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Commentary | July 17, 2006

Leadership lessons from an unusual source

By Chief Master Sgt. Kevin G. Slater 480th Intelligence Wing

“Chief, what books on leadership should I be reading?”  

An Airman posed this question to me recently. I’m not sure which titles he was expecting me to suggest, but you should have seen the look on his face when my list started with, “Starship Troopers,” the Sci-Fi classic written by Robert Heinlein.  

Fortunately, he didn’t run off thinking I was nuts, but instead stuck around to give me a chance to explain why I recommend this book to every aspiring leader – officer, enlisted and civilian. 

When I returned home that evening, I searched my place for my heavily dog-eared copy of the book (it had been a while since I last read it cover-to-cover). When I picked it up, out fell a sheet of paper on which I had long ago penned a list of questions on which the book either answered for me or shaped my perspective.  

1. How long should it take me to identify with my unit?

2. How does unit cohesion and esprit de corps influence how/why we fight? 

3. What’s this “violence never solves anything” argument all about?

4. Is there a purpose to war, a rhyme or reason to how we conduct war, and why don’t we just settle all our wars by “nuking them ‘til they glow?”

5. Where might the “quality” movement have started?

6. What is the true value of firm training?

7. Why are “please” and “thank you” sometimes left out?

8. Is it really my responsibility to know and obey the rules, what should I expect when I break them, how come my training instructor at Basic Military Training seems so smart now when I reflect on “rationalizing behavior” and when might it be a good time for me just to shut up?

9. Shouldn’t we just dole out awards and decorations to everyone, even to those who aren’t our “best of the best?” Everybody is working hard, right? Twenty years in service should automatically qualify for a Meritorious Service Medal or better, no questions asked, right? 

10. What if I think I know better?

11. Where’s the value in “remedial training” and “administrative discipline,” and is there a more effective way than simply “killing trees” and stuffing personal information files like Christmas stockings?

12. What’s all this business about morality, duty and my rights? 

13. Is there a significant relationship between authority and responsibility? 

14. Am I ready to take charge?

15. What might I learn about command, decision-making and using my noncommissioned officers? 

16. Will there be times when it might be best to check my rank at the door, roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty?

17. This futuristic, Sci-Fi stuff is great, but can you give me a good current-day, no kidding, could really happen in today’s Air Force leadership challenge, like maybe how I might handle a someone trying to get me or one of my Airmen to sign “sight unseen” (pencil whipping) a “jacked-up” equipment custodian account? 

18. The “best of the best” ignore taking care of themselves and work until ridiculous hours each night all in the name of completing every single assigned task, right? 

Was it Robert Heinlein’s intention to pen a simple Sci-Fi novel for the casual reader or did he plan to craft a virtual manual on leadership, followership and civic responsibility? 

I’m not entirely sure; however, I certainly did appreciate the discovery of profound lessons within a novel far more interesting and digestible than the classic “tough-to-read,” scholarly leadership textbook.