Like it or not, most of us are followers. That’s not a bad thing. It’s not a good thing. It’s just a thing. A description of the way things are. A stand-alone fact. Most of us follow someone else, a political office holder, an employer, a manager, a spouse.
Among us there are leaders, but they are few. I’m talking about real leaders, not people with a title and their name in gold leaf on a door. Real leaders are rare. Paul Poberezny was a leader. He founded the Experimental Aircraft Association in the basement of his home. It would be hard to find less impressive surroundings. Yet the humble address and the cramped workspace wasn’t the point. Paul had a message to share, a belief that he didn’t just espouse, he lived. Paul got a crazy idea in his head that people could, and maybe even should, build their own aircraft and fly them.
Ask the average man or woman on the street if they would like to build and fly an airplane, and you’ll get a lot of blank stares, a fair number of goofy rejections, and maybe, just maybe one or two takers. Yet, long odds didn’t dissuade Paul. He believed in the dream. Something inside him said he needed to share the idea with others, support their efforts to build and fly their own aircraft, and find a way to introduce those whacky homebuilders to each other.
In a nutshell, that’s what brought the EAA to life, put Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on the map, and caused a staggering number of people to build, or at least try to build, an aircraft of their own.
Talk about taking on the impossible dream. Yet Paul did it and he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Because he was a leader. He led by example. His words and deeds could be paraphrased to say, “I’m no better than you. If you try you can do the impossible, too. I’ll even help you out along the way if you want.”
That’s real leadership. He didn’t wave his arms, scream at the top of his lungs, or challenge the world to “Look at me, look at me.” He simply did his work, lived his dream, and shared his time with others in a meaningful way.
That doesn’t sound like it’s very hard to do, does it? But it is. In fact, it’s incredibly difficult.
To hold yourself up as a leader in almost any field of endeavor is to tempt the seduction of fame, fortune, and the hollow victory of self-aggrandizement. You have to learn to dodge your own ego, and to recognize the shysters and sycophants you’ll meet along the way. You have to be pure of heart and remember often that the mission is to advance the mission, not to enrich yourself or become a media darling.
Wilbur Wright was a great leader. In the end he lost his way and frittered away much of his time on meaningless pursuits that did nothing to advance the science of flight or the capability of the aircraft he designed. He was human. Like you and me, he was flawed. He ran out of time.
Jimmy Doolittle was a leader. He didn’t send his men into battle, or accompany them for moral support. He took the first airplane off the USS Hornet, the one with the shortest takeoff run and the best chance of failure. He led by example and was held in high esteem by his men for the remainder of his life, and theirs.
Joe Kittinger is a leader. In 1960 he rode a balloon to the edge of space and stepped off, all in the name of science. More than 50 years later he put his considerable expertise to work helping the Red Bull team and Felix Baumgartner get it right as they worked to put a man even higher, to fall even farther and faster. This was no stunt. The lessons learned may one day save lives, allowing astronauts an alternate means of returning to earth when their other options are gone.
Benjamin O. Davis was a leader. If they could dish it out, Davis could take it. And he could still perform at a higher level, under tougher conditions than most. He demanded the best of his men and he got it. In return, he laid the groundwork for the civil rights victories that came decades later. He was an absolutely amazing man and an officer who served with distinction.
Each of the leaders I’ve mentioned gave something up to get something they valued more highly. They took pride in their work, shared their successes, and shouldered the responsibility of their failures. They were true leaders, not reality television mock ups. They were and are the real deal. The cream of the crop. The kind of people we followers hope to meet and interact with in our lives.
Aviation seems to breed a disproportionate number of leaders. I will reserve judgment on why I think that might be true. But I am proud to share the legacy they left, and do what little I can to pass the stories of their greatness on to the generation behind me, in the hopes they will do the same.
What a wealth of great men and women we’ve rubbed shoulders with in this industry. There are more out there, thankfully. As a follower, my goal is to help them succeed on any level I can. I hope you will, too.
This is a team effort after all, even if we do wear mismatched uniforms and march to a plethora of different drummers.