Lucky on Leadership
Some leadership challenges are greater than others, and some simply can’t be anticipated in advance—especially during times of crisis or emergency. How will you lead in these challenges? What leadership principles will you rely on when everything around you is blowing up or the bullets are flying from all directions?
It helps to talk to someone who has been there before. I recently had the privilege of meeting WWII veteran John “Lucky” Luckadoo, a B-17 pilot and operations officer in the 100th Bomb Group. The 100th flew 306 daytime raids out of England deep into enemy territory and against high-value targets between June 1943 and the close of hostilities in April 1945—an average of 1 mission every other day.
What leadership principles will you rely on when everything around you is blowing up or the bullets are flying from all directions?
The group earned the nickname “Bloody Hundredth” for the significant loss of planes and crews during their operational history. It was one of the most brutal and costly operations in the war. The average lifespan of a crew during John’s tour was eight missions—hence his nickname “Lucky.”
Learning Leadership On the Fly
Lucky was thrust into an immediate and overwhelming leadership challenge. Barely out of his teens, John completed flight school and was assigned as a replacement co-pilot. Not only did he have to learn how to fly the large, four-engine Flying Fortress (he’d only flown a two-engine plane in training), he was thrown into a crew that had already gelled and trained together for many months.
With no prior experience or training in crew leadership, he few his first combat mission at 21 years of age. John learned about leadership in the harshest of combat situations—quite literally, on the fly.
B-17 crews during this part of the war flew their 8-hour missions in a sub-zero degree, unpressurized environment. They often had to fly without the protection of fighter escort, staying in tight formation and unable to take evasive action from the battle-hardened enemy fighters that flew right through their formation. There was no way to avoid the enemy ground fire (called “flak”) that burst around them, sending explosive shrapnel through the planes’ thin aluminum skin. The “3 F’s” (fighters, flak and freezing) were the biggest obstacles to overcome.
John completed his 25th mission as the command pilot of Alice From Dallas II and the Operations Officer for two of the squadrons in the 100th Bomb Group in February 1944—one month before his twenty-second birthday. Out of the 40 graduates of his flight school, he was one of only four that survived to complete their twenty-fifth mission.
Out of the 40 graduates of his flight school, he was one of only four that survived to complete their twenty-fifth mission.
Q: What did you learn about leadership and teamwork from your experience?
A: “Having the responsibility of nine other lives made you an instant leader, whether you had the skills for it or not. The situation demanded leadership. You either led, or you didn’t survive.”
Q: How did you cope with the pressures of leadership in that setting?
A: “I don’t know, other than to say you just did it. Some weren’t capable, others were. It was thrust upon you in such an overpowering way that your life depended on it, and the crew’s lives depended upon how quickly and how well you could manage the decisions that had to be made. Managing the airplane: keeping it working when it was damaged. Dealing with injured crew members: Do you press on to the target or turn back? All the tactical decisions that had to be made, sometimes in a moment’s notice. All of this was pretty overwhelming as a 21-yr old. It was an overwhelming, awesome responsibility.”
Having the responsibility of nine other lives made you an instant leader, whether you had the skills for it or not.
Q: What leadership behaviors worked the best?
A: “Leading by example. Treating others as they would like to be treated. Doing things that will make the crew successful (so that no one’s interests—especially those of the leader—are higher than everyone else’s). The crew works together to get the job done, and must work as a unit for all of the crew to survive and succeed.”
Q: What did you do to develop your leadership?
A: “You learn by necessity. You learn by being adaptable, recognizing—quickly—what works and what doesn’t. Again, it’s an immediate issue of survival: Grasp what’s important and get better or you and the entire crew die. Facing death on a daily basis forces you to develop.”
What leadership behaviors worked the best? Leading by example. Treating others as they would like to be treated.
Q: As a young leader, what leadership role models did you look up to?
A: “In our group, there was a group operations officer named Jack Kidd. He was an exemplary leader: Handsome, a gentleman, he led all the rough missions, an excellent pilot and individual; great war strategist. He helped me resolve a problem in my own squadron. He ended up as a Lieutenant General. I shaped my leadership approach after him. Another was Curtis LeMay, who eventually was transferred to the Pacific Theater. He was a tough hombre—we called him ‘Iron Ass.’ He was hard, but fair.”
Q: Were there any negative examples of leadership?
A: “Yes. One colonel I had was a Greyhound bus driver before the war. He was so obviously in over his head. I had to follow his orders and make it work the best I could. But it gave me a clear lesson of the kind of leader I didn’t want to be.”
Q: From your experience, what are the most important of all leadership principles?
A: “Putting myself in the other guy’s position. Appreciating what they had to do, and getting them to it in the way that would benefit the team. I didn’t recognize them as leadership principles per se, it just became instinctive: I did it because it worked. If I got mad or let my emotions rule instead of using common sense, it could be a disaster. You learn to grasp the opportunities and make the most of them, but to do so in consideration of the people who depended upon you.”
Putting myself in the other guy’s position. Appreciating what they had to do, and getting them to it in the way that would benefit the team.
“In the military, leaders give orders that people must follow. But just giving an order isn’t leading. Those following orders must be able to respect the leader. You gain that respect by putting yourself in their position. You appeal to them and give them orders in a way that their position was valued and recognized.”
Q: What would you say to young leaders entering their first leadership challenge?
A: “You can do more than you think you can. What we went through was an amazing experience of maturity. I became an old man overnight, with what I was confronted with. I remember sitting at 30,000 feet thinking, ‘How in the hell did I ever get in this position? If I live through this, I can live through anything.’”
You can do more than you think you can. What we went through was an amazing experience of maturity. I became an old man overnight.
“It’s very sobering and maturing. Some people crack under the pressure. On the other hand, when I ask myself how I was able to psyche myself up to get back in the airplane again … I can’t tell you. We believed that what we were doing was right, and it had to be done. And so we just did it.”
Q: There’s an old phrase that says “There are no atheists in foxholes.” What role, if any, did faith play in your experience?
A: “I prayed a lot, and I wasn’t ashamed of it. I carried a New Testament in my shirt pocket on every flight. In fact, on one flight a piece of flak came through the cockpit and grazed the cover. I believe that there is divine intervention. That’s part of what I call the luck that dictates whether you survive in a situation like I went through.”
I prayed a lot, and I wasn’t ashamed of it.
I want to close by giving my personal thanks to Lucky for his many years of sacrifice and service to his country, for risking his life on our behalf. Conversations like these bring a deep sense of respect for those who, as young men, went into harm’s way for the sake of our nation’s values. John: I thank you!
“How in the hell did I ever get in this position? If I live through this, I can live through anything.”
John “Lucky” Luckadoo, approaching his ninety-ninth birthday, is currently working on his autobiography, Damn Lucky, slated for publication in early 2022. More of his story and many others’ can be found at the 100th Bomb Group Foundation website: www.100thbg.com. My thanks to the foundation for their photo use permission.
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