By Wally Conway
In a previous life, I was a Navy pilot. It was a great life, and I worked with wonderful people who were doing brave, fantastic things around the world. In a complex and dangerous environment like an aircraft carrier, you need to have teams of people working as one, or bad things begin to happen in large quantities.
The people onboard aircraft carriers are divided into two groups: those that make the ship float and those that make the planes fly. Those that make the ship float are known as ship’s company, and those that make the planes fly are with the air wing. During one tour of duty, I was assigned to the air wing staff. The air wing staff coordinated the activities of the ten aircraft squadrons deployed aboard the aircraft carrier. It was while working for our air wing commander, Captain Jerry Norris, that I learned what has become my most valued rule as an entrepreneur.
Captain Norris was quite a character. He was a fighter pilot with all the fixings: tall, handsome, and enough confident charisma to handle any situation… in the air, on land, or at sea. But the truth was, none of the eight officers on the staff considered Captain Norris to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, including me.
It wasn’t that things were not going well for the air wing or Captain Norris. It just seemed strange that an individual so apparently simple and relaxed could lead so effectively. You must understand that Captain Norris was in charge of the operations of nearly 3,000 men and almost 100 of the most complex flying machines on the planet. But fly we did, and we did it well. Our air wing was often singled out for acts of excellence.
It was during a short visit to Cannes, France that Captain Norris was to give me my lesson. Like so many of life’s lessons, the lesson was unintended. If there is one thing that flying fellows enjoy more than flying, it’s the telling of tales while ashore. And it seems nothing gets the mind flowing like the flow of beer. Our cups runneth over, as did our mouths!
The topic of the evening turned to how smart each of us was compared to our fearless leader. We were even so bold as to assert that he was only fearless because he did not understand what was going on around him. When in fact, we did not understand what was going on around us!
The good captain had been sitting quietly within earshot, and had heard every one of our comments on his lack of intellect. And as the confident, charismatic commander approached our table, we were certain that if we were shown mercy, we would merely be court-martialed. We feared that if the captain chose not to be merciful, we would be shot right on sight!
Speaking had gotten us into this predicament, so silence seemed the best choice now.
Captain Norris spoke. He acknowledged our belief that as his staff, we had among the finest minds in the entire Navy, in our specific specialty. He complimented those things that each of us had done since beginning our assignment with his air wing. Captain Norris offered that he had hand selected each one of us from the entire fleet, having to call in favors, make threats, and impose demands, just to have each of us work with him. We were there because he believed us to be the best, and he wanted only the best.
Seems he held us in the same regard that we held ourselves.
Then, Captain Norris spoke to the issue of intellect, specifically our perception of his lack thereof. He said, “The mark of a true leader is not one who gives orders, or feigns knowledge, but rather, one who plants the needed seed in a fertile mind so gently, that the subordinate believes the idea emerged from within.”
Captain Norris was in complete control of our actions and always had been. He chose each of us knowing with certainty that in our specific areas of expertise, we were well beyond him. And knowing that in his area–that of building teams of the best and brilliant and then allowing them to take ownership of ideas–he was the expert.
Captain Norris asked what we had learned. My response: “I should never hire anyone dumber than I am.”
“You’ve got it,” he said. “Must have just emerged from within.”
Wally Conway is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, retired Navy Pilot, licensed contractor, home inspector, energy auditor, media expert and entrepreneur who is the founder of HomePro Inspections. He can be reached at Wally@gohomepro.com