Growing strong leaders and team champions in work, life and technology


An Interview with
Worth Carter
Program Management Principal Leader, CSC, Huntsville,  AL

Question:  As an experienced leader in both industry and the U. S. Air Force, what do you believe is the most important element of leadership?

CARTER: The most important element of leadership in any profession or endeavor is passion.  Passion for your mission or objective and passion for people.  Leadership is 90 plus percent about caring for people.  If you do not care about and have a desire to lead and serve people you will not be a successful leader, at least not in the long term.  An underpinning of that passion for people is the desire to “serve.”  As the Air Force states in our core values, “Service before Self,” is critical not only for leaders but for all members of the military.  Without the inherent desire to serve, people will place their own interests above those of the organization and others (leaders, peers, subordinates.)  A leader that places the organization’s needs and the needs of others above his or her own (a servant leader) will have the greatest chance for success.

Question:  Based on the Air Force Doctrine Document 1-1 on Leadership and Force Development, there are three levels of leadership in the Air Force:  Strategic, Operational, and Tactical (similar to the FM 6-22 Army Leadership levels Strategic, Organization and Direct).  The Air Force takes this further by relating leadership levels to leadership competencies:  Personal, People/Team and Institutional (p. 9).  In your experience, how does industry mirror this leadership structure?  In any way does it not?   

CARTER: Industry clearly focuses leadership at the three levels of tactical, operational and strategic just as the military does.  In general however, the time frame for operational and strategic issues is much shorter in industry due to the length of the business cycle.  There is also an attempt to focus on people/team and institutional leadership in industry but it is far more difficult to inculcate universal values in a civilian organization.  There are two significant reasons for this difficulty:  (1) employees are not committed to the company for extended periods, they are free to leave at any opportunity (2)industry is profit- motivated and therefore does not have the same overarching universal sense of service to the nation that binds the military together at all levels.  In addition, profit and the business cycle drive decisions in industry and regardless of the desire and attempt to instill company values, employees are well aware that a downturn in profits will eventually effect personnel decisions.

Question:  Per the AFDD 1-1, teams and team leadership is crucial at all leadership levels Strategic, Operational and Tactical.  In your experience, what is the importance of teams in industry?  How are the structure and management of teams similar to that in the Air Force?  How is it different?    

CARTER: Teams are critical in every organization.  In the military our entire ethos is team.  Whether an infantry platoon, flight of aircraft or ship convoy teams are the glue that allows the military to create synergy and win the fight.  Industry is similar as development, production, sales etc… all require a team approach for success.  Depending upon the type of industry, company teams are in general less rigid and more fluid.  Matrix organizations are quite common in industry and less so in the military, except for the acquisition and development organizations.  In the military these are often permanent organizations that have subject matter experts working together for a single manager while they are functionally and administratively assigned to an outside organization.  Industry has similar arrangements but is more likely to have individuals in Integrated Product Teams for shorter durations.  Individuals are also very likely to be members of multiple teams and while that occurs in the military as well, it is more prevalent in industry.  Specifically, combat arms units in the military are less likely to use a matrix organization.

Question:  What are your experiences with “Shared Leadership” in both the Air Force and industry…and the keys to its success?  An excerpt on Shared Leadership from the FM 6-22 Army Leadership: Competent, Confident, and Agile (2006) document is below….

“3-57. The shared leadership process occurs when multiple leaders contribute combined knowledge and individual authority to lead an organization toward a common goal or mission. Shared leadership involves sharing authority and responsibility for decision making, planning, and executing.

3-58. Shared leadership is occurring more frequently at both organizational and strategic levels where leaders of different ranks and positions come together to address specific challenges or missions where preestablished organizational lines of authority may not exist. One such example occurred before Operation Iraqi Freedom when members of multiple components and Services had to work together to support the logistics challenges that lay ahead.

Shared Leadership Solves Logistics Challenges

In the summer of 2002, V Corps hosted a logistics synchronization conference in Germany in anticipation of an impending war. Representatives from the coalition forces land component, 377th Theater Support Command, and attached units met with the V Corps logistics planners to iron out the details required to move, equip, receive, maintain, sustain, and provide transportation for forces flowing through Kuwait and other locations for the war against Iraq. Each organization presented its plans and reached a consensus about which component, Service, or provider could best handle each portion of the task. The mission ahead meant thinking creatively and taking on responsibilities not normally assigned. U.S. Army Central Command–Kuwait (ARCENT-KU) base operations personnel at Camp Doha found their jobs expanding, as they had to collaborate with Kuwaiti bus and trucking companies to provide transportation from the port and airport for the thousands of Soldiers and other Service personnel and contractors that would flow through the country.  The Army and Navy put aside parochial issues to develop a plan to run port  operations at the Kuwait Naval Base that would move equipment and personnel smoothly and safely. The Air Force and Army personnel processing units worked in tandem with contractors to design a reception process at Kuwait International Airport. This was a time when the skill of exercising shared leadership was crucial and unavoidable, given the situation and asset constraints.

3-59. In this example, there were many advantages to using this form of leadership. Alone, each of the organizations might have planned and executed in a vacuum. Together, the group was empowered, calling on their combined base of knowledge and individual subject matter experts to wargame the plan and come up with the best possible courses of action. The result, by the time Operation Iraqi Freedom began, was a cohesive horizontal leader team executing their portions of the plan.”

CARTER:  Shared leadership is a misnomer in my view.  You cannot share leadership or decision making and be successful.  In the end of every decision there is one final authority.  You can have integration and cooperation with a single objective but not joint leadership.  At the Strategic and Operational level, integration, cooperation and trust are essential but in the end there must be accountability and responsibility.  Once the strategic and operational decisions are made, tactical decisions will follow and will be executed by multiple people in many areas. The process is neither linear nor sequential but is a fluid continuum.

Question:  What approach do you suggest that a new engineer take as he or she starts a new job in relationship to the concept of serving as a responsible subordinate, or good “followership”?   

CARTER: Listen, listen, listen, but do not hesitate to ask questions.  The most important and probably the most difficult part of becoming a good leader is being a good listener and follower.  College is a great experience and no university provides better real world preparation than ECU but knowledge of your company and even the industry you  pursue will in most cases be very limited.  Do your best to identify people at your level that know and understand the business.  Listen to them but listen critically, just as you listen to professors and guest speakers.  Try to dissect and comprehend the intent and depth of your peers, subordinates and leaders.  Understand your business or profession down to the lowest level and what each and every person does in your immediate organization.  Learn the value of each person to the organization and its mission.  Finally, communicate with your immediate boss continually to better understand your next step in the company.

Question:  What advice can you offer to a new engineer in dealing with “leadership without authority” when faced with having to take “initiative to alert superiors of a potential problem or predict consequences if the organization remains on its current course?”  Can you provide an example in your career where you were faced with this, both in the Air Force and in industry?   

CARTER: Leadership without authority occurs far more often than you might think in both the military and industry.  First and foremost people want you to succeed and will generally give their support.  However, you must demonstrate credibility and desire to accomplish the task.  Your persuasive ability and the ability to get along with people will be the key to your success.  I have faced similar situations many times both in the Air Force and industry.



As a young Air Force Captain, the Wing Commander (ranking Colonel on the base) selected me to head the Wing Inspection Team.  I was the most junior person to ever hold the position, since no one else desired the job.  On my matrixed and ad-hoc team I had some of the most experienced senior NCOs in the wing and representatives from all specialties in the wing, many of whom out ranked me.  During our planning meetings I made it very clear that I needed their help and that they would build and develop the plans for their respective organizations while I would integrate and ensure all the pieces fit in the big picture.  In a short period of time the group began to trust and respect my efforts and when the time came to make decisions we used a collegial approach but when the final call had to be made it was made and there was full support from the group.  In one of our first wing-wide inspections we graded the wing as overall Unsatisfactory. The senior NCOs were somewhat shocked that a young captain was willing to stand in front of the wing Colonels and tell them that their organizations did not meet Air Force standards.  As a result, team members gained even more confidence and respect for each other and our ad-hoc organization.  We went on to perform many more inspections in preparation for our Strategic Air Command Operational Readiness Inspection, which we passed with an Outstanding rating.


In industry, I currently serve as Team Lead over approximately 77 people from over 30 different companies in support of a federal government agency.  All or most of the 76 people have company managers that rate their performance.  Team Leads like myself are responsible for ensuring government requested tasks are completed on-time with and to high standards.  We have no formal authority over the individuals that work for us or with us on a day-to-day basis.   Just as in the Air Force, my main focus has been to create a friendly, collegial work environment that focuses on teamwork, efficiency and top-notch products.  As the team lead it is imperative that people are treated equitably and when a government customer demands work that is out of scope or treats one of our contractors unprofessionally, it is the Team Lead’s responsibility to step-in and remedy the situation.  Doing so on a number of occasions has enhanced our sense of unity.  While team unity is imperative, it is also important to deal with non-productive individuals and if need be take the necessary steps to remove those people from the team.  While removing people from a position without authority is more difficult it can and must be done when the individual is detrimental to the team effort.


As for alerting supervisors to a dangerous concern, just do it!  Do it and do it immediately,  if you think it is important, your supervisor should know and she or he can decided that  is not important; if you withhold the information, you do not give the supervisor the opportunity to make an informed decision.  Real leaders do not want yes men or women.  Leaders want and your unadulterated, honest input in order to understand the health and status of the organization.

Question:  How do you believe the Air Force Core Values translate to industry?  

CARTER: The Air Force core values translate well into industry and most companies provide a rough equivalent to core values through ethics training.  Integrity first is certainly applicable and is valued in the companies and the business world.  There are plenty of examples of integrity violations in the private sector but the same is true in the military.  Failures in integrity result in serious consequences for the organization.  The recent financial crisis was created to some degree by failed integrity.  In addition, the recent nuclear safety issues resulted partially from integrity issues.

The third Air Force core value, “excellence in all we do,” is also very much applicable to industry.  Excellence is critical to produce profits just as excellence is the cornerstone for building the world’s best military organization.  The failures in both the financial industry and the Air Force nuclear safety failures were caused by failures in integrity and in excellence.

“Service before self,” is more difficult to translate to industry but there is some application.  Putting the company or your coworkers ahead of yourself is a noble goal and in the long run will be beneficial to the organization.  Be that as it may, the basis of capitalism (profit) is somewhat at odds with service before self, at least at the tactical and individual level.

Question:  Character development is an important part of a military career.  For example, as noted in the FM 6-22 Army Leadership document, an Army career is “becoming a person of character and a leader of character is a career-long process involving day-to-day experience, education, self-development, developmental counseling, coaching and mentoring.” (FM 6-22 section 4-55)  In your experience, how does industry mirror this career process?  In any ways does it not?

CARTER: Many companies provide leadership training, opportunities for education, counseling and mentor programs to help develop employees that are very similar to the military.  In both the military and industry, leadership development programs are used to target the best and brightest young employees.  The biggest difference is the military is more proactive and often requires training that is optional in the civilian community.

Question:  Resilience, competence and knowledge lead to success on the battlefield (5-15).  How is this mirrored in industry?  Can you provide an example of an experience in your career that resounds this?

CARTER:  Nothing is more important than resilience (or perseverance), competence and knowledge in any endeavor of importance.  As a KC-10 squadron commander in the early 90s I took over a unit (over 400 people) that moved from Louisiana to New Jersey.  Complicating matters was all KC-10 aircraft and units were being relocated as a result of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.  In addition many of the experienced maintenance chose to retire or pursue new careers rather than move.  The gaining base was not prepared for our move and we had desperately inadequate facilities for both aircraft and people.  In short we were a flying squadron that for all intents and purposes was grounded and certainly not prepared to do our part to defend the nation.  Fortunately we had hard charging competent and knowledgeable aircrew and maintenance personnel that refused to be anything less than top notch professionals and despite the difficulties refused to lower their standards.  We had over 150 young maintenance troops that had less than 18 months in service.  Many were bright and eager and performed brilliantly as a result of our Senior NCOs.  At the same time we had those that after multiple chances would not perform at the required level.  As a result we had the highest number of disciplinary actions and discharges of any unit in our command.  After one incredibly tough year of 70 hour weeks, deployments to Bosnia and Southwest Asia and self help projects that built adequate facilities for our people we regained our fully capable combat rating and were recognized as one of the top flying squadrons in Air Mobility Command.

Question:  What are your methods for motivating and inspiring those with whom you work and lead in industry?  How do these compare to Air Force methods?

CARTER: Personally I use the same methods in industry that I used in the Air Force.  Leading by example remains tried and true, as asking anyone to do something you would not do yourself is poor leadership.  The other main tenet of leadership for me is servant-based leadership.  As leaders our focus should be serving others including our superiors, our peers and our subordinates.  In serving others our passion and eagerness to solve problems and assess difficult situations will be inspiring to others.

Question: What is the most effective means of assessing the performance of a leader? 

CARTER: Very simply to assess the performance of his or her organization.  The most important measure of the organization is whether or not the organization showed improvement during the leader’s tenure.  As leaders, we are expected to foster continual improvement.  Marking time or maintaining the status quos is not the mark of an effective leader.

Question:  How does the Air Force document lessons learned?  How important is this in industry and can you provide examples of how this is done in your experiences?  How can an engineer help in such opportunities?  Can you provide an example of a lesson learned in your Air Force career? 

CARTER: The military in general is excellent at documenting lessons learned.  All major exercises and operations conclude with an after action conference and report documenting results of the exercise or operation and lessons learned.  This documentation is required at the strategic, operational and tactical level.

Everyone and certainly engineers using their critical analysis methods are important to a lessons learned process.  First of all, ensure that you incorporate lessons learned into all your projects.  Most companies will have a defined process, but if not, ask why not.  Get involved with the process and take it seriously too often some will provide eye wash instead of hard hitting lessons learned.  In your assessment and analysis make certain that you are brutally honest.  Lessons learned that gloss over issues or are intended to make the boss feel good are useless.

Lessons learned are an integral part of a military career.  One of the most poignant lessons learned for the tanker community was the need for flexibility in scheduling aircrews.  For years tankers were under Strategic Air Command (SAC) and because of the tradition of integral bomber crews back to World War II and before crews were considered an unbreakable team that were required to fly together and to perform alert  duty together.  In short, this integral crew approach made it easier to schedule but it greatly reduced flexibility.  When KC-10 squadrons opened in the early 80s they were made up of young officers and enlisted personnel from all different types of aircraft.  As a result we questioned all practices and processes that were in place, “because that’s the way we’ve always done it was unacceptable.”  One of the first processes we questioned was integral crews and found that most crew type aircraft outside of SAC did not use the integral crew concept.  We implemented flexible crew scheduling and documented the benefits in readiness and availability.  It took more than ten years but eventually flexible crew scheduling became the norm in tanker aircraft.

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