The literal cost of leadership

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Rob Devall
  • Buckley Garrison command chief

Many years ago, a mentor of mine relayed a story about one of the founding fathers of the U.S. Air Force, retired Gen. Benjamin Foulois. He explained that Foulois was assigned to the Signal Corps in the early 1900s and was part of the initial cadre to fly dirigibles for the U.S. Army. In parallel, the Wright Brothers were making improvements to their heavier-than-air flying machine which started to catch attention of military brass. Foulois’ experience with dirigibles and his vision of what the Wright Flyer could deliver in future warfare led him to write a thesis on airpower while at Professional Military Education. Because of that vision, he was selected to lead acceptance testing of the aircraft and then charged with learning how to fly this machine and make it practical for military action.

Over a few weeks, Foulois taught himself how to fly and, in response to almost getting thrown out of the aircraft on a crash landing, invented the first safety belt. As time continued, he also came up with the idea to add wheels to the plane, instead of being propelled off of a track, and installed wireless communications so he could effectively communicate with ground personnel. His efforts directly made the aircraft dependable enough for extended military use -- the first ever of its time.

While his actions were instrumental to the future of airpower, the next part of the story is what resonated with me the most. Foulois was given a budget of only $150 to get the program off the ground (dad joke alert), which had to last four months. Due to the number of crashes, that money didn’t last through the first thirty days. He decided to pay out of his own pocket over twice the budgeted amount (just over $300) to cover costs for repairs, upgrades, and the crew’s salaries over the next three months. Following the successful four-month trial, the program was fully funded and laid the foundation for what we know as today’s U.S. Air Force.

Foulois’ example teaches a lot, but the biggest takeaway for me is that there is a literal cost of leadership. Foulois didn’t just envision a future aircraft that could bring airpower to America’s military – he invested in it. I’m not saying to pay out of pocket for your troops’ bills or repairs of your weapons systems. What I am saying though, is that you need to believe strongly enough in what we do that you are willing to invest your currency to move us forward as a force. Your currency could actualize in a variety of ways (time, effort, money) but regardless which “Foulois Fund” you dip into, it is important to be deliberate in how you invest it -- in yourself, others, and the mission.

This approach resonates just as loudly today as it did over a century ago. With the return of peer adversaries, the challenges of coming out of a global pandemic, and the stand-up of the U.S. Space Force, we need to believe in what we do now more than ever. I challenge all of us, myself included, to strengthen those beliefs, so we may commit to pour our currency into the next generation of warfighters -- our Nation depends on it. 

Aim High and Semper Supra!