What The Heck Happened?

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Unread post31 Jan 2011, 22:41

When I look back at the poorest "leaders" I ever knew in USAF, I think of Jean Fabre, who conducted an interesting experiment with caterpillars which explains some of their behavior. Those of you who are Zig Ziglar fans may recognize the story:

"A very unusual experiment was conducted by John Fabre, the French naturalist, consisting of processionary caterpillars, a type of caterpillar that blindly follows the one in front of it. This explains the name processionary caterpillar. The experiment consisted of several of these caterpillars, a flowerpot filled to the rim with dirt, and pine needles.

The caterpillars formed a complete circle around the rim of the flowerpot, with the first one touching the back of the last one. The pine needles, the food of the processionary caterpillar, were placed in the center of the circle.

The caterpillars began their procession around the flowerpot, one following the other in a circle. This went on hour after hour, day after day, for an entire week. In the end, every one of the caterpillars dropped dead of starvation.

The one thing that could have saved them was only six inches away, but without purposeful thought or action, the caterpillars continued with a habitual routine that eventually proved too much to endure."

In essence, the caterpillars died because THEY CONFUSED ACTIVITY WITH ACCOMPLISHMENT. Piss-poor leaders and managers do the same thing.

But when you find a real leader, it's sometimes at the oddest moments. I had mine at MacDill AFB in the early nineties. Those who know me know that I had what I consider a great Air Force career which was unfortunately marred at times by my propensity to do dumb things. I have always thought that a certain amount of "devil-may-care" attitude and willingness to take risks paid off for maintenance guys when the time came to fix airplanes, but these same character attributes sometimes caused problems off-duty, especially when putting away a few too many cold beverages was involved.

Imagine if you will my position as a super-sharp Avionics troop, talented mid-level manager and supervisor, who got into some alcohol trouble. From the Squadron darling, I found myself banished to swing shift and pulled out of all my extra projects. I did the best I could, knowing as I did that such a position is only temporary in an aircraft maintenance squadron; after all, weekends happen every week and there is no shortage of idiots willing to take the spotlight off of you! Yet my penance seemed to last for an eternity, made worse by the realization that I was sunk deeply into a rut and there seemed to be no way to climb out.

One night on swing shift, we were working a particularly difficult problem which had kept most of us there past midnight. As we packed up our tools and filled out the logbooks, the mid shift Maintenance Officer, 2d Lt. Wayne Phan, approached me and asked me to brief him on our progress. Lt. Phan had only been in the squadron a short time, was well aware of what had happened to me, and had been quietly working with us on swings for a few weeks. I explained in great detail the actions we had taken to resolve the problem, cited the reasons for our confidence in the fix, and hoped that my explanation was good enough to get us out of there for the night. The Pro Super, who had taken to treating me like crap since my "incident", was waiting for the word to call in day shift to keep working the problem. Lt. Phan did not hesitate; as he turned to the Pro Super, he said "If it's good enough for Sergeant Sambor, it's good enough for me."

That was the beginning of the end of my exile. After that night, I noticed that the Pro Super started treating me like a human being again, and I gradually worked my way back to earn the respect that I had so thoughtlessly thrown away. To this day (as you can tell) I have never forgotten Wayne Phan. I don't know if he is still in USAF; but if he is, he has surely become one of those leaders that the troops will follow to the ends of the earth. I have always been grateful to him for seeing that I needed to have someone show some faith in me again and allow me to have faith in myself. Thanks, Wayne, wherever you are.

I know, I know, it's lame, but I bet everybody out there who's worth a $hit has a story like that to tell...

Best Regards,
Joe Sambor
LM Aero Field Service Engineer
Woensdrecht Logistics Center, The Netherlands


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Unread post01 Feb 2011, 04:13

Your posting reminds me of one of those inspirational posters you see to spur you on. THe one that caught my eye and has stayed with me these many years shows a single Bald eagle sitting in a tree and the saying reads. "Leaders are like eagles, they don't flock together, you find them one at a time".

To bad we don't have more eagles but I think you found one.

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Unread post01 Feb 2011, 06:34


Yep, Joe, we all have the same story in one form or another.

When I did my ACSC research project about leadership our group had to define the behavioral attributes of leaders and followers. One was "motivation".

When we observed folks in stressing tasks we had to separate "activity" from "purposeful activity". Was like the caterpillars. So we defined "motivation" behavior as those activities that contributed to group accomplishment. Sure, we had the "cheerleaders" that helped morale, but the key players did things that got the job done.

The really successful leaders recognize and exploit the motivation of the injuns to get he job done.

Gums sends...
Viper pilot '79
"God in your guts, good men at your back, wings that stay on - and Tally Ho!"

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