William “Billy” Mitchell’s Courageous Leadership

Leaders assault the status quo, and somehow just can’t stand to leave things the way they find them.  For true leaders, this comes from a deep sense of hunger that burns inside.  Often this yearning is extremely costly to the individual pushing for the change.    What might have been a comfortable existence is traded for the pursuit of a vision the leader sees more clearly than anyone else.  This, in short, is what makes him or her a leader; he or she sees further than others see, sooner than others see, and with more conviction.  And ultimately, the personal cost is worth it to the leader because of his or her strong belief in the outcome desired.  Whether ending in triumph, or flaming out in defeat, the leader is vindicated by the chase of the vision and the principles upon which he or she stands.  The conviction of the leader, backed by his or her courage to act on that conviction regardless of cost to self, is the stuff that makes the world go around.  It’s also what all of us admire when we are fortunate enough to get a glimpse of it.

Billy Mitchell

For just such a glimpse, let’s examine the life of aviation pioneer and advocate William “Billy” Mitchell. Mitchell saw his first military action as an infantryman in the Spanish-American war in Cuba in 1898. Later, he gave up prestige and promotion hopes to get involved in the United States’ infantile aviation efforts, and was at the center of many of aviation’s “firsts.”  During World War I Mitchell became the first U.S. officer to fly behind enemy lines.  He next became involved in a joint bombing effort between the French and the Americans which assembled the largest force of aircraft ever to amass up to that point.  Repeatedly, Mitchell was given organizational control and command of large scale joint-bombing efforts by his French allies: something pretty unusual and indicative of his leadership abilities. 

After the end of the Great War, Mitchell began campaigning for the creation of an independent branch of the U.S. military that would be focused strictly upon air power.  His ideas were radical and threatening and were fiercely resisted.  The army had thought air power should be subservient to its needs, because airplanes could provide cover to troops on the ground and tactical bombing ahead of troop movements.  The navy had claim to air power as well, needing planes to attack enemy shipping and provide visuals across the vast seas.  But William Mitchell saw further than the established bureaucrats in either branch of the military.  He foresaw the advent of airpower as preeminent, and certainly worthy of a single, autonomous branch of the U. S. military that would transcend control by either the army or the navy.

Mitchell’s campaign grew louder and more vehement, until he was called upon to prove his “wild” theories.  In a demonstration utilizing a German dreadnought captured during the war, Mitchell’s bombers sunk the great iron ship in about twenty minutes.  This was astounding to the large assortment of navy brass on hand to witness the event, and out of this demonstration ultimately came the development of the aircraft carriers that would be so critical to winning the war in the Pacific during World War II. 

These encouraging developments aside, Mitchell continued to push for his great vision of a stand-alone military branch that would control all forms of air power.  The harder Mitchell pushed for something he felt was so obvious, the more resistance he met.  Not only did he have to deal with skepticism and shortsightedness, but he also ran into commanders trying to protect their turf, pride, the “Not Invented Here Syndrome”, cost cutters, peace nicks, small thinkers, and commanders who wanted to have air power fall under their own control.  Mitchell didn’t play by the rules.  He wanted change.  He was upsetting the status quo.  He was attacking long-held paradigms and beliefs about the way things were supposed to be done.  He was preaching to the military establishment that had played a big part in winning the “war to end all wars” and was riding high on its success.  Finally, as with many a bureaucracy, the innovator had to be silenced.  Mitchell was demoted and transferred to a remote location in charge of a small corps.  But typical of a leader on a mission, Billy Mitchell was unable to stop there.  When his crusade fell on deaf ears, he took his story to the press.  This resulted in his court martial and conviction of insubordination.  Mitchell was given a suspension of five years without pay.  Mitchell resigned in protest instead, but continued his quest for an independent air force until his death.

According to author Alan Axelrod:

“Billy Mitchell was a leader ahead of his time, and he was a man willing to sacrifice his career for the sake of his country’s defense.  Virtually all of his doctrinal theories about the role of aviation in warfare would prove true – including his assessment (much ridiculed) that the navy’s fleet at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands was vulnerable to a carrier-launched air attack, which, Mitchell predicted, would be made by Japan.  After his death, his major positions were vindicated, and he came to be considered the founding spirit of the U.S. Air Force.”

Billy Mitchell’s crusade to create a United States Air Force is a clear demonstration of the courage and conviction of a leader.  At great personal cost and ending in much frustration in his own life, Billy Mitchell pushed to the end for the vision in which he believed.  Mitchell was driven by what he could “see” long before it was seen by others.  Rare indeed are those who will act at such great cost for a cause that transcends their own personal peace and affluence.  Rare they may be, but history is rich with glimpses of individuals like Mitchell who have risked it all for what they believed was right.  May they be an inspiration to us all!    

This article was originally posted at https://chrisbrady.typepad.com/my_weblog/2007/11/william-billy-m.html.

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