Colonel Robin Olds, a cavalier fighter pilot and commander during the Vietnam War, commanded a military installation and flew a F-4 Phantom fighter aircraft. He often found himself at odds with policies during his time in Vietnam; Washington had implemented what was called the ‘Rapid Roger’ program for generating F-4 missions. The program had been implemented because of an apparent love for statistics—Washington wanted to fly more missions with fewer aircraft. Colonel Olds noted several big issues with this plan. While the numbers and the concept may have been fantastic, Washington didn’t anticipate what challenges would be faced on the ground.
Budgeting for the war effort was programmed, meaning it was budgeted at particular levels in anticipation of a particular level of activity. He only had so many personnel to work on the aircraft and they needed rest. Supplies and personnel promised to him ended up not being delivered to his installation. In particular, the concept Washington had in mind required completely re-configuring each aircraft while also preparing them to fly their next mission and fixing any other unanticipated issues—taxing tasks for his ground crews and creating hazardous situations—and the aircraft was slated to fly a few times per day. Suffice to say that Rapid Roger stressed his resources to an unrealistic level; his unit was manned, organized, and equipped to provide a certain level of output. His aircraft had a terrible operationally ready rate of 55 percent when he took control of the installation; it had dropped from 74 percent during the previous month.
Colonel Olds did everything in his power to increase his combat effectiveness and utilize his resources while not abusing them; he did it successfully over time with a lot of perseverance. I encourage you to pick up a copy of Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds.
The lesson here is that sometimes as decision makers we can make decisions from a disconnected viewpoint. Learning how things operate from the viewpoint of your subordinates lends clarity to situations which cannot be simply summarized without that understanding. While you cannot be everything to everyone and you can’t be involved in every activity your subordinates are tasked with, it is useful to understand the processes, challenges, resources, and skill needed for them to do their jobs effectively. It is with that knowledge that you can more effectively judge what kind of demands you can place on your subordinates without placing an undue load on them.
Learn what your subordinates do every day, what processes and challenges they face. Be involved. There is a balance that goes with that; you do not want to hover over your subordinates, nor do you want to take the task from them and run with it–just observe and ask questions, a low threat visit. Understanding that ‘bigger purpose’ is a key aspect as well; as a leader, you are often that link to your people, to show them the higher purpose in their everyday tasks. Colonel Olds understood these concepts well; “I planned to check out all the shops, check out equipment used by the men, look at their supplies, learn how things were put together and taken apart, even examine the gear designed for getting the pilots down from trees. The base functions were crucial to the success of the mission and the survival of the pilots”.
Make sure you know what the realities are in your organization.
 Olds, C., & Rasimus, E. (2010). Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds. New York: St. Martin’s Press.