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Acceptable risks

  • Published
  • By Capt. Alex Rich
  • 90th Maintenance Operations Squadron
I recently came back from Squadron Officer School, and while there, I had the chance to talk to a lot of captains from an assortment of career fields. We had a variety of conversations, but the one that stuck out the most was the one about risk management. What I thought was key was a conversation with two fighter pilots, a cargo pilot and a former missileer-turned-space-operator. Each one of us grew up in a different culture, and had a different threshold for risk.

The fighter pilots accepted a level of risk that most in the nuclear enterprise would balk at, but they also knew their lives were on the line each and every engagement. They were comfortable with pushing the envelope, when necessary, because in a combat situation their lives would be on the line. Similarly, the cargo pilot knew there is a level of risk associated with flying thousands of pounds in bad weather. He has made life or death decisions, relying on his training and technical data. Strangely enough, the missileer-turned-experimental-space-operator had a very similar approach, despite being raised in the nuclear enterprise. Since he was literally writing the book on how to implement and use these multi-million dollar assets, he had the flexibility to freely operate. It was his job to work with the engineers to write technical data and give guidance to the end user.

So where am I going with this? The first lesson can be drawn from the cargo pilot - trust your technical data and training, it will keep you out of trouble. The second, and in my mind the more important lesson, can be learned from the fighter pilots and the space operator - be willing to take risks when appropriate. I would never tolerate my troops deviating from technical data, but there is room to maneuver on the non-nuclear items. We need people who are willing to innovate and look at things differently, but with that, heed the lessons of those who came before us.

It amazes me how often I fight with people who are stuck in their current paradigm. They are unwilling to look outside their checklists because they have not developed the critical thinking skills necessary to do so. As leaders we must empower our personnel to think through their tasks. I am not advocating that we take "Airman Snuffy," fresh out of technical training school, and let him get creative with his checklists. However, as he becomes "Airman 1st Class Snuffy" and then "Senior Airman Snuffy," we have to be teaching him how to make decisions. If we fail to teach our young Airmen, both enlisted and officers, how to critically think through problems, we are setting ourselves up for failure. It takes great leadership to teach the next generation of Airmen the necessary critical-thinking skills, instill the courage to make the hard decisions, and establish a culture where those decisions are respected and honored. This is a difficult order to fill, but a necessary one to truly reinvigorate the nuclear enterprise.