A lesson on leadership

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Ryan Schiffner, 375th Communications Squadron

Scott Air Force Base, Ill. -- Leadership in the midst of a global pandemic is hard.  It makes your head hurt no matter whether you’re leading a large squadron, a workcenter, a group of peers, or just yourself.  But are you leading the right way? 

Below is a fun, simple logic puzzle that contains several hidden lessons on leadership.  Regardless of your rank or position, I’d wager it holds something you can use to expand your own leadership toolkit. 

Four Team Scott personnel came upon a treacherous bridge at night.  There was a fast and nimble senior airman, a slightly slower but more experienced NCO, a civil servant who prefers a more methodical pace, and a young officer who rolled his ankle and is now limping.  Under tonight's conditions, the fast senior airman takes 1 minute to cross the bridge, the NCO takes 2 minutes to cross the bridge, the civil servant takes 5 minutes to cross the bridge, and the officer takes 10 minutes to cross the bridge.  Under the bridge is a river teaming with ravenous alligators, intent on ripping the travelers limb from limb.  Using good ORM, the team assesses that the bridge can only hold two individuals at a time and all crossers must have a flashlight traveling with their party to provide sufficient lighting.  Unfortunately, the group only has one flashlight.

Question:  What is the minimum amount of time needed for all four individuals to safely cross the bridge? 

Take a moment to deduce your own answer before reading further.  Imagine the theme from Jeopardy while you work…

I’ve conducted this exercise with several groups and organizations during my Air Force career, and I’m consistently amazed by the creativity and tenacity that emerges.  Some individuals proposed utilizing drones to carry the flashlight, others leveraged the joint community with Army bridging equipment or Navy watercraft, and still others attempted hand-to-hand combat with the alligators. 

While the creativity was boundless, the dialogue usually went something like this.

First, we discussed the method for solving the problem.  Did you solve it individually or did you get help from others?  Did you seek thoughts from teammates that look or think differently than you?  Did you Google it (seriously!)?  By and large, I’ve discovered those that incorporated the views of others derived the best solutions.  Many brains are better than one brain, and diversity of thought is powerful!

The first and most common answer I usually get is 19 minutes.  The senior airman and NCO cross the bridge (2 min), and the senior airman returns (+1 min).  Then, the senior airman and civil servant cross the bridge (+5 min), and the senior airman returns (+1 min).  Finally, the senior airman and the limping officer cross the bridge (+10 min).  It’s a simple and common solution; the senior airman is the fastest and ferries the flashlight. 

As a leader, how often have you seen this happen?  The person who’s best at a task is assigned that task… every time.  We don’t have time to teach someone new, and we often can’t risk a rookie making a mistake. So, we press on with the same, safe solution.  But is it the best solution?

The other answer I often hear is 17 minutes.  The senior airman and NCO cross the bridge (2 min), and the senior airman returns (+1 min).  Then, the civil servant and officer cross the bridge (+10 min), and the NCO returns (+2 min).  Finally, the senior airman and the NCO cross the bridge (+2 min).  This solution is not as intuitive, but it’s far more effective.  The workload is distributed, the senior airman and the NCO both cross the bridge the same number of times, and the team performs better. 

Which approach did you use to solve the problem?  More importantly, which approach does your organization use on a daily basis?

Team Scott is full of high-performing, 1-min Airmen who consistently carry the load, but is that the best outcome for our organization?  What happens when that individual burns out?  What happens when they leave? 

As leaders you’re obligated to confront this challenge.  Are you investing in your second-string Airmen?  Are you building a bench that’s capable of growing into a starting role?  Or are you just tasking your go-to performers over and over and over again?  Be careful.  If you allow that 1-min Airman to always carry your team, you’re building a brittle team.

As we fight through a global pandemic to execute rapid global mobility, now’s the perfect time to expand Team Scott’s bench.  I challenge each of you to explore your own organizations.

At the 375th Communications Squadron, COVID has flooded our ranks with brand new tech-school graduates.  While other units may view this huge bubble in their training pipeline as a problem, we’re viewing it as an opportunity to grow our bench.  I encourage you to do the same. 

Find that junior member you can teach a new skill.  Look for that senior airman you can groom to be a supervisor.  Cultivate that NCO or officer who’s eager to lead.  Poll your civil servants and find those that want to play a larger role.  They’re out there, just waiting for their chance to excel, and it’s our job as leaders to find them. 

In closing, I’ll leave you with a mantra I was taught during my first squadron command: Instead of using people to accomplish the mission, use the mission to develop the people.”

Take some short-term risk and invest in your subordinates for long-term gain.  Give them those opportunities to showcase their skills.  Protect them when they make those rookie mistakes, and help them learn from them.  Grow them into someone who can take your place.

Our Total Force Airmen are amazing!  Just like ripples in a pond, when given the chance, there’s no telling how far they’ll go, especially if you give them a drone to carry a flashlight.