Delivering hope

  • Published
  • By Col. John Michel
  • 319th Air Refueling Wing commander

The most dramatic rescue operation of the twentieth century was the Berlin Airlift--a mission that saved over 2.5 million people from starvation and served as the single most significant event in stemming the rapid Soviet expansion across the post World War II continent of Europe.

In 1948, Berlin was a divided city. American, British, and Soviet forces controlled various quadrants of the former Nazi capital and tensions ran high amongst these former allied nations. In the spring of that year, the Soviet Union decided to blockade all roads and railways into the city. Their desire was to sever the city and its population from the west so they could in turn make it their own. However, they never banked on the fact that America and other western powers would not give up this island of democracy so easily, choosing instead to mount a bold airlift effort in response.

Soon, a round-the-clock stream of transport planes brought food and supplies into besieged Berlin, a city still trying to recover from the devastation of World War II. With many of the city's inhabitants teetering on the edge of starvation, the German population was eager for any signs of hope, to know they had not been abandoned.

One of the first pilots to participate in this monumental effort was Gail Halvorsen. This man was moved by the sight of German children intently clinging to the fence alongside the airfield, watching the C-54 transport planes land one after the other, 24 hours a day delivering much needed supplies. Halvorsen loved children and during his earlier days of flying transport aircraft in other parts of the world, he had often been followed by swarms of young people begging for, above all things, candy; especially gum and chocolate.

However, Halvorsen remembers these young people were different. With most wearing tattered clothing and mismatched worn-out shoes, they never asked or begged for anything from their American friends. All they asked was that America and her allies not abandon the airlift when the weather turned bad. They knew they could go without food for a bit, after all most had done so already for years, but they didn't want to lose what they cherished most--their freedom.

Halvorsen, profoundly touched by these children's quiet strength, instinctively reached into his pocket for a couple sticks of gum. He casually distributed them to the children at the fence line and promised to return the next day to do the same.

Hope comes in small packages 

Upon return to his base, he decided to tie candy bars to small parachutes made from handkerchiefs and the next day on his first flight of the morning, he dropped them from his aircraft as it passed low over the city of Berlin on its way to landing at Tempelhof airfield. It was an impromptu gesture that would very quickly gain worldwide media attention. Operation "Little Vittles" had been born.

Almost overnight, what began with a single pilot's spare handkerchiefs and candy grew into an effort celebrated by people across multiple continents. The other members of Halvorsen's squadron quickly joined the effort and in no time, service clubs in the United States were clamoring to send chocolate and parachutes cut from whole cloth. By the time the Berlin airlift ended in 1949, over 23 tons of candy had been dropped from allied planes to the children of Berlin.

It was a simple gesture with a profound impact on generations to come.

Fifty years later, Colonel Gail Halvorsen returned to Berlin where he had the opportunity to meet a sixty-year-old German man who at the time of the blockade was a little boy. The man shared how one day when he was walking to school on a cloudy, overcast day, a Hershey candy bar from America unexpectedly drifted down in front of him, suspended from a handkerchief shaped into a parachute. Yet, despite being pleasantly surprised, the man recounts it was not the chocolate that was important at that moment. Instead, he shared it was simply knowing that someone outside the blockaded city knew he, and many others like him, were there. It wasn't chocolate that descended on him that day. It was hope; hope delivered by a second-mile leader who, in his own words, understands that "...the only way to fulfillment in life, real fulfillment, is to serve others."

What is hope? 

Repeatedly throughout history, we are reminded that a leader's ability to generate hope is one of the greatest force multipliers known to mankind. Be it on battlefields or in boardrooms, class rooms or emergency rooms, a leader's ability to foster hope in those in their care is often the difference between success and failure; between achieving an acceptable outcome and exceptional performance; and sometimes, maybe between life and death.

Unfortunately, we pay far too little attention to understanding hope in the context of leadership. Although the odds are you've heard leaders use the word hope in speeches and may have even come across the term in an occasional book title, hope and leadership still seem a strange combination to many. However, this does not mean hope should in any way be diminished or discounted as an essential element of leadership. It's simply that hope, which is often viewed simply as an emotion, can be difficult to define and elusive to describe. Yet when it is delivered and experienced, there is no doubt of its essential role in second-mile leadership.

If we look in the dictionary, we find hope described as, "To look forward to with confidence or expectation; The desire and search for a future good, difficult but not impossible to attain; One who, or that which, gives hope, furnishes ground of expectation, or promises desired good." If you look closely, you'll find these definitions have at least one thing in common. Namely, they describe hope as something one seeks, one expects, and ultimately, one achieves when they choose to look toward the future instead of remain locked in the past.

This forward-looking perspective reflects an enlarged capacity to remain open to future possibilities, to envision a positive tomorrow in the face of uncertainty today as well as the ability to creatively construct pathways that can be embraced in order to achieve something meaningful.

In the context of second-mile leadership, hope is born of an unconditional love for others, is nurtured by willfully investing in others, and is realized when we choose to intentionally serve others. In sum, hope is delivered to those in our care every time we choose to help them pursue a better end than what current circumstances are suggesting were possible. It is a practice that helps to transform present pain into collective attitude that flows from both our head and our hearts.

Final thoughts 

Many years ago as Alexander the Great was setting out on his conquest of Asia, he decided to inquire into the finances of those in his care. Committed to ensuring they would not be troubled over the welfare of their wives and children during their absence, Alexander chose to distribute crown estates and vast amounts of gold and silver among them. Over a period of several months, Alexander personally supervised the distribution of resources to all those who would soon be leaving for war. He was satisfied only after he knew his soldier's families would lack for nothing.

When he had disposed of nearly all of his royal resources, his close friend General Perdiccas asked Alexander what he had reserved for himself. "Hope," answered the king. "In that case," said Perdiccas, "we who share in your labors will also take part in your hopes." He then refused the estate and the gold allotted to him, and in short order, many more of the king's friends chose to do the same.

As second-mile leaders, the difficult moments we face in life can either leave us feeling hopeless or hopeful. When hopelessness reigns, the clouds of despair make us suspicious of the future and negative about the present. However, when we choose to embrace hope, the expectation of future good, we find ourselves energized and encouraged to move beyond life's dark corners. Trusting in a tomorrow we cannot yet see but believe will be. A tomorrow that holds the potential of new beginnings for not only ourselves, but for all those placed in our path.

So, whether it's in helping the people of a besieged city temper fear in the midst of the tempest, or inspiring others to set aside their own comfort for the benefit of those in their care, it's hope, delivered by second-mile leaders who possess hope themselves, that promises to raise peoples' spirits, mobilize their energy, and engage their hearts so together, we can move toward a more desirable future.

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

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