There is No Midway in Leadership, or is there?

Battle of Midway

The deep blue of night slowly yields to pink, revealing bucolic clouds that would ordinarily be a precursor to an indolent day lounging in a hammock, but not today.  The pastoral stillness of early morning is destroyed as sounds of massive 14-cylinder engines join the cacophony of noise that is the flight deck of the USS Hornet.  Under the leadership of the squadron Commanding Officer LCDR John Waldron, fifteen TBD Devastors of Torpedo Squadron 8, are about to launch into history.

It’s June 4, 1942 and LCDR Waldron is going to lead his squadron on an attack on the massive Japanese armada that is bearing down on the island of Midway.  The leadership of Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku  is about to be tested as the Japanese hope to achieve 2 critical strategic objectives. First, capture Midway Island to establish a base that will enable them to control the eastern Pacific and strike at targets along our west coast and second, draw the remnants of our Pacific Fleet, under the leadership of Admiral Chester Nimitz, into a decisive battle and eliminate our ability to contest their control of the Pacific Ocean.  The pilots of Torpedo 8 are new and untested in combat.  Commander Waldron’s understood the importance of this mission, his message to the pilots of Torpedo 8 was simple “We will strike, regardless of the consequences.”

Waldron knew that the consequences would be severe.  Only a month prior, torpedo bombers like his suffered heavy casualties with no success during the Battle of Coral Sea and those torpedo bombers had fighter planes to protect them.  He was going in without any fighter cover.

True to his word, LCDR Waldron prosecuted an attack on the Japanese aircraft carrier Soryu with his 15 torpedo bombers.  John Waldron is shot down and killed along with all 15 aircraft of Torpedo 8.  None of their torpedoes scored a hit on any of the carriers and all hands were lost except for Ensign George Gay who watched the ensuing battle while floating in the ocean under a seat cushion so he wouldn’t be shot by passing Japanese sailors.

Although the attack by Torpedo 8 failed to damage any ships directly, Waldron’s tactic caused the Japanese fighter planes to defend the ships and pulled them out of position to protect the carriers from the subsequent dive bomber attacks.  These attacks were ultimately successful, severely damaging all 3 Japanese carriers, forcing the armada to retreat, saving Midway island and ultimately turned the tide of the war because the Japanese lost experienced air and maintenance crews.

We can all learn a lesson about leadership from John Waldron.  Some leadership gurus try to make leadership arcane with their 21-laws or other subtleties. Although there are many nuances to leadership, basic leadership comes down to 3 key points.  Without these, nothing else matters:

  1. Be clear in your objective
  2. Be clear in your message
  3. Never ask your team to do something you aren’t willing to do yourself

Make sure everyone in your company knows why you are in business, knows what differentiates you from your competitors and how you positively affect the lives of your customers.  As I point out in my blog, ARE YOUR SIGHTS SET ON TARGET?, having a unified vision is crucial to success.

Never be ambiguous in your communications.  Confusion kills!  Although virtually everyone in Torpedo 8 was killed, by distracting the Japanese fighters, few of the Dive Bombers that subsequently attacked were lost.  Ultimately, the Japanese failure to invade Midway Island saved untold thousands of civilians who lived on our west coast.  Tell your team exactly what you expect from them, the consequences of failure the rewards of success.

Model the behaviors you want from your team.  Exemplify what you want and you will get it back.  Waldron was the only experienced pilot in his squadron.  He knew how bad it would be without fighter cover and had argued strongly for their protection up until the launched on the mission.  But Waldron never hesitated, he modeled the behavior he needed from his troops.

Do these 3 things and your team will rise to the occasion.


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