Have you the leader ever faced times when you questioned your ability or your organization’s ability to succeed in certain situations? If you answer “no,” you are either not being true to yourself or you have avoided all situations where risk was involved. There cannot be faith without risk and while you may have the greatest faith in your abilities and those of your people, there will be times when success is found at the end of a very weak string or perhaps there will be an outright failure.
One of the greatest leadership challenges I’ve had is when I served as the second commander of Air Force Special Operations Command. The command was stood up by one of my Air Force Academy classmates, Major General Tom Eggers who did a masterful job of getting the command started during a time when the greater Air Force had little or no appreciation for our Air Commandos. This was despite fact that Air Commandos had just successfully participated in the First Gulf War and owned a proud lineage that went back to World War II and the 1st Special Operations Group of the China-Burma-India theater and the Carpet Baggers of the European Theater of Operations. This void of historical appreciation prevailed at some level as I assumed command. It is not that there was a complete lack of support, but there always seemed to be some reluctance. Consequently, there were times that I had doubts about how this new Air Commando venture would turn out.
Among other things that happened during my three-year tenure was an AC-130 Gunship exploded in flight off the coast of Mombasa, Kenya with the loss of eight crewmembers and the loss of an MH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter in the Great Salt Lake, Utah where all except the copilot perished. To say that there were questions and pressure on the command is an understatement. But my job and the job of you “the leader” in these situations is to discover what went wrong, solve the problems, and continue to encourage those for whom you are responsible. For me, this part was easy because Air Commandos never give up and during my time in command they were in combat operations that we could point to with pride. Today, AFSOC is one of the jewels of our Air Force and just last month John Chapman from our special tactics community received the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously for his actions in the 2002 battle of Takur Ghar in Afghanistan. He exemplified today’s Air Commandos.
A few years ago, I became a director with a start-up company that was trying to develop and market what appeared to be a very promising solar power technology. It took me a year to fully understand the technology and the business but by then doubt set in concerning our ability to succeed in this venture. I saw a lack of disciple with finances, there was a failure to plan, there were not clear priorities of effort, and we began to manufacture the product before it was fully developed. I tried my best as did other directors to get the effort back on track. But after three years I saw no way the company was going to avoid bankruptcy. Today the company is in Chapter 7 proceedings with the outcome yet to be determined.
The lesson for you “the leader” is to take doubts head on and recognize them for what they are. For examples such as AFSOC above, the character of our Air Commandos would never let the venture fail. They won success one battle at a time, both on the battlefield and the halls of the Pentagon. I should never have had concern. Perhaps the solar company could have succeeded (and may still) if we’d done the right things. But realizing that only three in ten start-up companies in the United States succeed, you must understand the risk and move on when despite your best efforts the venture fails. And who knows, perhaps someday in the solar energy business the technology we were working on may remerge.
Having doubts is not unusual even for followers of the ONE. If you are a believer and you say you never have doubts about your faith, you are either not living in our world or you are denying your feelings. I’m not perfect, but I’ve found that when I have doubts about the promises of Jesus, I’ve not remained in close communion with Him and have strayed from His Word. Remember what Jesus said to His disciple Thomas in response to his doubt following the resurrection; “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.” (John 21:29) If we look and listen carefully, I think we might even see.