyone the task of presenting an out of the box idea and nobody volunteered. He also didn’t mention the act of intellectual piracy and Grafton seemed none the wiser.
I wrestled with my role in the matter. Do I tell him to cushion the blow or do I wait for it to filter up from the Navy staff?
I didn’t have to wait long, as I returned to my desk I found Rich sitting in my chair, reading a Military Sealift Command newsletter. The lead title said it all, “Three Knots Saves Millions.”
“I’ve asked around,” he said. “The sealift staff said this revolutionary idea came from Colonel Szabo. Nobody sees my fingerprints on any of this.”
“I know,” I said. “I can’t explain it; the boss must have his reasons.”
“I should have gone through Navy channels,” he said, tossing the newsletter into the trash. “Air Force officers are just too political.” He lifted his gaze to mine. “Sorry, sir. Not you. I’m just pissed.”
“I don’t blame you,” I said.
The Case of Engines Versus Simulators
US Capitol, from Kevin McCoy.
Once the next congressional term began our focus turned to the CINC's next visit. The headquarters staff would build hundreds of pages of issue papers, thinking their work would be read by the CINC. In fact, only our office staff read the papers which we would use to brief the CINC during his walks between one Senate or House office and the next. We sent an officer a day early to practice the route we would have to walk and to meet with the senator's or representative's staff. On the day of the CINC's visit, we repeated the process for real. Since Szabo had never done this before, I played the role of instructor.
"Senator Lott is going to push hard for the next C-17 simulator," I said to Szabo. "I think the Mississippi Air Guard wants to get their hands on it to cement their role as a the premier Guard C-17 base."
"Nothing wrong with that," he said.
"It takes a year to build a simulator," I said. "We only have one. We can train their pilots and they refuse to train ours. We don't have enough C-17 pilots because we can't train them fast enough. Giving them the next simulator sets our manning back two years."
"Got it," he said. "Next topic."
We spent about six hours walking the route and talking with staffers and then repeated the walk just to make sure Szabo had it down. We went over the pertinent issues during the walk and it appeared Szabo had a handle on all the Air Force issues and was starting to get familiar with the Army and Navy hot buttons. "Give me that issues book and I'll burn the midnight oil tonight."
Photo: C-17, from Adrian Vargo.
The next day Szabo and I walked with General Craft from office to office with Szabo providing a heads up about what to expect from the Senator or Congressman in the next meeting. As we got to each office, I continued to the next office to confirm everything was in readiness, and then doubled back to take notes as the general got out of his closed door meeting.
As he exited Senator Lott’s office, the General faced me and started talking as Szabo led the way to the next office. “Senator Lott has agreed to the C-5 engine funding,” he said. “In exchange, we are going to earmark the next C-17 simulator to his state.”
This would be a problem. What to do?
“That’s a big mistake,” I said. The General stopped. “General, we only have one C-17 simulator now and it is maxed out. The Mississippi Guard will only use their simulator to one-tenth of its capacity and will not train active duty pilots. They are scheduled now to take delivery of simulator number 5 in six years but do not face any delay in their pilot production. Giving them simulator number two pushes our program back two years.”
“Well, the engines were a good trade, and the C-5 program is short engines,” he said.
"That's what the engine manufacturer is saying, but your Air Force staff says it isn't true," I said.
Szabo stepped in. “We need to get moving, general. Eddie, we’ll talk about this later.”
In the next four hours “we” made more trades and the list of phone calls I had in front of me was becoming daunting. I was going to have to explain to the staff the bloodbath that I had witnessed. As the general’s limousine pulled up he turned to Szabo and extended his hand. “Great job today, Danny. I couldn’t have done this without you.” He gave me a nod and turned to the opened limousine door.
I looked at Szabo who kept his gaze on the limo until it was gone from out sight. “We did good today,” he said. “I think I’ve got the hang of this and I’ll go solo next time around.”
“That’s good,” I said. "I don't think I can take another bloodbath like that."
"We started with a list of ten items we needed to accomplish on behalf of USTRANSCOM," I said. "Of those we got one. One out of ten. I need about an hour with a phone. This isn’t going to go well with the staff.”
“I’ll leave you to it,” Szabo said. “See you back at the hotel for dinner. Call my room.”
That night at dinner Szabo was in a mood for career counseling. “Eddie, you need to learn a few more of Szabo’s Leadership Rules if you expect to go any further. I was thinking about the way you talked back to the CINC today; very bad form.”
“I am always in learn mode,” I said.
“You need to learn to time your protests,” he said. "The CINC had already made those deals. It does you no good to bark at him like that after the fact."
"There are a lot of issues and a lot at stake," I said. "We need to be tenacious in getting him to understand what his staff wants him to understand. He's going to come home to a headquarters staff that is going to be in shock and will look to him for answers. He needs to understand the ramifications of his actions."
"And you need to understand that it is better to keep your powder dry for when you really need it," Szabo said.
"We are under-utilizing our newest airlifter by a factor of ten because we can't train pilots fast enough," I said. "The situation calls for the courage to tell the boss he is cutting the legs from underneath his troops."
"You are too invested in the airlift fleet," Szabo said. "You need to keep the big picture in focus."
The Case of Railcar Ownership
Photo: M1 Abrams Tanks, from BNSF War Machines
We got back to the office the next day and the news was the Army had solved a problem that had stymied USTRANSCOM for years. During the Iraq War the Army couldn’t get its tanks to ports because the necessary flat bed rail cars were otherwise devoted to lower priority cargo. Other bases, including Air Force and Navy bases, refused to give up rail cars in fear they would never get them back. USTRANSCOM, the biggest player in the problem, could not come up with a solution.
Then, out of the blue, a lowly Army major submitted an idea through a suggestion program that allowed any officer to simply submit any idea on a postcard. That major’s name was Steve Christ.
The note on my desk was written with an angry hand. “See me, ASAP!”
I rapped my knuckles on his open door. “Get in here,” Szabo said. “Close the door.”
“Talk to me about flat cars and how it is one of my majors solves a problem through a suggestion program and gets his name plastered all over the news without any mention of our legislative liaison office! Talk to me about that.”
“Steve’s idea is brilliant,” I said. “The way he describes it, we just flip a switch when we mobilize. We rewrite every railcar contract to say the individual base owns it until mobilization, and then we own it. When mobilization is over, they get their railcars back. When he told me about this I wondered why I never thought of it!”
“So you knew about it?” He asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“And did you tell him to stab me in the back by going outside the chain of command?”
“No," I said. "I simply encouraged him to develop the idea and do his best to get it implemented. I am surprised he went through the Army suggestion program. I would have counseled him against that. It is unethical to do something like this for personal gain when it is part of your job to come up with ideas.”
"You are damned right it's unethical!" Szabo said. "He's made an enemy of his own boss!"
"He's not your enemy," I said. "He's a young staff officer who just needs a little counseling. I'll talk to him. Exacting a pound of flesh from him sends the wrong message to the others."
“Do you remember my rule about loyalty?” he asked.
“Something about it being critical,” I said.
“That’s right,” he said. “So why is that Army major so disloyal?”
“Perhaps you need to expand that rule,” I said. Szabo slumped into his chair, somehow defeated by one of his subordinate’s success. “Loyalty works both ways. Leaders can only earn their follower’s trust and loyalty by showing them an equal amount of trust and loyalty.”
“That’s horseshit,” he said. “Loyalty is given up the chain because that’s the military way. Leaders earn that loyalty through credibility.”
“Leaders must be credible,” I said. “But credibility is earned through actions.”
"You give him a good ass chewing," Szabo said. "He's dug himself a hole and I'm out of shovels." Szabo slumped back in his chair, defeated. I withdrew to the main office area where everyone found an excuse to be anywhere else, everyone except Major Christ.
"Colonel, I hope I didn't get you in trouble," he said. "That was never my intention."
"I know, Steve." I sat at my chair while the major remained standing. On the one hand I felt a small measure of vindication that Szabo's knife in Grafton's back was so swiftly repaid. But on the other hand I felt I had let everyone down. I should have counseled the Army major better.
"Do you know why he is so upset?" I asked. "Can you see the situation from his side, Steve?"
"Yes, sir," he said.
I waited for the "but" that often follows in these situations but it never came. It appeared Major Christ understood his sin.
"We all saw what happened to Commander Grafton," I said. "It seems unfair but in the end the Navy gained a great technique, the office looks good, and maybe we can make this work out for Rich too. It is too soon to tell."
"Now you have solved a long-standing problem," I said. "And that makes you look good, no doubt about it. But it could also gain you a reputation as an officer willing to sabotage the greater good for individual gain. You don't want that."
"No, sir," he said.
"I am betting you will never do that again," I said.
"You can count on that, sir."
The Case of One More Colonel
Lieutenant Colonel Szabo came on active duty in 1980, one year after me. But he made lieutenant colonel two years early and pinned on that rank within a few months of my pin on, so we were both up for promotion to full colonel in the year 2000. The word in the headquarters staff was that we would both make it. The promotion rate would be 45 percent for each unit, rounded down. With 7 Air Force lieutenant colonels on the USTRANSCOM staff, only 3 would be promoted.
General Craft could guarantee two of the promotions by bestowing "Definitely Promote" recommendations on his top two lieutenant colonels. He was duty bound to make the decision himself without outside influence. If a review board detected any delegation of this responsibility or that the definitely promote recommendation was given to lesser deserving officers in a move to game the system, the general himself would be subject to rebuke. Everyone in the Air Force part of the USTRANSCOM staff assumed the definitely promotes would be awarded to the two lieutenant colonels in his legislative liaison office.
"It will be a damned shame if only three of us get promoted," Szabo said. He asked me to close his office door behind me after inviting me for some "career counseling." He was my rating official but my performance report and promotion recommendation would both be signed by General Craft. But Szabo wanted to talk about the upcoming promotion board and thought I would too. After seven months together he was still unaware of my secret.
"Seven officers, three promoted," he continued. "It doesn't make sense that we, in the headquarters, have the same chance at promotion as anyone in the staff."
"Not much to be done about that now," I said.
"General Tudball has a plan," Szabo said. "It's going to get us one more colonel."
"I'm surprised Tudball can tie his own shoes," I said. "Any plan of his should be avoided." Brigadier General Tudball was an incompetent tanker pilot who somehow survived a tour as a training squadron commander and then again commanding a leadership school. His personal staff worked overtime ensuring their boss didn't look like an idiot on first sight. They were failing.
"No, that's not true," Szabo said. "He's a good officer. General Craft is having him write the definitely promote recommendations. General Tudball figures he can give your definitely promote to another lieutenant colonel. Since your last two performance reports were signed by a four-star, your promotion is guaranteed and we get one more colonel promoted. That's pretty good thinking, don't you think?"
"No, I do not," I said. "First of all, he is not allowed to delegate the selection. Secondly, four general officers have been reprimanded in as many years for trying to game the system. Leave it to Tudball to do something so blatantly unethical."
Our office braced itself for a winter of personnel changes, promotions, and pass overs. Any officer passed over for promotion would immediately be replaced, its service not wanting to waste a position with such close ties to the CINC. The Navy would release its results for Commanders in November, the Army its results for Lieutenant Colonels in December, and the Air Force its definitely promote list to Colonel in January. My secret was still a secret, but my decision wasn't yet firm.
On the second Monday of November, Lieutenant Commander Grafton learned he would never be promoted to Commander and that his next assignment would be aboard a frigate in the Atlantic as a supply officer. It was the first pass over suffered by the legislative liaison office in anyone's memory.
Four weeks later the Army's list of brand new lieutenant colonels included Steve Christ. He wasn't due an assignment for two years and the Army seemed eager to let him remain for additional seasoning.
And that left us two Air Force lieutenant colonels in the breach. General Craft had to make his definitely promote decision by the first week in January and the promotion board would meet in February. Seven lieutenant colonels become 3 colonels.
General Craft asked all seven of his lieutenant colonels up for promotion to meet for an hour each. With an office right next to his, Szabo was first, followed by me.
“It looks like you have full colonel in the bag,” he said. “I just need to know where you want to go next. I am thinking you should return to the Pentagon where you can spearhead our efforts to procure more C-17s. That airplane is the key to airlift in the next century. What do you think, Eddie?”
“I don’t mind going back to the Pentagon, general,” I said. “But I’d rather not have anything to do with the C-17.”
“Why is that?” he asked.
“The airplane is a compound mistake. It was designed to carry two M1A1 tanks. Two M1A1s will fit, but will place the airplane out of center of gravity so it can only carry one. Meanwhile the Army has given up on the idea of heavy tanks. So the reason itself is gone. The resulting shape of the airplane makes it a flying speed brake, too slow and without sufficient range. We should cut our losses and buy a fleet of cargo Boeing 747’s for a quarter of the cost and ten times the lift capacity.”
General Craft looked at me for a minute, silent. “Colonel Haskel, always the contrarian,” he said.
“I admire your guts and confidence. But your outspoken nature will cost you in the end.”
“Sometimes we can’t pick our issues,” he finally said. “Sometimes we have to assume the Air Force position over our own.”
“And sometimes, we need to take a stand,” I said. “We can’t all be unthinking automatons; there will always be a need for critical thought.”
“There is a line to be drawn,” he said. “Eddie, you tend to straddle that line more than most. You will make a great colonel and with your mind for facts and numbers I think you will do great things for the Air Force. I do, however, have something I've been wanting to ask you."
"When the chief of legislative liaison job came open, everyone assumed you would be a natural. But you never volunteered. Why?"
"It was the right thing to do," I said. “When it comes to legislative matters, you need to have someone on the same frequency as you and that certainly isn’t me.”
“Well I hope you find a place in this man’s Air Force,” he said. “And even if you don’t, best of luck, Eddie.”
I left the general and stopped by my office to retrieve my hat. Szabo looked up from his desk as I walked out, not saying a word. The walk to the base personnel office took about ten minutes and gave me a chance to reflect on decisions made a year ago and only recently solidified. It was the right thing to do. With the stroke of a pen, my Air Force career would officially end exactly 20 years after it had begun.
Notes About Characters and the Story in this Lesson
I've changed the names of all the characters in this story except Senator Lott. Each of the major issues portrayed happened but I changed the timelines and our office's role to a degree. The 22 versus 25 knot issue was indeed pioneered by USTRANSCOM during this year but I overplayed Commander Grafton's role to increase the dynamic between he and Szabo. The railcar issue was actually solved a few years earlier. The C-17 simulator issue, however, occured exactly as portrayed by the characters shown.
The Szabo character was indeed a bit unhinged and did exhibit the flawed leadership portrayed, but not exactly as portrayed. I combined his character with the previous leader of the office and a previous squadron commander in my career. Szabo was promoted to full colonel but that became derailed when he was caught in an adulterous relationship and a messy divorce.
It was a great and eventful career; even the sleaze of legislative liaison was rewarding in its own way. When I decided to retire from the AF I timed it purely to assure I would have the necessary 20 years on active duty to collect a pension, not to spite anyone. The General Tudball character was scheming to get USTRANSCOM one more colonel promotion and if caught, would have gotten General Craft in serious trouble. Had I stayed in and he gotten away with it, we would have promoted four of us to colonel. Without that trick, it would have been three. Since I got out just before the definitely promotes were selected, we had one less lieutenant colonel and our percentages went down. That meant only one (Szabo) would get the definetly promote and be promoted. He would never pin on the rank after his messy divorce so in the end, nobody got promoted. Politics, even in the military, can be dirty.
Roberts, Wess, PhD, The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, 1985 © Wess Roberts, First Trade Edition 1990, Reissued 2009 by Grand Central Publishing