The Wrong Stuff: When Leadership Goes Bad

  Words by Mike Weisbecker, USAF

Almost from the time you get off of the bus at o’dark thirty when you first arrive at basic training, you start learning about leadership.  Some in your group of unkempt civilians get appointed as student leaders.  None will survive until the end of basic.  But you see what folks, just like you, get for being a leader.

You hear a lot about what it takes to be a good leader.  All throughout your career, if you get past the first few years, you will attend informal seminars, formal seminars, and leadership academies; enlisted and officers alike.

One statement that stuck with me was from an E-9 whom I had worked with in my career field.  We were assigned together in the USAF and he was the Maintenance Chief for the Maintenance Group.  He was one of three E-9’s doing a leadership panel at my Senior NCO Induction Seminar.  His parting words were (paraphrasing here as it’s been a few years now) "you should have two mentors at every position you hold.  One you want to emulate and one you don’t want to emulate."

Out of the ones in the “don’t do what this one does” category, one in particular is the top of the heap by far.  I will call him Captain Sobel as portrayed in Band Of Brothers.  Even that portrayal is too good for this guy. 

Picture above courtesy HBO

It's the early 90’s and I am in an aircraft maintenance unit responsible for maintaining the wing’s four dedicated training aircraft.  A new Captain shows up.  Not a big deal.  I’m just an E-4 at this point.  Far down the food chain.  Usually went through a company grade officer every 6-10 months as they got shuffled around for “career broadening”.  But word was he had been through the three operational maintenance units in the space of a year. 

Within a few weeks you could feel that the Senior NCO’s weren’t happy with this one.  More than feel... You heard.  My first run in with him was he asked me a question in passing and I responded with “yeah, sure thing”.  He was upset with my using "yeah".  So having recently completed an assignment to Iceland, I quickly responded “no Captain, I said yow, Icelandic for yes”.  He seemed to grudgingly accept this answer. 

He started to notice I referred to him by rank instead of calling him sir.  So he asked me about it one day.  I just replied that according to customs and courtesies I was well within regulations to refer to him by his rank.  This bothered him so much that he even asked our E-8 about it.  He replied to the Captain that I was well within my rights to do that and to drop it. 

About two months after he arrived, our E-8 left for another maintenance unit, then two of our E-7 production supervisors left as well.  Soon I was asked if I wanted to join them, and I beat feet away from this guy.

Fast forward about two years and I find myself in Alaska.  We were doing counterdrug interdiction deployments to Panama.  At this point we had a jet there, Okinawa had one of their jets there, and the AWACS motherland at Tinker AFB had two.  The day after we flew in via commercial, we met our deployed Maintenance Officer.  None other than (still a) Captain Sobel.  Oh joy.  I start to fill in my Alaska and Okinawa cohorts on him.

First thing he starts with is to try to eliminate the missed lunch meal that nightshifters got.  For those who don’t know, when you go temporary duty, if you are staying on a base with a dining facility, you don’t get your meal rate as you would if there was no facility available. If for some reason you can’t make a meal period at the facility for operational reasons, you can fill out a form and get paid for that meal since you are scoring your own.  We worked 1800-0600.  The facility hours went from 1100-1300. This would have interrupted the 8 hours uninterrupted sleep we were guaranteed by regulation.  So it was a given that nightshifters on this deployment got missed lunch meals.  Never was a problem before…until now.

He argued with finance at Howard AFB.  He argued with finance at Tinker. He put in calls to DFAS at Denver.  Shot down at every level.

Our lead maintenance supervisor from Alaska on the trip called back home and our commander said just bring the meal forms back and he would sign them.  So when Sobel had to relent we provided him no forms to sign.  He asked where they were.  We said our commander would sign them.  He wasn’t happy.

His next foot in mouth moment was at an aircraft debrief.  When the aircraft commander enters the room, all in the room would stand at attention as a sign of respect to the aircraft commander.  So we did this.  After we got done the crew left and Captain Sobel about trips over himself to close the door to speak with us.  He starts to chew us out because we called the room to attention when he was equal to rank to the aircraft commander.  We all looked around at each other just stunned.  This guy has been a maintenance officer for how long and this is the first time this happened?  So someone explained to him that if an 0-5 was in the room when the 0-2 aircraft commander came in, the room would still be called to attention.  I’ve seen 0-7’s in debrief not bat an eye when the 0-3 aircraft commander had the room come to attention for their entry and the 0-7 never batted an eye.  

The insult to injury came soon after this.  We were just milling around the office spaces waiting on a jet to land when he comes storming in, slams the door, and starts accusing us of stealing his portfolio.  We all look at each other.  “What are you talking about” someone finally asked.  Very curtly he described it, and again accused one of us of stealing it.  At this point we all start saying we didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.  As he stormed out he said something about whoever stole it would pay dearly. 

So we start looking for this lost portfolio.  In the room we used as storage and a snack bar we had two refrigerators.  One of us found it between the two fridges.   Opened it up and found out why his pantyhose were in a knot.  The next day’s flying schedule was in it.  At the time they were controlled as confidential. 

Someone shouted for the Captain to come back.  When he came back in the room one of us asked if he had gone to the snack bar for something when he got back from the production meeting and he said he grabbed a drink.  Then we produced the portfolio.  He just grabbed it and stormed into his office, slamming the door.  No apology.

To this day I can mention his real name and anyone who had any dealings with him will at a minimum roll their eyes.  Usually you get some expletives attached to his name.  Blood pressures rise, voices raise. 

Out of all my examples of what a leader should not do, he tops the list.  The wrong stuff indeed…