The Cadet Who Roared

(this was originally published on

In Yelling is not Leadership I tried to show that a lot of the time when your people make mistakes it’s your fault, not theirs. And when it is your fault, yelling at them won’t help – and will often hurt. I unfortunately had an opportunity to see this happen…

In 1999 I was a staff member at the Pennsylvania Wing Officer’s Training School. OTS was run during the wing encampment in the same general area of Fort Indiantown Gap.

On the second night of the encampment, I was just getting to sleep at about midnight when I heard shouts of “FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!” from the encampment area – the scheduled fire drill. Since I was awake anyway, I decided to go up and see the fun.

I got to the encampment area and watched one of the squadrons boil out of the barracks. Both flights of fifty Cadets formed into loose columns a safe distance from the building and began counting off. When the counting was complete, the young Cadet first lieutenant in charge of one of the flights realized he was short two Cadets. He had the flight count again and got the same answer.

In a near-panic, he ran to his squadron commander and reported that he was short two Cadets. His squadron commander, an older Cadet lieutenant colonel, turned on him and roared, “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU LOST TWO CADETS?!? YOU’D BETTER GO FIND THEM!!” The flight commander froze in fright at this outburst, unsure of what to do in the situation he’d been handed. After a brief pause, the squadron commander shouted, “DON’T JUST STAND THERE! GO BACK INTO THE BUILDING AND LOOK FOR THEM!”

The flight commander turned and pelted off for the door as the colonel urged him on by yelling, “HURRY! HURRY! THEY COULD BE DYING IN THERE!!”

A few moments later, the flight commander reappeared with two Cadets in tow. He deposited them with the flight and approached his squadron commander. “Sir, they were in the head. Two Seniors grabbed them as they were headed out the building and told them to hide.”

The squadron commander looked at him and snarled, “Get back with your flight. Come see me after we’re done out here.” Obviously sick-at-heart, the lieutenant rejoined his flight for the conclusion of the fire drill.

After everyone was sent inside, I approached the squadron commander and said, “Colonel, let me ask you something. What exactly were the instructions you gave your flight commanders about the fire drills?”

“They were told they were responsible for their people, sir”, he replied.

“Yes, but what exact instructions were they given, other than to count their people?”

“He was told very clearly that he was responsible for his people.”

“Okay,” I said. “But what did you tell him to do if he found out that he was short people? What were his instructions? You can’t go in there and chew him out when he was never told what to do…”

“Sir, he knows that he’s responsible for his people.”

“Yes, but…” I was beginning to lose my patience with this young man and at that point MY commander stepped in. He sent the Cadet colonel on his way and, during our walk back to the OTS barracks, admonished me about interfering with the encampment. “We’re OTS, we need to let the encampment run itself.”

“But major!” I objected, “he doesn’t understand!”

“And he’s not going to…” was the major’s reply.

The major was right. While I tried to talk to him, the colonel had gone on the defensive; he was trying to justify his actions instead of thinking critically about them.

The stern talking-to that the colonel was going to give his flight commander was going to serve absolutely no useful purpose. The flight commander already knew he was responsible for his Cadets. It was obvious from his behavior that the flight commander took this responsiblity very seriously. There was no point in yelling at the flight commander for his ‘failure’; he already knew he’d ‘failed’ and he felt awful about it.

So, where did the fault lie? Almost certainly with the squadron commander or the encampment staff. There was a well-communicated mission: get everyone outside and counted. However, the people expected to accomplish this mission had never recieved complete instructions in how to accomplish it if there were problems. Since the flight commander had no idea how to do the job right, he was almost certain to do the job wrong.

You could argue that this was an opportunity for the flight commander to think on his feet and exercise leadership, and he failed at that. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that in the case of a fire someone might turn up missing when everyone gathers, and to come up with a plan to keep that from happening and a plan for if it does happen.

If these plans had been discussed, the situation might have turned out very differently. Someone assigned to make a ‘final sweep’ of the barracks might have found the two Cadets in the shower and got them outside. Or, once they were discovered missing, a Senior member could have been notified and action taken. In either case, the flight commander would have had options available to him.

A final question to ponder: if these plans were discussed and the flight commander had behaved in exactly the same way, what should his squadron commander have done?

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