Leaders never fall alone. They take others down with them.
To maintain their tight and coordinated formations, only the lead pilot on teams like the Air Force Thunderbirds or Navy Blue Angels watches his position relative to the ground. Essentially, the lead pilot executes the maneuver. The other pilots are trained to watch the tail or wingtip of the plane next to them, which can be only inches away, to maintain their position and distance. During a Thunderbird practice session 1982, the lead pilot was diving out of a loop maneuver into the desert floor and was supposed to pull level at only one hundred feet over the desert floor. For whatever reason, he failed to pull out in time. The other three pilots, flying in a tight diamond formation with their eyes fixed on his tail or wingtip, followed him with their ordinary precision. Right into the ground. The entire team was killed.
A leader is someone with followers. When the leader fails, the followers either follow or turn aside. But even if the followers pull back or pull out, many are damaged. Political leaders that fail break nations. Financial leaders that fail break lives. Failed business leaders cause hardship. Spiritual leaders that fail break other people’s souls. Family leaders that fail break hearts, with bitterness and barrenness as their legacy.
The wise, good, and free person is not a cynic who distrusts all leaders and follows no one. But we should follow wisdom, goodness, and freedom, not people. We should follow and assist leaders that demonstrate, defend, and develop those qualities in and around us. Honor these virtues and learn from them, but be careful about investing too much faith in the humanity of these leaders.
Leaders ought to be sobered by the awareness—like a surgeon or an airline pilot—that they hold lives in their hands. They should be confident enough to do their job and reassure their followers, but every leader should have a healthy fear of failure. And like a surgeon or pilot, they should be rigorous in their preparation and self-evaluation.
© Greg Smith, 2013