I recently watched the movie “Red Tails” about the Tuskegee Airmen’s triumph over racism, poor equipment, and initial underutilization during the air war over the European Theater of Operations (ETO) during World War II. I really came away impressed, not just of the character, performance, and professionalism of the Tuskegee Airmen, but also of the high number of transferable military-to-business skill sets the movie offers. Below are a few of the more relevant business lessons that the movie offers.
Business Lesson No.1 — Communicate With Your Team. The pilot cross talk during both fighter operations and the bomber protection missions was a great lesson in the importance of team communications. Before the battle, the pilots communicated to keep up morale and pass important lessons to ensure success in the air. Once the battle was joined, the pilots communicated their positions, plans, and if they needed or could offer help. This is a great lesson for customer facing organizations to communicate in the heat of operations and serving customers how they are doing, how the plan is progressing, or if they can offer to help.
Business Lesson No. 2 — The Trifecta: Pride + Professionalism + Performance. Direct and indirect racism against the Tuskegee Airmen was a constant companion. The Tuskegee Airmen took a direct step to not fight back physically. Instead, they let the combination of pride in their unit, the professionalism of their conduct as Army Air Corp soldiers, and their high performance as aviators be the judge. This is great advice to never stoop to the level of your detractors and critics, but to rise above the “flak” or negativity with a positive attitude, unparalleled professionalism, and produce great results for your customers.
Business Lesson No. 3 — Know How to Define & Measure Your Success. In my favorite scene from “Red Tails,” Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) responds to calls of disagreement from the pilots that they will remain with the heavy bomber groups and not pursue the attacking German fighter aircraft. Bullard: “We will measure our success by the husbands we return to their wives, the fathers we return to their children. For every bomber we save, we will save the lives of 10 crewmen.” This directly told the entire unit how they would be successful from now on — not by shooting down planes, but by ensuring the heavy bombers returned to their bases in England. Organizations at the bottom level need to fully understand, know, and agree how they measure their success in the simplest terms possible.
Business Lesson No. 4 — Know What Your Customers Want. For the Tuskegee Airmen, their customers were the leadership of the European Bomber Command that was trapped in a seemingly ever-losing battle where they were losing more bombers and aircrew to German fighters. In a small, but moving scene, Col. Bullard sat with Lt. Gen. Luntz (played by Gerald McRaney) and reviewed gun camera film to determine precisely what Luntz wanted and how the Red Tails could help. This was a classic “sales meeting” set up to determine customer needs and requirements and how the service provider could help.
Business Lesson No. 5 — Celebrate Your Successes & Learn with the Entire Team. The Tuskegee Airmen used gun camera footage to help their entire unit celebrate their aerial victories and to educate new pilots and ground crew on the vital importance of everyone’s mission. In Air Operations, it takes mechanics, planners, fuelers, weaponeers, weathermen, and more to make a successful combat flight. The Tuskegee Airmen used their gun camera footage to highlight victories and highlight the importance of what the support personnel did. Furthermore, the gun camera footage acted as both an After Action Review (AAR) that highlighted: (1) What happened, (2) What went well, (3) What did not go well, and (4) What can we do to fix it? Finally, the gun camera footage served as a final point of education to show new pilots enemy tactics and what works to win. The use of team celebrations and AARs convince the entire organization of what success is and how to improve.
The movie “Red Tails” produced lots of renewed discussion and interest about the Tuskegee Airmen. This movie was a great example of direct examples of combat aviation skills and how well they can and do work in business.
Chad is the author of two books how to translate and apply military experience to business. Chad is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer with 20-plus years of service. Chad holds a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University and an MBA from Georgetown University.