Billy Mitchell’s Visionary Leadership

What if I told you that the “Father of the Air Force” publicly criticized and attacked his superior leaders, to include the White House? Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell was a Visionary Leader, but an Unethical Leader that successfully campaigned his message extensively while criticizing all of his superiors during his air power movement. Between WWI and WWII, Mitchell used his rank and name recognition to spearhead the push for air power relevance.

In Hurley’s (1975) writing, he said Mitchell, “exemplified the dedicated patriot, whose single-minded devotion to a cause, would lead him to a degree of recklessness, resulting in his own downfall”. First, we will discuss his Visionary Leadership when he used Management by Exception – Active to campaign and market his vision. Secondly, we will discuss his Unethical Leadership and his Drive for Success by going toe-to-toe with the Navy, War Department, and the White House Administration. We will also review his Loyalty Syndrome and some interesting highlights of his court-martial.

Lastly, I would like to synthesize a personal scenario that we can review to illustrate Management by Exception – Active, Drive for Success, and Loyalty Syndrome leadership traits with the effects they can cause on a leader. First, let’s explore his visionary leadership. Visionary Leader Mitchell campaigned for public and government support of the Air Service, and to build a separate air department outside of the Army and Navy. He was very busy announcing his message while, “his staff prepared editorials, letters to editors, and articles for newspapers” (Hurley, 1975).

After he sunk his first battleship to prove air power supremacy over naval vessels, he became well known nationwide for his vision. Mitchell took his message to congress, “Now, air power is the dominant feature of military operations. Air power can fly directly to the vital centers of an opposing state and neutralize them. It can destroy the cities, it can wreck the aqueducts, it can knock out the lines of communication, it can destroy the food supplies, and make the people helpless to resist” (Hurley, 1975).

Mitchell’s fear of a similar attack in the United States encouraged him to use Full Range Leadership style of Management by Exception – Active. According to our lesson plan in Full Range Leadership, Management by Exception – Active (MBE-A) indicates that, “Effective use of MBE-A reduces uncertainties, avoids unnecessary risks, and ensures important goals are being met” (TBEE, 2016). I believe that a visionary leader must be able to utilize the MBE-A trait to properly see the end goal of their vision and they must have the ability to carry out that goal.

Therefore, I believe his vision and active campaigning for air supremacy and military diversity made him a “Visionary Leader”. Unfortunately, not like his visionary trait, Mitchell’s steadfast drive and focused devotion to a cause led him down the path of an “Unethical Leader”. Ethical Leader Mitchell believed that aircraft bombers would take the place of naval battleships and he had an aggressive stance to bring about change, publicly attacking superiors in the Navy, Army, and the White House. Mitchell was solidly in the Drive for Success ethical trap.

According to our lesson plan in Ethical Leadership, Drive for Success defines that, “Drive for success occurs when decisions are made based on a “win at all cost” attitude rather than on military rules, regulations, and codes of conduct” (TBEE, 2016). As time went on, he became more and more outspoken when the Air Service was reduced funding, while the Navy’s funding had increased. In 1925, Mitchell charged the government of, “incompetency, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration of the national defense by the Navy and War Departments” (Maksel, 2009).

Mitchell also announced to the nation declaring, “Brave airmen are being sent to their deaths by armchair admirals who don’t care about air safety” (Jones, 2010). President Coolidge had enough of his conduct. Mitchell was ordered to appear in court for a court-martial in 1925. The trial wasn’t any smoother. Some say that Mitchell put on a show to further drive his point. Others say it was just his character. Regardless, he displayed steep Loyalty Syndrome.

According to our lesson plan in Ethical Leadership, Loyalty Syndrome defines that, “making decisions based on respect and/or loyalty to an individual, unit, or organization rather than on military rules, regulations, and codes of conduct” (TBEE, 2016). Mitchell had some mentionable testimonies from his court-martial, such as, “The people have placed their trust in the War and Navy Departments, to provide a proper defense for the safety of the nation. It has not been done. I consider this failure to be… the criminal offense of treason” (Hurley, 1975).

Mitchell continued to stand firm, “The bodies of my former companions in the air, moulder under the soil in America, and Asia, Europe and Africa, many, yes a great many, sent there directly by official stupidity. ” (Maksel, 2009). He was court-martialed and convicted of insubordination that year. While explaining his remarkable traits of Drive for Success and Loyalty Syndrome, I can easily say: I believe an ethical leader must have the ability to be self-aware to avoid actions such as Drive for Success and Loyalty Syndrome.

I have no doubt, that Mitchell was, an “Unethical Leader” for criticizing his superior leaders. Next, we will explore a scenario at one of my deployed locations and tie in Mitchell’s visionary and unethical traits for further clarification and the effect they can cause on a leader. Personal Relevance While I was deployed to Kirkuk Air Base, Iraq, I was denied an important project when I requested approval to create a more efficient and stable system component at the Waste Water Plant. My solution would have less maintenance, downtime, and critical issues as we did with the current system component.

I knew I could make a new, more reliable system but I had resistance from the Noncommissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC) for unknown reasons. I campaigned for my own project. I re-engaged with the NCOIC with all of the research, material needed, and plans. With hesitation, I was finally granted permission to continue and the project was a success. The capability of the Kirkuk Air Base Waste Water Plant increased immensely. Next, we will review the similarities of my actions in Management by Exception – Active, and consider alternate endings when Drive for Success and Loyalty Syndrome traits are mixed in.

While considering Mitchell’s visionary leadership traits, and blending his unethical leadership traits into my scenario, the result would not end well. We both campaigned to avoid unnecessary risks and ensured that important goals were met. This is Management by Exception – Active. The follow-through that both of us displayed stemmed success. Let’s imagine that I had fallen for the Drive for Success trap. My intensions to win my project would have consumed me, and I’d demand that my project was approved.

In all of our positions, we answer to someone. After demanding action, how many of our supervisors or commanders would just keel over any say, “sure, go ahead”? Let’s now imagine I had Loyalty Syndrome instead. One possible avenue that this could go, is that as soon as the NCOIC said no, I would’ve gave up immediately. I may not have asked to create a project either, due to not having the ethics to suggest fixing an impeding failure with the malfunctioning component and willingly pass that problem to the next deployment rotation.

The realization of the importance of one’s actions in regards to being visionary and ethical has been eye opening in the end. Conclusion In conclusion, we reviewed Mitchell’s nationwide campaign to increase the knowledge of air supremacy and dominance by using skills such as Management by Exception – Active. We then reviewed his outspoken Drive for Success in which he did everything he could to “win” and then discussed his Loyalty Syndrome where he was so devoted to a cause that rules, regulations, customs and courtesies meant less to him.

Lastly, I shared with you how we, as leaders, could affect our leadership with visionary and unethical behaviors. Mitchell was a “Visionary Leader”, but an “Unethical Leader” that successfully campaigned his message extensively while criticizing all of his superiors during his air power movement. Brigadier General, William “Billy” Mitchell, provoked a nation. His actions shocked and angered many. In the end, he still inspired the creation of an independent, United States Air Force as we know it today.