Learn leadership secrets of Dean Smith

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Bryan Crutchfield
  • 350th Air Refueling Squadron commander
With March Madness and the National Collegiate Athletic Association College Basketball Tournament coming to a close, I thought it fitting to share some key leadership tips from my alma mater, the University of North Carolina, and one of my leadership idols, who was UNC's head basketball coach for 36 years, Dean Smith. Even though the players change every year, it's no accident the Tar Heels put together a competitive team each season.

Dean Smith graduated from the University of Kansas and entered the Air Force as a second lieutenant. He served in Germany before becoming an assistant coach for the Air Force Academy's first basketball team in 1955. Although Coach Smith acknowledges college basketball is not combat, he and Roy Williams, currant UNC basketball coach, believe "leadership tenets are the same in any profession to get people to work together unselfishly and feel like family."

Over the past year in command I've adopted many of Coach Smith's tried and true lessons, published in his book, "The Carolina Way," of how to consistently build a winning team. Hopefully, you will find them useful as well.

"The best leaders really do care about the people entrusted to them and want to see them succeed," Coach Smith said in his book.

Certainly, our people achieve great things on their own merit, but they will happily exceed your expectations when they know you sincerely care about them. While deployed, we made it a policy for squadron leadership to meet every crew personally on the ramp when they landed after an in-flight emergency, no matter what time of day or night. We felt the least we could do was to meet them in person to tell them what a great job they had done to recover the aircraft and crew safely. We chauffeured them from the ramp to maintenance debrief and back to billeting to expedite their re-entry into crew rest. It's important to let them know how proud you are of them. It is also important to put your people first and to let them know you will drop anything you are doing immediately if they need you.

"If a player had a problem he needed to discuss he could come see me immediately," Coach Smith said. "I had a rule from day one in my head coaching tenure, that if a player needed to see me, it took priority over everything else, even if it meant asking the governor of North Carolina to leave the office temporarily. What we said stayed behind closed doors."

Coach Smith was brutally honest with his players.

"We told the young men the truth, not just what they wanted to hear," Coach Smith said.

Likewise, as leaders, it is critical to sit down and perform one-on-one feedback sessions with your people. They need to hear the truth, and you need to let them know where they can improve. Coach Smith did six sessions per player each year. I had four different operations officers in four months as a deployed commander, and you can bet; I was brutally honest with each of them because the squadron could not afford to lose combat capability due to mistakes or misunderstandings. Let people know your expectations up front, and let them know exactly where they stand at all times.

"If the team as a unit played unselfishly, it would usually succeed, and the individuals on the team would prosper," Coach Smith said. "The players needed to understand this and buy in to it before we could get them where we wanted them to be."

People's lives depend on it in deployed operations. The operations and maintenance teamwork is nothing short of amazing. The price for miscommunication or failure could be the loss of life, limb or eyesight on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan. With troops in contact, nearly every day our tankers refuel fighter, reconnaissance and bomber aircraft dependent on our fuel to maintain overhead cover for coalition forces. 

It's common for our tankers to fly directly to kill boxes when requested by ground controllers or receivers when things heat up on the ground. We provide continuous refueling while the fighters accomplish "yo-yo operations" with one fighter on the boom getting gas and replacing the fighter on-station so it can climb to receive its fuel. On two separate occasions, our pilots refueled after we shut down an engine and flew with only three engines to prevent loss of fighter coverage over coalition forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The teamwork in the air is amazing. High levels of teamwork and performance are critical because the same crews fly with each other everyday. Pilots manage three radios and fly the aircraft with precision to prevent a collision, and the boom operator directs the receiver aircraft to within just feet of himself while flying at more than 300 knots. The boom operator uses finesse to fly the boom with expert hand-eye coordination and the pressure is on, especially at night and in light turbulence. The boom passes just inches away from the canopy of the fighter and inches away from expensive antennas. One slip and it's at least $40 thousand in damage to the KC-135. F-16 air refuelings at night are some of the most difficult missions, especially when the receiver pilots' primary language is not English. It's much more complicated than college basketball but the teamwork is the same, and the feelings of accomplishment are immense. Let the players take all credit for the wins while the leaders need to take the blame for mistakes.

Don't dwell on the past
"Sure, correct mistakes, and learn from them, but don't dwell on things that can't be changed," Coach Smith said Coach Smith. "Our team's thought for the day concerning mistakes was "Recognize it; admit it; learn from it -- then forget it."

As a former KC-135 schoolhouse instructor pilot, I believe this is one of the most important principles of leadership as well as aviation. Learn from your mistakes and move on. The problem stops serving you when it becomes baggage that undermines your confidence.

Additionally, Coach Smith had his players focus on their routine when shooting free throws, so they could perform under high stress conditions. Our aircrews practice in the simulator and on training flights to stay sharp and focused for combat. Coach Smith also praised in public to build confidence. He believed strongly in positive reinforcement.

"I looked carefully to determine that we praised behavior that we wanted to see repeated," said Coach Smith.

Make it a priority to praise the behavior you want to see repeated and do not dwell on past mistakes.

Even though the Tar Heels did not make it to the Final Four, I'll pull for them every year because they focus on unselfishness, playing hard, and most importantly --teamwork.