Friday, January 17, 2014

Identify Friend or Foe...

Edited 1/1/15

One of the recurring observations in my EMS flying career has been that program leaders have a hard time  leading. Perhaps it's due to HEMS involving professionals, people who sell their talent and skill rather than their simple physical labor. Professionals might be assumed to chafe at the yoke of being "led," or perhaps the atmosphere is assumed to be more collegial (of or characterized by the collective responsibility shared by each of a group of colleagues, with minimal supervision from above.)  In truth, most groups of working people need a leader. There will always be someone pushing limits. There must be someone else to enforce them.

I have  worked at dozens of flight programs. Each has it's typical range of personalities, - the stars, the plow-horses, the puzzles,  and often a troublemaker or two. Perhaps dealing with these bad apples is viewed as too much trouble, or fraught with risk of legal repercussion. Perhaps the risk is that the persons in question might damage the standing of the program in the community and reduce demand for service. Or maybe the leader is uncomfortable in a conflict situation.

I was there once, in an uncomfortable conflict situation. As a young man in the Air Force,  I  worked as a manager in  military clubs (open-messes). As a club-manager I had been forced to fire people who were incapable of keeping up with money or responsibility - and it was never easy. I agonized over having to let a person go, but I felt that it was best to set and maintain a standard of behavior.  Otherwise, chaos and anarchy would reign.

Fast forward a few years. I found myself working as an instructor-pilot flying the MH-47 Chinook in the Special Operations Aviation unit  in Savannah Georgia. I developed friendships with the other "conventional" Chinook pilots at Hunter; we gathered for parties. It was a happy time. 

Then a pilot-friend from the other Chinook unit decided to volunteer for duty with my regiment - the 160th.  I was assigned to travel to Fort Campbell to conduct his assessment, a process designed to test the mettle (or metal) of the volunteer. Part of the assessment is a check-ride beginning with an in-depth question-and-answer  session and a flight to an objective - which must be reached within 30 seconds of the designated time-on-target. Assessments are hard on assessees, and any person who even tries is to be admired.

As events unfolded, it became apparent to me that he had let his knowledge of the things we are supposed to keep up with slip. He had stopped putting forth the effort required of an army aviator, and was coasting. It was uncomfortable for me. We were friends. I didn't want to go there.  I didn't want to "toss him under a bus."  I almost let it go.

Then, I considered my regiment. And our standard of behavior - our code of conduct. I had no choice - I had to report honestly on his performance as he stood at attention in front of the officers sitting on his board. It was brutal. They were brutal. Had I been in his shoes, I might have given up. My commander chewed  him up and down.

I can only imagine how bad it felt to be Chris Scherkenbach that day.

He demonstrated courage and integrity when I asked him, "would you say your sub-standard performance is due to the low-expectations and mediocrity of the company you are assigned to - or are these failings all your own?  He stared straight ahead and took responsibility himself. "It's my fault - not my company's."
His response was what the board was looking for. You can teach a monkey to fly, but you cannot turn a monkey into a man. The 160th is a place for men; men of integrity, courage, and capability.  And perhaps someday women with these same characteristics.

What I did was hard. It was hard on me, and it was  harder on him.

We hired Chris.
I retired from the Army. Chris did a 180-degree course reversal, and turned himself into the kind of pilot we should all be. His knowledge and skill became second-to-none. He was a leader,  a team-player, a master of his craft. He flew special operations forces in support of national objectives world-wide.

He was a NightStalker.

One day in Afghanistan, a SEAL team got into trouble and called for help. Chris Scherkenbach was one of the pilots the commander sent to go rescue them. When trouble came calling - and the commander needed to send the very best - he sent Chris.

You can see a picture of Chris Scherkenbach, and the entire crew of that Chinook, if you sit through the movie "Lone Survivor" till the end.  They got shot down and killed. Chris is now a national hero, he belongs to history. He is an example for all Americans to follow. His excellence is set in stone.

I thought that  I was being unkind and disloyal to a friend the day Chris Scherkenbach assessed for duty with the 160th. I was wrong. By upholding a standard of performance I did both him and my organization a huge favor. It took courage for me to do the right thing. It took courage for him to withstand the assault.

I hope that you, as a leader in the business of  flying sick people, can determine what the standards of performance for your organization should be, and then have the courage to uphold them. 

You do no one a favor by shirking this responsibility - least of all the soul who needs your efforts, your emotions, your best...

To help them become their best...

safe flights...

No comments:

Post a Comment

Tell us what you think. If you are involved in helicopter emergency medical services / air ambulances, this is your community. Please refrain from posting profanity, or comments that might be considered libelous or slanderous.