A promise made is a promise kept

  • Published
  • By Col. John Michel
  • 319th Air Refueling Wing commander
Anyone who thinks about Sept. 11, 2001, will likely remember exactly where they were when they heard the news on that fateful fall morning. It is an event seared into our collective national and global conscious, one that marks the end of one era and the start of another.

Within minutes of the attacks on New York City, news stations began reporting events, while numerous federal, state and local agencies struggled to not only better understand what was happening, but try and predict what might happen next.

Across the nation, the Federal Aviation Authority, the agency responsible for managing airspace and airports across America, frantically sought to positively identify the hundreds of aircraft still airborne; intent in determining if any further hijacked aircraft existed.

Just minutes into their assessment, they learned of a third aircraft careening into the Pentagon. Shortly thereafter, they identified a fourth aircraft, United Flight 93, which also deviated from its flight plan and was no longer responding to controller's queries.

In the midst of all these near simultaneous events, our nation's military went to its highest state of alert, immediately launching numerous armed interceptor jet aircraft to engage and, if need be, eliminate, any confirmed threats to American lives.

It was truly a dynamic, fast-paced, tension-filled time.

Shortly after the third plane careened into the Pentagon, a key military command center in Alaska, working closely with local FAA controllers, began tracking a commercial passenger jet inbound to Alaska that would not respond to radio transmissions. Seconds turned into minutes and it quickly became apparent that an intercept and possible engagement was imminent.

A terrible situation had gone from bad to worse, and the unthinkable instantly became all-too-plausible.

Aircraft from the 3rd Wing in Alaska were immediately launched, setting out to intercept this mysterious jet. It was quickly identified as a large passenger airliner much like those used in the east coast attacks. And it was not responding to repeated attempts to establish radio communication. The very real potential that one of our nation's fighter aircraft may be called upon to "engage" a civilian passenger airliner was becoming more real by the second.

If this were to occur, it would be the first-ever such engagement in our nation's history. One that would result in the willful sacrifice of civilian lives in the air in order to protect an untold number of others on the ground.

If the brewing decision were not difficult enough, it was made infinitely more complicated by the fact that no overarching guidance existed at the time - not even related to the paramount question of who had the authority to command the shootdown of a civilian aircraft. Thus, with time working against them, a crisis was mounting in the military command center.

A leader of sound character

There was very little time to comprehend and accept that what may have been unthinkable mere moments ago may actually materialize, and the decision to engage the inbound commercial jet filled with passengers might well become a reality. However, it was precisely at this critical moment that the leader of the organization, Lt. Gen. Norton "Norty" Schwartz, then commander of the Alaskan Command and 11th Air Force, made a crucial choice. Realizing that circumstances had placed his organization in unchartered territory and any decision he made could potentially put anyone in the command center at risk of criminal prosecution or civil suit, he chose to direct everyone present to leave.

Everyone, that is, but a single controller who was needed in order to maintain communication with the FAA.

In this moment of great uncertainty, General Schwartz clearly realized the bearing his actions would have on everyone involved. And, although the safest choice may well have been to wait for someone higher up in the chain of command to make the call, he recognized the window for action was rapidly closing. So, instead of deferring his decision, he chose to own it - consequences and all.

Working through the lone controller to personally guide the interceptor aircraft toward the airliner, General Schwartz prepared to do what he must to protect our country from further attack. Fortunately, moments before he had to make the dreadful decision, FAA controllers were able to regain communications with the aircraft and direct it to a nearby airport. It soon landed without incident, escorted by several of our nation's most lethal jet aircraft.

In these tension-filled moments, General Schwartz proved himself to be a leader willing to take the necessary actions to ensure that only he could be held liable for his decisions. A leader whose selfless commitment to his people demonstrated first-hand a willingness to doing what was right despite the potential cost to self.

Today, General Schwartz serves as the 19th Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, where he's responsible for leading nearly 700,000 active-duty, Guardsmen, Reservists and civilian forces serving in the United States and overseas. In this capacity, he serves as a key military adviser to the Secretary of Defense, National Security Council and the president. In light of his actions on 9/11, it should be no surprise that immediately upon his taking command of this dynamic organization, he reaffirmed that his tenure would be guided by the simple precept of "a promise made is a promise kept."

His story serves as a compelling reminder to us all of how leadership makes a decisive difference in outcomes, and how character makes a difference in leadership.

Always has, and always will! 

Character: the coin of the realm 

Study after study continues to validate the premium we place on character. In research involving 25,000 leaders rated by more than 200,000 evaluators, character was identified as the quintessential quality that distinguishes great performers from the rest of the pack. Similarly, an independent study conducted by the Corporate Leadership Council found that team members identified character as the most desirable attribute for both coworkers and supervisors.

No matter where we work, play or pray, people want to know their leader can be trusted ... that they are a person of sound character.

The word "character" originates from the centuries old practice of engraving the likeness, of important people on metal coins. Be it emperors, kings or heroes, the appearance of a distinctive, difficult-to-forge caricature on a coin validated its weight and value. In effect, this stamp of authenticity gave people confidence, served as a mechanism to build trust and facilitated mutually beneficial transactions.

As General Schwartz's example reveals, character continues to do the same for us today.

Admittedly, character can be an elusive concept not readily apparent, as it encompasses so many qualities. In the military, we often describe character as those emotional, intellectual and moral qualities that distinguish one person from another. Those values we espouse as important to how we conduct ourselves both personally and professionally.

Character has also been described as "the inner world of motives and values that shapes our actions and ultimately determines how we choose to lead." From this perspective, character empowers our capacities while simultaneously keeping them in check within the established boundaries of what we value.

Robert Rosen and Paul Brown, in the book Leading People, share the importance of character in leading others: "With a net worth of $250 million, Malcolm Forbes was frequently asked how he decided where to invest his own fortune. His answer never varied. 'I bet on the jockey, never the horse ... I don't need to know what industry the company is in, or what the financial are. All I need to know is what kind of person the CEO is."

Rosen and Brown go on to tell us that "the character of an organization is established by the character of the people who work there. And that character is determined by the integrity of the leader."

In a world where it's all too easy to fall prey to the fleeting promises of various fads and whims, the leaders most people want to follow are driven by the fundamental, undeniable principles that are deeply engrained in the leader's makeup.

In other words, the leaders we most want to follow are those who are consistent in word and deed. Men and women who always deliver on their desire to ensure a promise made is a promise kept.

Living a life of character

Unfortunately, many people today desire to find a quick fix for their character problems. They want some type of magic formula that will instantly transform them so they can effortlessly tackle their thorny problems. But life doesn't work that way. After all, you may be able to acquire a short-term solution to address the situation at hand. But taking the easy way out will not help build the kind of character that is able to stand the test of time.

In my view, General Schwartz's actions on Sept. 11, 2001, reveal him to be a leader whose selfless attitude could endure the threat of embracing a difficult circumstance head on. He was not afraid to make a precedent setting decision, nor did he act frivolously with critical matters. At the time when the pressure reached a pinnacle, he thought of the others under his command and sought to set aside any concerns for himself in order to insulate them from the potential repercussions.

When the chips were down, he revealed himself to be a leader whose strength of character and conviction to the cause at hand remain a source of inspiration, encouragement and admiration to this day - a man whose selfless example years ago continues to teach each of us today one of the timeless principles of second-mile leadership. Namely, the greater the power of the position, the higher the character quality of the person filling it must be.

Hence, the lesson from this story for all of us aspiring would be second-mile leaders is simply this; although we cannot dictate many of the occurrences of our lives, such as when and where we are born, or many of the elements of family, community, nation or historical circumstances, we can choose the character by which we will conduct ourselves no matter what we may face.

A lesson that serves to remind us all every day how character isn't something you can learn in a library, but that must be molded through the laboratory of life. Forged daily on the anvil of experience and made real every time we make the choice to demonstrate through the example of our lives our unwavering commitment to ensuring a promise made is a promise kept.

Not because we have to, but because we choose to.

Simply because that's what second-mile leaders of character do!