In a previous life I was a Navy Pilot. Great life, great people to be around. People who were all doing great things around the world flying off great big aircraft carriers. In an environment that complex and dangerous, 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 airwing”. During one tour of duty, I was assigned to the “airwing staff”. The airwing staff coordinated the activities of the ten aircraft squadrons deployed aboard the aircraft carrier. It was while working for our Airwing Commander, Captain Jerry Norris, that I would unknowingly learn what has to become my most valued rule as an entrepreneur.
Captain Norris was quite the character. A fighter pilot with all the fixings! Tall, handsome, and with enough confident charisma to handle any situation, be that in the air, on land, or at sea. But the truth of it is, none of the eight officers on the staff considered Captain Norris to be the sharpest knife in the drawer.
It wasn’t that things were not going well for he or the airwing. It just seemed strange that so simple and relaxed an individual could lead so effectively. You must understand that Captain Norris was in charge of the operations of nearly 3000 men and almost 100 of the most complex flying machines on the planet. But fly we did, and did it well. Our airwing was often singled out for acts of excellence.
It was during a short visit in 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 is the telling of tales while ashore! And it seems nothing gets the mind flowing like the flow of beer. Our cup 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 believe that he was fearless because he simply did not understand what was going on around him.
In fact, it was WE who did not understand what was going on around US!
The good Captain was sitting quietly within the sound of our voices. He had heard every one of our comments on his lack of intellect.
As the Commander with the confident charisma approached, we were certain that if we were shown mercy we would be court-martialed, and we feared that if the Captain choose not to be merciful, we would just be shot right on sight!
Speaking got us into this predicament, so silence seemed the best choice. Captain Norris spoke. He acknowledged our belief that each of us had among the finest minds in the entire Navy in our specific specialty. He flattered those things that each had done since beginning our assignment with the airwing. Captain Norris offered that he had hand selected each one of us from the entire fleet, having had 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. Captain Norris said, “The mark of the true leader is not one who gives orders, or feigns knowledge, but rather the leader who plants the needed seed in a fertile mind so gently, that the subordinate believes the idea emerged from within.”
Continued silence. He was in complete control of our actions and had always been. He chose each of us knowing full well that in our specific areas of expertise, we were well beyond him. And knowing full well that in his area, that of building teams of the best and brilliant, then allowing them to take ownership of ideas, he was the expert.
Captain Norris asked what I 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.”