I Wouldn’t Peel That If I Were You

Capts. Tony Carr and Tim Garland taking off in a C-17 at Nellis Air Force Base in 2006 on a USAF Weapon School employment sortie. Photo: US Air Force.

A few years back, during my exceptionally privileged chance to command an Air Force squadron, I caught a lucky break: we ran out of Instructor Pilots, giving me a great excuse to bail out of the office for a few days and go log some flying time. One of our newest Aircraft Commanders needed some air refueling and traffic pattern currency before heading off to Altus for his next C-17 upgrade. Let’s call this chap “Captain Moose.”

After an uneventful planning session, I sent the crew — consisting of Captain Moose, three junior pilots, and a hapless loadmaster with no requirements coming along as “self-loading baggage” —  into crew rest for the next morning. I gave them a showtime/briefing time of 6 AM.

At 5:58 the next morning, I noticed the crew was present and ready to brief — all except for Moose.

At 6:00:00, I started the briefing as scheduled, outlining the plan, our training requirements, the weather, and everything else necessary to get us thinking like a team and situating the day’s risks and necessities appropriately in our minds before stepping to the jet.

At around 6:05, one of the other crew members inquired “sir, shouldn’t we wait for Moose?”

At around one second later, I replied “no.”

It wasn’t an unreasonable question. After all, the sortie had originally been hatched because of this guy’s training requirements. But I wasn’t going to send the wrong signal to the crew by delaying a $20,000/hr training event for his convenience.

Had he arrived by 6:05 or so, I’d have likely cast him a disapproving look, said something sarcastic in that “glad you could join us” tone of voice, and otherwise welcomed him to the sortie. But much beyond that, I’d consider him insufficiently mind-melded with the rest of the team to be a safe participant.

At around 6:15, as the briefing rolled on, I made a mental note that Moose would not be joining us on the training sortie. A few minutes later, when I passed around the orders for everyone to review, I crossed him off and made a note to inform the Command Post to do the same with their copy.

At around 6:30, just as I was starting to think about calling his phone to check on his safety, Moose arrived. Looking somewhat sheepish but mostly oblivious, he plopped down at one end of the briefing table, opened his checklist to the briefing guide page, and pretended as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. 

About a minute later, he reached into his plastic bag from Publix and grabbed a banana. Moose was about to have his breakfast.

“I wouldn’t peel that if I were you,” I said, breaking abruptly out of my mission brief in mid-sentence and instantly padlocking everyone’s attention on Moose.

Confused, he froze and looked over at me, waiting for elaboration. I just stared back, expressionless. After a few seconds as a deer in the headlights, he was able to relocate the power of speech, if only modestly so.

“Why not, sir?” … Moose queried, the slight crackle of creeping nervousness now audible. He glanced briefly at the banana as though maybe I’d spotted something wrong with it. Like maybe I had heard about an exotic banana-borne illness and halted him for his own safety. In that brief glance lay an ocean of Moose’s hope … that somehow this unfolding exchange wasn’t the first signal that he was in trouble for being 30 minutes late to a mission brief conducted by his commander. 

But it wasn’t to be, and that ocean of hope was about to be instantly vaporized. 

“You might as well eat that at home.”

The message was clear, and he offered no further protest. Beet red, he gathered his gear and sluffed into the planning room, where I later noted him slumped behind a computer, mostly obscuring himself from view. He was rightly embarrassed but felt duty bound to wait around and see if I cared to chew him out. 

But I didn’t talk to him. I let him stew in his own juices the rest of the day … not out of sadism, but to let his conscience and uncertainty “mark the tape” in his mind, so he could easily return to this moment and its lessons later in life.

When does the 0600 briefing start?
When does the 0600 briefing start?

The next day, we reviewed those lessons. I didn’t have to beckon Moose. He was a strong officer, with good impulses, and he was waiting outside my office with a fresh haircut when I arrived. After telling him to relax and giving him a banana out of my lunch pail, I explained to him the two things that made me kick him off that sortie, which I explained was meant, in part, to jar him into receptiveness for the mentorship I was now putting on offer.

First, airpower depends on the ownership of time. In a business where the management, control, and exploitation of time can make a life or death difference, respect for the criticality of time can’t be casual. It must be totally internalized. Consistently hitting a time-over-target or time-of-arrival within a few seconds can’t be expected from someone who can’t make a briefing on time and doesn’t appear to understand the seriousness of being late. In a business where speeding operations to get inside an adversary’s decision cycle is the whole point, ownership of time must be elemental.

But the second layer of reasoning was perhaps more important. 

This was one of my best captains. He had a future and would likely become a leader in the Air Force. In my mind, it was important to instill in this leader-to-be a greater degree of respect for others’ time. This is a leadership fundamental, but an oft-overlooked one. Getting it wrong can cause leaders to be unwittingly abusive with others’ time, hemorrhaging respect and loyalty in the process.

In a sentiment variously attributed to Henry VIII, Napoleon, and scores of others … time is the most irrecoverable of resources. Money, virtue, material things … all can be found, replaced, or rebuilt when they’re lost. But not time. Once gone, it is gone forever.

It must, therefore, be cherished. Leaders must understand the control they exercise over the time of others, and treat that time with the utmost care. The time subordinates give to a leader is coming out of other time accounts … such as time spent on family, personal wellness, professional study, or spiritual reflection. Every second a leader expends must count.

This connects to many issues frequently discussed on these pages. Do senior officials respect the time of those in their charge? Do they build systems that make efficient use of each individual’s time? Do they effectively man the gate through which time thieves persistently attempt to trespass, motivated by their own narrow ends?

To the extent they don’t do these things, they should.

As for Moose, he didn’t have a valid excuse for being late, but was repentant and receptive in all the right ways. Not only did he get the training he needed (albeit at the cost of giving up his Saturday afternoon to fly with another squadron), he went on to ace his upgrade and developed a reputation as a time control expert in and out of the aircraft.


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