Conviction and Leadership in Aerospace

Article views are my own and not coordinated with my employer, Boeing, the National Academies, DARPA or the US Air Force.

Aerospace and Defense work is super technical, rewarding and meaningful. But it’s more than that. Everyone in this industry deeply cares about protecting the people who fly and fight in these planes. You feel it in every meeting. Protecting people plays a key role in every decision.

Defense takes it to a new level. When my teams were building the F-35, I would lie awake at night thinking about one of my close friends taking off to head over the big ocean. I could feel them praying that they would come back, taking a glance at their family pic, wondering if they were ready for what the nation was asking of them. Wondering if they would do their job, their duty and their mission with honor.

My job was to make sure that there was one worry they never had: their plane, and all its systems, would work. Everything from their microelectronics to their software was tested, verified and effective.

Especially when it matters most: when the high-pitched tone fills the cockpit, missiles locked and ready. The HUD’s reticle begins to steady, the pickle press is immediately followed by weapons release, countermeasures sync’d and deployed. Boom. One pilot flies away in the plane we built. Everything must work. Every time. Even when other people on the other side of the world are spending their career to prevent all that from working. That is a mission, and one worth a life of work.

I just watched Oppenheimer. This movie has had enough reviews, but it spoke to the work I and my colleagues do every day. It was a fine movie, but, to me, Oppenheimer the person wasn’t that interesting.

Yes, it was cool to see what Hollywood thinks an academic superhero should be: learning Sanskrit for fun or Dutch in a month while building new physics and drinking a lot. His national service was commendable. But the movie portrayed him as a moral adolescent with multiple affairs, confused service and shifting beliefs — fluid convictions with uncertain moral foundations. Yes, he like the rest of us are trying to do right and live with the consequences of our actions. But there are a lot of smart folks out there who think about what they do.

Smart is nice, but I’m always on the lookout for conviction. Google and Goldman are filled with smart people. Good for them, but I’m after something else. Enter General Groves. He built the pentagon in record time and under budget as the deputy chief of construction for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He built over 29 acres with over 6 million square feet of floor space–in just 16 months. You have to believe in what you are doing to effectively coordinate the efforts of thousands of workers, architects, and engineers, while also navigating the complex demands of military bureaucracy.

The pentagon was a warm-up act to the complexities of the Manhattan Project: 130,000 people working together at the cost of about 27 billion in current dollars. Why? To win the war. Without that bomb, Floyd “Dutch” Booher, my grandpa, would have died in Japan and you wouldn’t have this post to read. At the same time, this one project fundamentally changed the nature of warfare and international relations, and drove unprecedented advancements in science and technology that continue to shape our world today. They did a thing.

As I seek to improve at building and delivering combat power, Groves is one of the leader’s I’ve carefully studied. He is there with Hyman G. Rickover (the U.S. Navy’s nuclear propulsion program, revolutionizing submarine warfare), Benny Schriever (the intercontinental ballistic missile program and our current space capabilities), and Vannevar Bush (Coordinated U.S. scientific research during WWII, leading to radar, the Manhattan Project, and early computers), and Curtis Lemay (SAC). These are fascinating lives worth studying and learning from. We all need heroes and while these men have feet of clay, they believed and acted in conviction. People followed with shared conviction.

But set that all aside, because the real hero of the Oppenheimer movie for me was Boris Pash, the passionate and purposeful head of security. I think he was cast to be a villian, outsmarted by Oppenheimer, but I saw something else. That is probably because my core conviction is that all true power is moral power and moral power requires moral clarity. I’m a moral clarity seeking missile, it’s what I look for in a crowded room. You can get to moral clarity in two ways: unquestioned loyalty or intense moral discovery. The first road is dangerous, you could end up a brave Nazi. The second is harder but is the road worth traveling. Simple beliefs are good if you embraced the complexity and nuance to get there. It’s our road in Aerospace.

The real Boris Pash lead the Alsos Mission, a secret U.S. operation during World War II tasked with finding and confiscating German nuclear research to prevent the Nazis from developing atomic bombs. His role was critical in ensuring the security of the Manhattan Project and in counterintelligence efforts against potential espionage threats, including monitoring and neutralizing efforts by foreign powers or individuals who might compromise the project’s security or the United States’ strategic advantages in nuclear technology.

In a movie of confused scientists and slippery politicians, Boris Pash stood tall. His character was a compelling example of leadership conviction in the face of moral ambiguity. His unwavering commitment to his cause, rooted in personal experiences fighting the Bolsheviks, stands in stark contrast to the inner conflicts and ethical doubts plaguing the scientists.

“this is a guy who has killed communists with his own hands.”

Gen Groves

For defense leaders, Pash’s steadfast moral clarity is both admirable and just how we do business. In a field often fraught with complex decisions and far-reaching consequences, having a strong ethical framework and a deep understanding of the rightness and necessity of one’s actions is table stakes. I want to be Boris Pash, not Oppenheimer.

At its core, leadership conviction is about having a clear sense of purpose and a commitment to a set of well tested values and principles. It involves making difficult choices based on a strong moral compass, even in the face of uncertainty, opposition, or personal risk. It’s what our nation needs for us to build.

Socrates said “to do good, one must first know good”. To know good requires a lot of homework, it’s studying the ethics of Kant, the wisdom of the stoics, the convictions of Lincoln. It’s a commitment to a careful review of the key actors who made the hard choices. It’s knowing why Socrates drank the hemlock. It is a commitment to philosophical inquiry, self-reflection, and a sincere pursuit of truth and moral understanding. It’s always being open to being wrong, combined with a deep conviction that one is right. Getting this right, is the hardest of hard callings.

In our industry, it means constantly re-evaluating our principles and actions, seeking guidance from trusted sources, and engaging in ongoing self-reflection. It’s about having the courage to make tough decisions while also remaining open to new information and perspectives. It’s about finding all the gray in your life and never giving up the journey to drive it out.

But why? For the pride of saying you’re right? No, because leading with clarity is the only way to get big things done. Humility is helpful, but only because it provides understanding. Humility is emotion free clarity of reality and it’s required to correctly understand the world. But you can’t lead unless you wrestle with “why?”. Aerospace and defense leaders need to know the purpose and reason, the teleology, of every plane, bomb or information system they build.

Endless wrestling is fine for academics, but if you are going to lead in the business of building things, you have to get to the other side and land on firm ground. You have to know and communicate why, and your actions will speak to the fact that you’ve found your way outside Plato’s cave by being brave enough to stare at the sun. When you get there, you don’t need to look in the mirror and practice being transparent or authentic, nor does your focus stop at quality. Your focus roves the landscape until your find the thing that must be done for the mission — whatever that is. Shared conviction leads way to execution, excellence and delivery. It brings everyone together without the need for a new diversity and inclusion campaign.

We have a lot of conviction in our industry, but we need more conviction and courage. When your conviction is that we need to win wars and protect passengers — when you have the conviction of Boris Pash — the trivial fades away and the important stuff comes into focus. Anyone in this industry knows what I’m talking about. When the chips are down and that fighter pilot is going to press that button — all the politics won’t matter, conviction will.

That is why I’m here and why this is my place. We will persist until we rebuild this industry, but we will rebuild it around the core conviction that excellence doesn’t exist to drive shareholder value. It doesn’t exist to win the next competition. It doesn’t exist for the next promotion or to help your preferred population gain more seats in the room. Every one of those things can be good. But they are not “the thing” that gets us there.

Delivery of effective products that advance the state of the art must be our north star. The conviction to deliver on excellence forms an unwavering shared commitment that brings a global business together. Because freedom matters, protecting passengers matters, winning wars matters. We get none of those things without excellent work. And you don’t get excellence with 99% commitment.

It’s a worthy thing and we all need to remember it’s not a career in this line of work–it’s a righteous calling. There are plenty of industries where you can do good enough work, but not this one. Let’s work together to make that true. I long for the eyes of Boris Pash. Eyes of conviction grounded and secured, purpose sure and mission ready. Let’s get to work.






4 responses to “Conviction and Leadership in Aerospace”

  1. Dave Avatar

    Great Read and 100% alignment with thoughts and courage needed

  2. Joe K Avatar
    Joe K

    Conviction – spot on Tim!

  3. Laurel Booher Avatar
    Laurel Booher

    This is just written so well, Tim! Your grandpa Booher would be so proud you mentioned him in this article. Proud of both of your grandpas. Grandpa Booher was in the Pacific theatre. Papa Cairns was in the European theatre.

  4. Roberto Avatar

    Great thoughts, Tim.
    This is one of the statements that really resonated with me… “At its core, leadership conviction is about having a clear sense of purpose and a commitment to a set of well tested values and principles.”

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