leadership, Herb Heilbrun

A command of leadership

Paul Heagen Purposeful Leadership & Living Leave a Comment

What a horrible way to die. 

That’s the strangest but most riveting thought as I stooped and dodged my way through the dark green interior of the B-17 parked in the throbbing sun at Lunken Field in Cincinnati last weekend. Barely room for two crewmen to pass each other in here as the plane would buck and dodge through a hailstorm of flak in bombing missions over Europe in World War II.

What a horrible way to die. 

Except Herb Heilbrun never did. He cheated death 35 times when piloting more than one of these Flying Fortresses in missions over Italy in 1944-45. More than one bomber because typically he had to turn the craft over to aircraft trauma surgeons at the end of the mission to see if they could patch it up well enough to have him take it up again later.

And now, here he is taking me on a tour of one of these old birds. He knows his way around. Maybe you never forget.

Herb had called me about two years ago after my blog A Silence Too Loud for Words about the beaches of Normandy ran in our local paper and he spotted it. He invited me to visit him–his home was was only a few miles away–and somehow I managed to let that much time go by before I finally called him back.

Herb is a hero of a sort well beyond the honor we assign to anyone who has the guts to strap on a rifle and stand post or crawl into one of these tubes and hope to come out alive. His modest home is a museum of WWII aviation, and the picture frames filled with ribbons and medals on the walls are testament that this was not just any guy who signed up back in 1944.

He’s 93 years old now, but his hands barely tremble as he draws a hinged, velvet-lined case from a drawer. Inside is a Distinguished Flying Cross, the highest honor for a war pilot.

I ask him if he’s proud of it. He looks down and almost whispers, “I’m proud that I brought my boys home.” Yeah, with two engines out, another one spewing oil, and a fuselage shrieking in the sub-zero temperatures from all the shrapnel punctures, he brought his boys home.

I asked him about freedom, liberty and the other noble causes we associate with people like him. Oddly, he said that wasn’t it, at least not at the time.

“We just followed orders,” he said. “And hoped we could someday get back home.”

Good business leaders today have long cast aside the war-honed model of command-and-control in a world of collaboration, engagement and talent mobility. Still, words of a leader matter. Even more, do actions. The methods may have evolved, but leadership itself has really never changed.

CEOs particularly, while rarely facing life-or-death decisions in their day job, still have a profound influence over the mission, direction and energy of their organization. It’s enough to make one feel like they live in a bubble, but that’s the price of admission.

It’s called presence. It’s that sense of confidence, clarity and even courage that says we are on course (or need to change course). It’s a keen self-awareness, a willingness to get out of your own head and into the heads and hearts of others. No matter how flat your organization, people still look up to you.

As we were walking back to the terminal, Herb showed me a crumpled wedge of black metal, scored by heat. He laughs about it, but it’s a piece of flak. They found it in his cockpit.

The price of admission.

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