I enjoy reading about people who have accomplished remarkable things. The biographies of their lives are very interesting to me. What were their childhoods like? How did the events come together that led to their success. What struggles did they overcome and how. The answers to these questions typically reveal interesting features of their character, strategies and good fortune
I just finished reading about the life and experiences of Eddie Rickenbacker, the WWI fighter pilot nicknamed The Ace of Aces. It’s a great read, especially if you are into aviation or stories of American heros. Eddie was from Ohio, raced in the very first Indianapolis 500, commanded 94th Squadron and later owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Eddie operated his own car company. He did not fight in WWII but was quite active in the administration of the air war in both theaters. Obviously his experiences included many of the topics that I find engaging. The Book was: Eddie Rickenbacker, An American Hero in the Twentieth Century, by W. David Lewis.
It is Eddie’s leadership experiences and methods that I want to comment on in this post. He took over leadership of the 94th “Hat-in-Ring” squadron. When Eddie assumed command of the squadron it was performing poorly. It was recognized by some U.S. Army Air Corps Leaders that Rickenbacker had the right mixture of leadership and technical qualities to change the squadron’s performance. They were right. Under his leadership the unit racked up an impressive record in the war and he became the ace of aces with 26 victories. That record stood until WWII. Rickenbacker was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1930 for scoring 7 victories in one day in 1918.
But what were these characteristics of Eddie’s that allowed such success? I have briefly summarized my view of them below. I could have written a post on each of them but in an effort to keep this short, I’ll leave it at a summary sentence. Read the book if you want more!
The Eddie’s leadership characteristics were:
- Technical Competence – He was a skilled pilot and mechanic forged by self education and years of work in the field.
- Maturity – Patience to plan activities and carefully assess risk.
- Team Building – The ability to not only engage the pilots but also bring the ground crews into the team.
- Hands on Leadership – He shared the work of his team and demonstrated the ability to accomplish the mission.
- Tremendous Work Ethic – He was known for doing whatever it took to get the job done.
These leadership traits also helped him to become the highly successful Chief Executive Officer of Eastern Airlines during the formative years of the commercial aviation industry in the United States. He took the airline from an unstable start up to the most dominant and profitable operation in the industry for many years. In the process he led the advance of the industry into the international service and jet eras.
Rickenbacker was not perfect. He had a temper, was outspoken to a fault and became egotistical later in life. But the mixture of these traits created a one of a kind American hero. The man left a mark that is still visible today in politics and aviation.
The author ends his book with one of my favorite quotes from another great leader I admire: T.R. Roosevelt. The quote sums up the life and accomplishments of Eddie Rickenbacker. The quote is:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”