The Mahogany Bomber

Are we leading our teams from behind our desks?

Squadron Leader Don MacDonell’s pilots had a thirty minute release.  The weather was deteriorating and Group command didn’t want them sitting in their planes waiting for the skies to clear. The Germans wouldn’t fly in this weather.  With the grey clouds scudding across the hills, they’d never be able to find their targets.  

MacDonell and his pilots returned to the mess.  They grabbed mugs of tea and lounged about, hoping the weather wouldn’t improve.  MacDonell noticed a tall, lanky man in a white flying suit standing next to the fireplace.  The outfit meant he was a pilot, but his gray hair meant he was too old to be a replacement in the squadron.  And he wasn’t wearing any indicator of rank, so MacDonell thought he was probably a ferry pilot, bringing a new or repaired plane to the squadron. So here he was warming up next to the fire, waiting out the weather.

The squadron went about their leisure in the casual atmosphere of the mess. A few were reading, a few were mucking about over a game of chess, others were trying to catch a few minutes of sleep.  No one paid much attention to the newcomer.  MacDonell walked over and introduced himself to the man, asking if he could do anything for him.

‘Yes,” he replied. “I’m your Air Officer Commanding!”

MacDonell was speechless.  That meant the tall man who’d been quietly standing there was Group 11 Commander Keith Park.  Here he was, in the squadron’s mess, with no indicators of rank, no pomp and circumstance, no entourage.  And as MacDonell discovered, he wasn’t there to find fault. He was there to sit down, answer their questions, find out what they needed, and to listen. By the end of the afternoon, MacDonell recalled, Park would probably have asked to join the squadron’s flight practice if the weather had permitted.  The incident made such an impression on MacDonell that he repeated the story to historian Alfred Price years later.

Portrait of Keith Park in front of a Spitfire

Group 11 Commander Keith Park, in his flight suit, preparing for take off. Original image © IWM (CM 3513)

It may have been unusual for MacDonell but this routine for Park. As the second in command of Fighter Command, his traditional place was at the Group Headquarters in Uxbridge.  There he dutifully executed his job, sitting behind the desk he called his “mahogany bomber.”  But he strained against the trappings of military rank and the isolation it led to. So whenever possible, he visited his squadrons, alone and unannounced, because he believed it was the most effective way to learn what was really happening. Without the filter of official channels.

So in the summer evenings, after finishing his work at Group Headquarters, Park would exchange his uniform for a white flight suit and climb into his aircraft.  Like his pilots, he flew a Hurricane; emblazoned with the call sign OK1. After landing at a squadron airfield he’d meet informally with the pilots in the mess, with the mechanics in the hangars, and the civilians repairing the day’s damage.  These were never official visits, and they were never just formalities.  He took the time to see how things really were, to listen to problems, and to offer encouragement.  In these efforts he was relentless, making over sixty flights during the long summer months.

And if Park had to travel into combat zones to get a clear understanding of the situation, so be it. While commanding the defense of the British evacuation at Dunkirk, Park’s OK1 was the last plane to fly over the deserted beaches. And the men and women under his command adored him for it.  Today, it is impossible to find recollections from his subordinates that are less than glowing. Most border on awe-struck.  As one future Air Commodore recalled, “All of us worshiped him. Not only because he was an outstanding commander, but because he also set a tremendous example of courage in the air.”

But to Park this was not a “tremendous example of courage” it was the duty of a leader.  It was critical to receive information directly from the men and women on the front lines. He once stated that without it, “I commanded only my desk at Uxbridge.”  And it was his conviction that leaders must look after their men and ensure their welfare, even at the expense of the leader’s convenience.

Action This Day

Park’s front line leadership was critical.  Follow his example.  Get out from behind your desks.  Bail out of the mahogany bomber.  Engage your staff directly.  Here are the rules I always give my clients.  Face to face is best.  Next is the telephone. Email is not communication, it’s documentation.  This is simple advice that has a huge impact on your leadership. And it doesn’t cost anything to implement. But the effects are powerful:

  1. You’ll have a better understanding what is happening on your team.  Engaging your staff directly, in their work spaces, will give you an unbiased picture.
  2. You improve communication with your employees.  They’ll feel more open to discuss issues and concerns with you.  Your presence, and the questions you ask will tell them more about your real priorities and focus than a thousand emails or memos ever could.
  3. You’ll improve morale.  People don’t work for companies, they work for their bosses.  If you want to be the boss people want to work for, listen to their concerns, praise their work, and treat them with respect. That’s charisma, and it can be learned.

Tell me what you think in the comments.  Obviously we don’t have to brave German fighters to engage our teams directly. So in the modern office, what does it mean to lead from the front?