Billy Mitchell: A Critical Analysis of His Leadership
Billy Mitchell was a visionary airpower pioneer who demonstrated very effective leadership in field operations, but his inability to develop a guiding coalition limited his effectiveness in leading the major organizational change he so desperately desired. General Mitchell was a famous, some would say infamous, airpower thinker who some regard as the father of the United States Air Force.1 Born into a wealthy family and the son of a Wisconsin Senator, Mitchell could have chosen a life of luxury. But Billy sought great adventure and chose the military life instead. He joined the Army at the age of eighteen, six years before the Wright brothers made their first historic flight at Kitty Hawk. Once powered flight was proven, it wouldn’t take long for men to make it a weapon of war. For the U.S. Army, Mitchell found himself leading this effort in World War I and, by all accounts, he did so superbly. In this experience, he gained a vision for airpower so firmly embraced that he became America’s most outspoken supporter of air forces and the need for an independent Air Service. As he pursued this challenge, Mitchell’s leadership was both stirring and divisive – leading to heroic displays of airpower technology and also to courts martial for insubordination. Despite his efforts, General Mitchell was not able to drive the Army and the nation to the strategic change he desired for airpower. In the years, however, following his downfall, many of his concepts eventually won the day. Denied his dream in life, his contributions were rewarded six years after his death when he was posthumously promoted to Major General and awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. How could a man succeed so greatly in one phase of his life, but fail to achieve the same level of success in another, given the fact that history has proven his airpower tenants correct? To answer this, one must examine Mitchell’s leadership and explore how it affected his successes and failures. The Air War College leadership curriculum provides an environment to examine the underpinnings of leadership and how it may be defined and improved. As a core analytical framework, it utilizes the Right to Lead (RTL) Model.2 This model allows one, given certain authority, obligations, and requirements, to assess leadership against the factors of competence, character, personality, and relevance. I use these factors to assess Mitchell’s field leadership and provide rationale for his operational successes. Mitchell possessed high levels of leadership competence, especially with regard to his knowledge and skills. He was very intelligent and dedicated himself to mastering the technical aspects of every military duty, which crossed a wide gamut from reading Morse code to flying aircraft. His assignments, from the jungles of the Philippines to the barren tundra of Alaska, provided him with great breadth of experience from which he polished the personal skills needed to lead his men. He leveraged this talent in the first world war, when he brought the power of his knowledge and experience to combat the ignorance of those who failed to understand how to employ airpower in the fight.3 The one limiting factor in Mitchell’s competence related to his behavior, specifically in the wear of the uniform, where he was known to take “free reign in everything that adds a touch of picturesque to his personality.4 He would have been wise to remedy his behavior in this regard, as some of his actions drew outrage from his men, including the wear of more gold chevrons on his sleeve than he was authorized.5 Luckily for Mitchell, due to his strength of character, his men were mostly willing to overlook his behavioral faults. He was known as a man of integrity and was fiercely devoted to the well being of his men. Given that an honest effort was put forward, he was surprisingly tolerant of mistakes. Most importantly in the eyes of...
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