When soldiers don't get paid -- a valuable leadership lesson for today

I will never forget the day.


It was Oct. 6, 1978. I was the wing commander of the F-15 Fighter Wing at Bitburg, Germany. There were 3,500 Air Force personnel in the wing, as well as 700 civilian employees. Also on the base were 200 soldiers whose mission was to defend the area from air attack. This U.S. Army Vulcan/Chaparral unit was a tenant organization and not under my command.

Because of a conflict between Congress and the president (sound familiar?), we were not able to pay anyone. This situation had existed for six days. Finally, authorization came through, and on a Friday afternoon we paid our folks. With a long Columbus Day weekend coming, I was greatly relieved.

Just as I was preparing to go home, the telephone rang in my office. A noncommissioned officer told me, "Sir, you need to get down to the post office right away." When I asked why, he said. "There is a riot about ready to break out. The Army troops are not getting paid and have been told it will be next Tuesday before their checks will come through."

I phoned the wing finance officer. He confirmed that the soldiers would have to wait until Tuesday. There was no way he could cut paychecks for Army personnel. I then asked, "How much cash do you have in our vault?" He told me, "About $700,000." I asked, "Why can't we pay the soldiers in cash?" He replied that if we did so it would be in violation of Air Force regulations and Department of Defense directives.

MY NEXT QUESTION was, "Would it be illegal or unethical to pay them in cash?" He said no. I then told him, "Get ready -- I am going down to the post office right now and tell the soldiers they will be paid, in cash, this evening."

There are some lessons that may be drawn from this incident:

- The sergeant who called me did just the right thing. He spoke with great urgency. He did not sugarcoat his advice. Basically, he told me to take quick action, and I followed his advice.

- The finance officer was willing to help but, appropriately, he alerted me that I would be in violation of many regulations and directives.

- On reflection, I made one significant mistake. Earlier that Friday, I should have asked if everyone, including the Army troops, would get paid. The lesson here is: Look out for everyone , especially in times of crisis.

- Another important lesson is the need for leaders at all levels to be flexible. They must be willing to make exceptions to policy or procedures when folks are hurting.

Here in Augusta, there are some organizations that establish rules that are so inflexible that they sometimes defy common sense. This leads to poor morale on the part of employees who want to better serve their organization and their customers. Jousting with a rigid bureaucracy is an essential element of enlightened leadership.

- Perhaps the most important lesson for 1978 and for today is that many people live from paycheck to paycheck -- or from Social Security check to Social Security check.

TODAY, AS THE president and congressional leaders face the debt-ceiling crisis, they must take into consideration not just the impact of a government shutdown on banks, Wall Street, corporations, our trading partners and the credibility of our financial system. It is essential for them to think of the ordinary folks whose lives could be devastated if government paychecks -- as well as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid payments -- stop.

There is a recent example of a government impasse that is getting lots of media attention -- the shutdown of the government in Minnesota. State parks closed; rest stops on highways closed; state employees were not being paid, except those in essential positions; and bills from contractors are not being paid. The snowball effect is profound.

Happily, the human costs of the Minnesota shutdown now got the attention they deserve, and the state's governor announced Thursday that the shutdown would end "within days."

The federal debt-ceiling crisis of 2011 probably will not lead to the shutdown of our federal government. The fact that we have come so close should be a wake-up call for politicians and government bureaucrats at all levels. Let's hope so.

(The writer -- a retired U.S. Air Force major general -- is the president of the board of trustees of the Augusta Museum of History, and secretary of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. His e-mail address is genpsmith@aol.com.)