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Robin Olds: Finding Guideposts for Mission Command

  • Published
  • By Maj. Daniel A. McGinnis-Welsh

Is there value in scrutinizing the life of revered heroes?[1] Tradition dictates that USAFA sophomores select a class exemplar from the airpower greats.[2] One constraint is that exemplars must be deceased. Therefore, after Robin Olds’s death, the class of 2011 jumped at the chance to stake their claim. What followed was a passionate embrace of wearing fake mustaches, chanting “OLDS,” and ensuring a whiskey bottle was always by his grave.[3] Those symbols undoubtably helped them rally around the paragon of warrior mavericks, but their impulse to exalt him was not new or unique.[4]

Olds’s broad appeal likely flows from his life as an unapologetic fighter pilot who did not trouble himself with much else. Even Olds’s description of his dreamed paradise is a place where “we sing, we drink, we retell our warrior tales, and we laugh.”[5] Nevertheless, engaging in a more critical examination his leadership affords the chance to glean lessons that can be applied today. Olds’s leadership embodied a strong warrior ethos that privileged ends over means, which often raised effectiveness in extremis and led to systemic failures in normalem.[6] The divergence of those tendencies offers a poignant lesson about the risk of not cultivating robust foundations of credibility, tethered to an integrity of life.[7] This will be demonstrated by explicating the links between Olds’s leadership foundations and his successes and failures, which taken together offer guideposts for effectively implementing a culture of mission command today and in the future.[8]

Foundations for Leadership

The full array of available lenses for interpreting Olds’s leadership foundations are too vast to do justice to each. Conversely, selecting which ethical frameworks ought to be privileged is made difficult in a pluralistic American context.[9] However, the unique moral component baked into employing military force demands the utilization of some agreed upon standards.[10] For the USAF, the core values help by providing a baseline for ethical and moral judgments.[11] This is because integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all you do operate as a type of virtue ethic and the formation of character.[12] Accordingly, the clear linkages between Olds’s personal ethics and character and his leadership successes and failures bolster this approach’s credibility. 

Touchstones for Olds’s leadership foundations can be traced to his earliest years. He was born into a military family that privileged a love of flying and celebrated the virtues of grit, loyalty, and excellence—all which became hallmarks of his warrior ethos. The tragic death of his mother when he was only four years old sealed the primacy of his dad’s tough but tender influence on his life.[13] By the time Robin was five, he could name aircraft merely “by the sound of its engine on takeoff or landing.”[14] He was exposed to his dad’s friends, including Air Force legends like Arnold, Spaatz, Mitchell, and Eaker.[15] Robin’s familiarity with those early pioneers seared into him two beliefs: the unrivaled brotherhood of pilots, and the incredible warfighting significance of airplanes, if used correctly.[16] His vision of a Valhalla paradise echoed his childhood; Robin used to hide at the top of the stairs to listen “to laughter, tales of flying, and songs…floating up from the living room.”[17] His grit, loyalty, and commitment to warfighting excellence were further reinforced during his time as a student at West Point.[18] Through the lens of the USAF core values, those aspects of Olds’s leadership foundation are unmistakably praiseworthy.

Woefully, Olds’s willingness to let ends justify means can also be traced to his earliest days. The most pervasive end was his conviction, from childhood, that he “had to be a fighter pilot.”[19] On numerous occasions, the pursuit or sustainment of that end led to his neglect of other duties through imprudence, deception, or irreverence for authority. An early example occurred during Olds’s senior year at West Point when he was removed from the fighter-track.[20] His new flight instructor equally lamented being sorted into the multi-engine AT-10. Jointly, they used their grievances and desire to fly fighters as justification to regularly push the plane beyond its safety limits, which culminated in dangerously flying “under every bridge on the Hudson from Albany to New York City.”[21] Olds saw his conduct as a feat, hilarious and nearly noble, because their relationship helped him get back into fighters. The antics bred in him a “fascination that would piss off many bosses for the next thirty years.”[22] However, the discontinuity between his assessment of the virtue of these actions and the core values is evident.

The tension between Olds’s emulation of service values and rebellion against constraining rules reveals a character “rich and complicated…[and] best understood as neither virtuous nor vicious.”[23] Olds’s longing, as a young officer, to experience his first combat action testifies to this duality. He was motivated by a desire to fight alongside comrades and to be valuable as a warfighter while defending liberty.[24] Nonetheless, Olds’s quest to reach those noble ends enabled him to justify to himself deceiving a staff officer to get orders for Europe, disobeying orders when he wanted to attack an unidentified train, and later lying to protect himself and his flight status.[25] This does not mean a critical examination of his leadership devolves into futility. Rather, examining Olds’s past results helps provide “a reliable guide to future success and failure.”[26] In other words, learning where Olds was, and was not, a good role-model provides tangible utility for emulating his successes and avoiding his failures.[27]

Leading In Extremis

Olds’s undeniable leadership strength centered on his ability to raise effectiveness and achieve success while leading in extremis.[28] His time as the 8th Tactical Fight Wing Commander presents a masterclass in the employment of power and influence, emotional intelligence, and communication to achieve tactical and organizational changes. The first category of changes, support and administration, started before Olds even arrived at Udon. They arose as a natural byproduct of how he went about doing his job.[29] He felt obliged to use his legitimate power to make things better “for all the troops.”[30] This included chastising inadequate support for deployers, demanding passengers receive respite from oppressive heat during an extended stop, and even taking the normal route to Udon—so he could experience what troops had to endure.[31] This reflected Olds’s belief that it is “crucial to investigate every little thing at the start of an assignment.”[32] By attuning himself to experiences of others, Olds harnessed personal and social competence as a catalyst for change.[33]

Olds then utilized those principles to cultivate his expert and referent power as a basis for successfully leading operational changes that improved wartime effectiveness.[34] The growth of his influence began with his commitment to fly in combat missions—a reversal from previous TFW/CCs. Olds even threw down the gauntlet when he said that he would learn everything from his aircrew and then become “better than you!”[35] He flew “tail-end Charlie” in the back seat for first two weeks, which opened his eyes “to the mess the 8th was in on every level.”[36] Olds quickly progressed in proficiency and gained the buy-in he sought, which he parlayed into the development of better tactics. An early fruit of those efforts was the successful execution of Operation Bolo.[37] However, Olds’s success was not limited to that one operation because he kept a laser focus on executing his vision to create repeatable processes that improved warfighting excellence.[38] The heart of his efforts were mandating ground school, pairing inexperienced aircrews with experienced ones, and creating tactics conferences to share lessons learned amongst the wings.[39] The result was that Olds successfully raised effectiveness while “serving with dedicated men, sharing deep respect and comradeship forged on the anvil of challenge and danger.”[40] The successful end of his time as the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing Commander cemented the masterclass of his leadership in extremis.                                

Leading In Normalem

Contrasted to Olds’s success in extremis were systematic failures in normalem. The symptoms of what caused these failures included frequent drunkenness, aerial mishaps, failed marriages, neglect of his daughters, and friction with superiors.[41] A jarring juxtaposition of the divergent tendencies was displayed immediately after Olds returned from Udon. The façade of a blissful home swiftly evaporated, despite the joyful greeting he received from his daughters.[42] In the place of joy was a tension so palpable that Olds had to actively concentrate during dinner in order to not shaking by telling himself to “just lift the spoon.”[43] Then, instead of engaging with his wife, Ella, about going on a date, Olds slipped off to his den to drink “a glass of scotch.”[44] When he finally went to the room, Ella was passed out, smelled of alcohol, and had pill bottles everywhere.[45] The appalling fight that followed was not solely Olds’s fault.[46] However, it was precipitated by years of neglecting any duty that threatened being a fighter pilot. Even Olds’s return from a deployed command showed this reality; he had orchestrated his removal from the promotion list with the clear purpose of commanding in Vietnam.[47] That destructive pattern typifies what caused Olds’s systematic failures in normalem—not having robust credibility, tethered to an integrity of life.

Conclusion: Lessons for Mission Command

The potential for the US to engage in major combat operations undergirds the need for its current and future leaders to effectively implement mission command.[48] The prospect of fighting in this way will undoubtedly require grit, loyalty, and warfighting excellence. However, mission command is predicated on a form of in extremis leadership that synchronizes efforts across time, space, and the chain of command.[49] Therefore, the lessons uncovered by a more critical analysis of Olds's leadership success and failures provided a more robust set of guideposts. Olds’s success showed how to leverage emotional intelligence and communication to bolster legitimate, expert, and referent power in hostile dynamic environments. His failures show the criticality of cultivating a strong foundation of credibility, tethered to an integrity of life. Olds’s destructive patterns arose from his failure to conform to the ethical standards across all areas of his life. That eroded trust and a shared understanding with his superiors and resulted in the neglect of other duties, which produced imbalance and imprudence. This analysis contributes to a nuanced understanding that can enhance the application of mission command. Leaders can model Olds’s in extremis virtues while building robust ethical credibility and integrity of life to engender the trust needed to successfully execute today and in the future.

Major McGinnis-Welsh is a 12-year commissioned officer in the US Air Force, with experience working on conventional fighter flightlines and in support of nuclear operations as both a munitions maintenance and aircraft maintenance officer. Those assignments have included time at the staff and wing levels. His educational credentials include a BS in political science and philosophy from the US Air Force Academy, an MA in theological studies from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and an MA in military operational art and science with a specialization in political-military affairs from the US Air Command and Staff College.


I wish to thank Maj Joseph Wyatt, Maj Kait Fair (USAFA class of 2011), and my wife, for their thoughtful comments and suggestions. All errors found therein are my own.


[1] There have been example of this type of evaluation of leaders since the earliest days of western thought. See Plutarch, Plutarch: The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins, trans. John Dryden, vol. 14 (Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952).

[2] “Sophomore Junior Year,” United States Air Force Academy, December 28, 2023,

[3] As member of the class of 2012, the class of 2011’s strong embrace of Robin Olds colored many of my earliest USAFA memories.

[4] When Olds first arrived at USAFA as Commandant of Cadets, he was greeted by a full student body sporting fake mustaches. That same trend was repeated countless times when he gave speeches. See Robin Olds, Christina Olds, and Ed Rasimus, Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011), 354.

[5] Olds, Fighter Pilot, 386.

[6] In normalem is Latin for “in the normal” and is used to evoke a contrast to the concept of in extremis.

[7] Integrity is being used as “the state of being whole and undivided.” In this context, it means includes unifying virtues that create cogency between the personal and professional. See Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, s.v. “Integrity,”

[8] The fundamental premise behind Mission Command is that subordinate leaders today and in the future will have to be empowered to “operate in environments of increasing uncertainty, complexity, and rapid change.” See Sandeep Mulgund, "Evolving the Command and Control of Airpower," Wild Blue Yonder ( 21 April 2021).

[9] Brig Gen Malham M. Wakin (Ret.) called this the precarious ground of determining what kinds of ethics and character ought to be legitimately taught. See Malham M. Wakin, “Ethics, Leadership, and Character,” in AU-24 Concepts for Air Force Leadership (2006): 69.

[10] While Wakin argued for a robust virtue ethics framework, the principle of needing agreed upon standards is salient regardless of what specific framework is accepted. See Wakin, “Ethics, Leadership, and Character,” 70.

[12] The relationship between established virtues and conforming character far predates AFPD document in discussions of Aristotle’s golden mean found in his Ethics. See AFDP 1, The Air Force, 4-5 and Aristotle, Robert C. Bartlett, and Susan D. Collins, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

[13] Olds, Fighter Pilot, 6.

[14] Olds, Fighter Pilot, 5.

[15] Olds recounted how giants of airpower moved in his life as normal fixtures. See Olds, Fighter Pilot, 6.

[16] Olds, Fighter Pilot, 6.

[17] Olds, Fighter Pilot, 5 and 386.

[18] An example of this happened when Olds played football in the pouring rain for all sixty minutes, as a two directional player, in front of 76,000 fans. He did that with an injured shoulder that caused extreme levels of pain, but his memory was how fun it was. That vignette testifies to Olds’s grit and loyalty. See Olds, Fighter Pilot, 11.

[19] Olds, Fighter Pilot, 5.

[20] Olds, Fighter Pilot, 15.

[21] Olds, Fighter Pilot, 16.

[22] Olds, Fighter Pilot, 16.

[23] Christian B. Miller, The Character Gap: How Good Are We? (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2020), 99.

[24] Olds, Fighter Pilot, 25-26, 54-57, 61, and 76.

[25] Olds’s staff deception came on the heels of his Sq/CC denying his leave to appeal to Gen Arnold a policy that keep him and other West Pointers from deploying. To get around that denial, Olds and his friend went to the LA Wing HQ. While there, Olds tricked an orderly room NCO to cut orders without his leadership knowing. The other aspects occurred after Olds deployed, during a mission over France. See Olds, Fighter Pilot, 26-28 and 44-46.

[26] Christian Miller, The Character Gap, 163.

[27] Christian Miller, The Character Gap, 195-204.

[28] Thomas Kolditz defined in extremis as “situations where leaders and followers are in physical danger or where followers believe that leader behavior will influence their well-being.” See Chaveso Cook, Christopher Webb, and Jamie Vansickle, “Developing and Mentoring ‘in extremis’ Leaders: Lessons Learned from Special Operations,” ASPJ (Summer 2020): 68.

[29] That principle echoes what Goleman et al. argued in Primal Leadership; “no matter what [great leaders] set out to do…their success depends on how they do it.” See Daniel Goleman, Richard E. Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2013), 3.

[30] Olds usage of his legitimate power to break down barriers echoes Lunenberg. See Olds, Fighter Pilot, 251-254 and Fred C. Lunenberg, “Power and Leadership: An Influence Process,” IJMBA 15, no. 1 (2012): 4-5.

[31] Olds, Fighter Pilot, 251-254

[32] Olds, Fighter Pilot, 258.

[33] Goleman et al. identified self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management as the four subordinate pillars of personal and social competence. Olds used the first three tools to build credibility and aid relationship management enroute to implementing changes. Olds method overlaps heavily with Cook and his co-authors’ in extremis mentorship development model, which aims to demystify success leading in that environment. See Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee, Primal Leadership, 39-40 and Cook, Webb, and Vansickle, “Developing and Mentoring ‘in extremis’ Leaders,” 71.

[34] Expert power as the “ability to influence others’ behavior because of recognized knowledge, skills, or abilities.” This flows closely from a climate of trust. Referent power “is a person’s ability to influence others’ behavior because they like, admire, and respect the individual.” This leads to enhanced commitment and loyalty from subordinates. See Lunenberg, “Power and Leadership,” 3-6.

[35] Olds, Fighter Pilot, 259.

[36] Olds, Fighter Pilot, 264.

[37] Op Bolo was the clever tactical ploy that drew enemy aircraft back into aerial battle. It successfully inflicted heavy MiG losses on the enemy. See Olds, Fighter Pilot, 271-276 and 281-282.

[38] Olds leveraged elements of motivation, knowledge, skill, and context to craft effective communication that resulted in buy-in for vision of how to best execute tactical and organizational changes. See Brian Spitzberg et al., “A Model of Communication Competence,” in Human Communication, 2nd ed. (Belmont, CA: Thompson-Wadsworth, 2007), 27–44, 34-41.

[39] Olds, Fighter Pilot, 307 and 339-340.

[40] Olds, Fighter Pilot, 338.

[41] Olds, Fighter Pilot, 16, 71, 170-171, 206, and 382-383.

[42] Olds, Fighter Pilot, 347.

[43] Olds, Fighter Pilot, 347-348.

[44] Olds, Fighter Pilot, 348.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Olds, Fighter Pilot, 348-350.

[47] Olds did this knowing full well that it was against the desires of his family, that would cause him to be apart from them for a year, and that his plan involved the unsafe usage of aircraft in violation of standing orders. See Olds, Fighter Pilot, 242-246.

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