Leadership lessons from the Red Baron

  • Published
  • By Col. Don Bacon
  • Third Air Force deputy commander,
Most Airmen know Manfred von Richthofen as the Red Baron and the man who shot down over 80 Allied aircraft in World War I--the leading ace from all nations in the "War to end all Wars."

Most don't realize that he was also a tremendous squadron commander and leader of warriors.

The short version of his leadership biography is that he took command of a demoralized unit that had zero air-to-air victories and transformed it into Germany's very best fighter squadron.

The Red Baron had the following leadership traits that made him a premier squadron commander--these same traits are just as valuable to our best leaders and supervisors today:

Mission focused:
He was driven to make Jagdstaffel 11 the premier fighter squadron in his theater. In the book Good to Great, Jim Collins says the best leaders have a mix of personal humility and "ferocious resolve" to make their organizations great.

He controlled his temper and respectfully treated the men in his unit. He didn't berate nor demean when his team didn't perform up to his standards. This gentlemanly manner inspired his unit immensely, and they wanted to show his respect was well earned. Nothing has changed today when it comes to the value of two-way respect. Leaders who can't control their temper or who are disrespectful to their fellow Airmen undermine mission accomplishment.

Aggressive mentor:
Richthofen spent most of his time teaching his squadron how to win in the air. He learned fighter tactics from a leading ace named Oswald von Boelcke, and in turn, he thoroughly taught his unit the key principles of air-to-air combat. The Red Baron not only showed a life-long ability to learn from others, but also had the desire to teach others so they could achieve maximum success. Our leaders today have two primary responsibilities: ensuring their mission is accomplished and mentoring the next generation.

Led by example: Richthofen not only taught, but he led his unit from the front. He didn't just craft tactics and send his unit to the fight, but he led combat sorties multiple times a day. This also enabled his unit to see how he personally applied the tactics and principles that he taught them on the ground. I doubt we would find the Red Baron spending much of his day behind the desk if he was in command today.

Instilled unit pride: The Red Baron built on small successes, until the unit believed it was Germany's very best. Soon this unit led all others in the number of air-to-air victories. He found small ways to build up the pride of his squadron. For example, each pilot was allowed to paint special markings on their aircraft. I have found units with a strong sense of pride work harder to achieve mission success. Confidence becomes self-fulfilling.

Some nine decades later, these same leadership traits enable United States Air Force teams to richly succeed. Our Airmen volunteer to accomplish the USAF's "fly, fight, win" mission for our nation and thrive working for those who are ferociously focused on the mission and who treat their personnel with utmost respect.

We excel when we work with leaders who take the time to mentor and who "walk the talk" in not only getting the unit's mission done, but in pursuing excellence--we also love being members of units and an Air Force that strive to be second to none.