Air Force Maj. Gen. Samuel “Bo” Mahaney, Air Mobility Command chief of staff, responded to questions on the topic of leadership in turbulent times during a public webinar May 8, hosted by Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Missouri.
Mahaney, who is originally from St. James, Missouri, is currently stationed at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois – about 20 miles east of St. Louis – and earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Missouri S&T in 1985. He was also commissioned as an officer through that university’s Air Force ROTC program.
“I started off right out of ROTC there at Missouri S&T, and became what’s called an electronic warfare officer,” Mahaney said. “I was flying the B-52, which is a nuclear bomber that basically won the Cold War against the Soviet Union … I was not the pilot at the time – I was in the back of the flight-deck area dealing with what we called ‘beeps and squeaks.’ In other words, as that bomber went into the Warsaw Pact, or the Soviet Union, there were a wide array of ground-to-air defense systems in the Soviet Union that were designed to shoot that bomber down before we could deliver our payload. There were a wide array of Soviet fighter aircraft that were assigned to shoot us out of the air, and my job was to defend that B-52 against those threats – to confuse them, to jam them and to defeat them so we could get to our targets.”
Many assignments and 30-plus years later, Mahaney is Air Mobility Command’s chief of staff.
“When you talk about Air Mobility Command, there’s just basically three words that really sum it all up,” he said. “It’s called rapid global mobility … When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight – so, the bottom line is we’re that piece of the Department of Defense that when the Air Force says, ‘hey, we can be anywhere on the globe in a moment’s notice,’ that’s us. That’s what we do.”
Mahaney spoke on the “balancing act” of meeting AMC’s mission requirements while mitigating risks posed by COVID-19.
“It was disruptive,” he said, “and it was unexpected. One of my jobs is to … help our different directors manage risk. As we manage risk, we think in terms of risk to force – that’s our people – and risk to mission. Are we able to get what the rest of the Department of Defense needs? Are we able to get to what the nation needs for its defense? And it’s all a balancing act as we go through that.”
Ultimately, Mahaney explained, the U.S. military is prepared for any threat.
“We had to do some adapting to an invisible enemy, but an enemy nonetheless, that kept us potentially from moving. Like I said, our mission is rapid global mobility. Well, if you’ve got countries starting to close and you can’t get your aircraft through those countries, now you have that risk to mission that I’m talking about. And if you’re moving your Airmen into countries that have a high infection rate, like Italy had … now you’ve got a high risk to force. Meanwhile, we had to do some things. We had to bring our American citizens from countries all around the world who couldn’t get back because commercial flights were beginning to shut down. We had to provide a way to get them back. Working with the State Department we were able to do that. We had patients, not necessarily COVID-19 patients, but patients all around the world that we still needed to move in our aeromedical evacuation system. So, we had to find ways to move, reduce that risk to force, reduce that risk to mission, to move those patients,” he said.
Transportation isolation systems originally designed for patients who tested positive for the Ebola virus were reconfigured in less than 30 days to work for COVID-19 patients.
“It was an amazing thing and it showed the ability to do something that would normally take at least four months, if not longer, to get through all the certifications, get through all the testing, get through all the engineering,” he said. “We can move a lot of folks and get them to potentially life-saving care by using this … system. So, we had to do a lot of things as we went through and were in this disruptive environment. We had to react, but we didn’t skip a beat. And that wasn’t an accident.”
To get to the point where rapid problem solving can occur, Mahaney explained the leadership philosophy, “never rise up.”
“You always fall back,” he said. “So, when something unexpected like this, something that is this disruptive, this unexpected, those two things kind of combined to create this just awesome environment, and you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to do it, you’re very rarely going to rise up – and if you do, it’s probably luck. You’re going to fall back on your training and preparation. And that’s what we did in this case. We fell back on training and preparation. We didn’t know what we were necessarily preparing for because we were preparing for everything. And the way you do that is you build battle rhythms, you build governance structures – those things that you’re going to fall back on that everybody’s going to be comfortable with and no one’s going to panic. We were able to make decisions quickly. We fell back on a system we had built and we were very successful as a result.”
In tandem with training and preparation to fall back on, Mahaney said a people-first mentality must exist – especially important in times like these.
“If you take care of your people they’ll take care of the mission,” he said. “We make sure we take care of our Airmen. We maintain a culture of respect. If we’re taking care of our people, if we’re providing that culture of respect and dignity, then it’s okay to expect high levels of performance. Because we’re taking care of them, we’re giving them what they need, to do what they need to do, we can expect that. But you’ve got to cut your folks a little slack on an expectation of excellence if you’re not … taking care of your people.”
Mahaney added that leaders must encourage, listen to and use feedback from their subordinates.
“I’ve come to realize that when I go to work, I understand that I don’t have all the best ideas,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I’ve come to realize that if I think that that’s who I am, we’re not in great shape. In other words, I’ve got a bunch of amazing, smart, intelligent people that surround me … on this team and I use that to its full benefit.”
Getting good, honest feedback begins by building a trusting relationship through consistency and respect, Mahaney said.
“People have to feel safe,” he said. “They have to feel like that they are going to pour their hearts out for the organization, that they’re going to do everything they can, and when the lion comes, that other – whatever that outside entity is – that organization, that leader is going to protect them and not sacrifice them to that lion.”
Watch the one-hour webinar in its entirety at https://youtu.be/VgVf4zLRQXw.