Billy Mitchell was a visionary airpower pioneer who demonstrated very effective leadership in field operations, but his inability to develop a guiding coalition limited his effectiveness in leading the major organizational change he so desperately desired. General Mitchell was a famous, some would say infamous, airpower thinker who some regard as the father of the United States Air Force.1 Born into a wealthy family and the son of a Wisconsin Senator, Mitchell could have chosen a life of luxury. But Billy sought great adventure and chose the military life instead. He joined the Army at the age of eighteen, six years before the Wright brothers made their first historic flight at Kitty Hawk. Once powered flight was proven, it wouldn’t take long for men to make it a weapon of war. For the U.S. Army, Mitchell found himself leading this effort in World War I and, by all accounts, he did so superbly. In this experience, he gained a vision for airpower so firmly embraced that he became America’s most outspoken supporter of air forces and the need for an independent Air Service.
As he pursued this challenge, Mitchell’s leadership was both stirring and divisive – leading to heroic displays of airpower technology and also to courts martial for insubordination. Despite his efforts, General Mitchell was not able to drive the Army and the nation to the strategic change he desired for airpower. In the years, however, following his downfall, many of his concepts eventually won the day. Denied his dream in life, his contributions were rewarded six years after his death when he was posthumously promoted to Major General and awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. How could a man succeed so greatly in one phase of his life, but fail to achieve the same level of success in another, given the fact that history has proven his airpower tenants correct? To answer this, one must examine Mitchell’s leadership and explore how it affected his successes and failures. The Air War College leadership curriculum provides an environment to examine the underpinnings of leadership and how it may be defined and improved. As a core analytical framework, it utilizes the Right to Lead (RTL) Model.
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2 This model allows one, given certain authority, obligations, and requirements, to assess leadership against the factors of competence, character, personality, and relevance. I use these factors to assess Mitchell’s field leadership and provide rationale for his operational successes. Mitchell possessed high levels of leadership competence, especially with regard to his knowledge and skills. He was very intelligent and dedicated himself to mastering the technical aspects of every military duty, which crossed a wide gamut from reading Morse code to flying aircraft. His assignments, from the jungles of the Philippines to the barren tundra of Alaska, provided him with great breadth of experience from which he polished the personal skills needed to lead his men. He leveraged this talent in the first world war, when he brought the power of his knowledge and experience to combat the ignorance of those who failed to understand how to employ airpower in the fight.
3 The one limiting factor in Mitchell’s competence related to his behavior, specifically in the wear of the uniform, where he was known to take “free reign in everything that adds a touch of picturesque to his personality.4 He would have been wise to remedy his behavior in this regard, as some of his actions drew outrage from his men, including the wear of more gold chevrons on his sleeve than he was authorized.5 Luckily for Mitchell, due to his strength of character, his men were mostly willing to overlook his behavioral faults. He was known as a man of integrity and was fiercely devoted to the well being of his men. Given that an honest effort was put forward, he was surprisingly tolerant of mistakes. Most importantly in the eyes of his troops, before ordering a subordinate to undertake a tough assignment, Mitchell would experiment with the task himself.6 Consider the following: Mitchell enlisted into the Army at eighteen despite his option of an easier life; he was the first airmen to volunteer for assignment to France in World War I; and he was the first American officer to fly over the German front lines.
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7 I argue that these examples all support the fine character of General Mitchell. Mitchell’s personality was well suited for leadership in a field environment. He was able to effectively utilize the coercive, authoritative, and pacesetting leadership styles that, according to leadership research, were well suited for executing his vision in stressful environments with highly motivated men.8 He engendered high levels of trust from those who worked under him and gained the respect of those who worked by his side, including the British, French, and Italian allied leadership.9 Relevance, the apex of the RTL model, is a direct result of a leader’s influence and occurs at the organizational, environmental, and personal levels.10 Mitchell showed relevance in all of these areas. First, from an environmental perspective, he brought together multiple organizations, air forces from Britain, Italy, and the United States, and integrated their personnel and equipment into a viable fighting force, which culminated in “the greatest concentration of air power that had ever taken place.”
11 He had high organizational relevance, changing the persona of his combined force from one solely focused on strategic attack, to one comfortable executing the additional tactics and techniques of air superiority, close air support, and interdiction.12 Finally, General Mitchell had tremendous personal relevance to the airmen fighting under his command. As America rushed to get into the European air fight, they suffered from long delays in producing aircraft and training pilots, so much so that the vast majority of Army airmen shipped to Mitchell had never seen an airplane.13 He took this force and trained them to fly, fight, and win – culminating in a decisive victory at the Battle of St. Mihiel. The RTL model proves a valuable tool to help understand why Mitchell was an effective leader in field operations, which culminated in his effective planning and execution of the European air campaign of World War I. His experiences there convinced him that airpower would be the dominate force in future warfare and to effectively organize, train, equip, and employ it required the creation of an independent Air Service Department.
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14 Enacting such a vision required strategic organizational change, which Mitchell attempted to lead. He proved less successful in this regard and I’ll look to experts on leading change in an effort to understand why. In his book Leading Change, John Kotter spells out the eight steps to create major change within an organization.15 The change process can be summarized in three phases: break the status quo; introduce many new practices; and ground the changes into the organizational culture.16 To break the status quo, post-war budget cutbacks provided the required sense of urgency to produce military change and Mitchell had a clear and articulate vision, but he failed to create a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition to support the change. Though he was able to create a large cadre of airpower advocates in the military, the congress, and in the public, Mitchell was never able to get Army and Navy leadership to buy into his vision.
When the head of an organization is not an active supporter, major change can be impossible.17 Unable to break the status quo, Mitchell targeted the second phase of the change process by introducing new practices and empowering those under his command to take broad action in the development of new aircraft and more capable munitions. Mitchell hoped public demonstrations of these capabilities would force his leadership to buy into his vision. In an attempt to make this happen, he turned to dissent. Mitchell utilized the national press to campaign for support, publicly denouncing the policies and positions of his leadership.18 In more recent times, other famous leaders, including Generals Douglas McArthur and Stanley McChrystal, have been relieved for publicly espousing opinion in conflict with national leadership. But I believe Mitchell felt national security was at stake and that, as the Army’s top airpower strategist, his expertise was being overlooked.
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When these conditions are met, some argue that dissent is appropriate.19 Right or wrong, Mitchell’s public campaign won him a very public showing of airpower capabilities, where his men famously sunk the battleship Ostfriesland.20 His public success did garner support for aviation – Navy aviation. The public nature of his dissent offended leadership and made it impossible for him to build the guiding coalition required for his vision. Without this key ingredient, he was unable to drive the organizational change desired. General Richard Myers argues that successful strategic leaders must manage cognitive dissonance.21 Thus, successful management means maintaining relationships despite disagreement. Mitchell failed here when he went public. Remarkably, he wasn’t fired, probably because his views aligned with the public mood of the day.
22 However, he again enacted this approach three years later with even stronger criticism of national policy and leadership. This time, he’d experience the impacts of dissent as he was tried and convicted at court martial. Although this ended his military career, Mitchell regarded his trial as a necessary cog in the wheel of progress.23 Billy Mitchell was an extremely effective leader in field operations. He was also a visionary airpower pioneer who attempted, but failed, to lead organizational change due to his inability to build the requisite coalition. His ideas were valid and later implemented after his death. It took men with different leadership competencies, however, to eventually enact the changes Mitchell so deeply advocated.
1. Lt Col William Ott, “Maj Gen William “Billy” Mitchell: A Pyrrhic Promotion,” Air and Space Power Journal, Winter 2006, 27. 2. Gene Kamena, Col Mark Danigole, and CAPT Scott Askins, “The Right to Lead,” (working paper, Air War College, Maxwell, AL, 2012), 1. 3. Roger Burlingame, General Billy Mitchell (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, Inc., 1978), 78. 4. Ibid., 103.
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5. Ibid., 79.
6. Ibid., 78-79.
7. Dr. Michael L. Grumelli, “Billy Mitchell’s Air War: Practice, Promise, and Controversy,” (lecture, National Museum of the United States Air Force Lecture Series, Dayton, OH, 16 Jan 2000), NPN. 8. Daniel Goleman, “Leadership That Gets Results,” On Point: Harvard Business Review, March-April, 2002, 11. 9. Burlingame, General Billy Mitchell, 103.
10. Kamena, Danigole, and Askins, “The Right to Lead,” 1-5. 11. Burlingame, General Billy Mitchell, 94.
12. Grumelli, “Billy Mitchell’s Air War,” NPN.
13. Burlingame, General Billy Mitchell, 73-74.
14. Alfred F. Hurley, Billy Mitchell: Crusader for Air Power (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1975), 40. 15. John P. Kotter, Leading Change (Boston MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1996), 20-22. 16. Ibid., 23.
17. Ibid., 6. 18. Hurley, Billy Mitchell: Crusader for Air Power, 62. 19. Don M. Snyder, Dissent and Strategic Leadership in the Military Professions, ASSI Publication 849 (Carlisle, PA: Army Strategic Studies Institute, February 2008), 6-7. 20. Hurley, Billy Mitchell: Crusader for Air Power, 64-69. 21. GEN Richard B. Myers, Ret. and Albert C. Pierce, “On Strategic Leadership,” Joint Force Quarterly, No. 54, 3rd quarter 2009, 13. 22. Hurley, Billy Mitchell: Crusader for Air Power, 90. 23. Hurley, Billy Mitchell: Crusader for Air Power, 105.
1. Roger Burlingame, General Billy Mitchell (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, Inc., 1978), 1-94. 2. Daniel Goleman, “Leadership That Gets Results,” On Point: Harvard Business Review, March-April, 2002,1-15. 3. Dr. Michael L. Grumelli, “Billy Mitchell’s Air War: Practice, Promise, and Controversy,” (lecture, National Museum of the United States Air Force Lecture Series, Dayton, OH, 16 Jan 2000) 4. Alfred F. Hurley, Billy Mitchell: Crusader for Air Power (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1975), 1-105. 5. Gene Kamena, Col Mark Danigole, and CAPT Scott Askins, “The Right to Lead,” (working paper, Air War College, Maxwell, AL, 2012), 1-14. 6. John P. Kotter, Leading Change (Boston MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1996), 3-31. 7. GEN Richard B. Myers, Ret. and Albert C. Pierce, “On Strategic Leadership,” Joint Force Quarterly, No. 54, 3rd quarter 2009, 12-13. 8. Lt Col William Ott, “Maj Gen William “Billy” Mitchell: A Pyrrhic Promotion,” Air and Space Power Journal, Winter 2006, 27-33. 9. Don M. Snyder, Dissent and Strategic Leadership in the Military Professions, ASSI Publication 849 (Carlisle, PA: Army Strategic Studies Institute, February 2008), 1-46. 10. Marybeth P. Ulrich, “The General Stanley McChrystal Affair: A Case Study in Civil-Military Relations,” Parameters, US Army War College Quarterly, Vol. XLI No. 1, Spring 2011, pp. 86-100.
Billy Mitchell was the founding father of what is now the Air Force. His legacy of tragedy and triumph resonates with the proposition that success always starts with failure. The tragedy of his court martial, subsequent resignation after a long military career, and early death ended in triumph because his vision became a reality in the creation of today’s independent Air Force. Mitchell’s vision ...