In the never ending debate over nature vs. nurture when reviewing the life of an exceptional leader, instances of early failure followed by blazing success are commonplace in American heroic legends. One need look no further than Steve Jobs to see that early failures, including being kicked out of his own company, led to a personal rebirth as an exceptional visionary and leader. He wasn’t born a leader; he became a leader.
The US Military has its own share of these re-born leaders who once teetered on the edge of obscurity – or worse – only to emerge during turmoil as a “natural born leader”.
Historian and prolific author John F. Wukovits has spent the last decade researching military heroes of WWII and writing their stories. It started with a fascination with war strategy played out on his toy soldier battleground when he was a kid growing up in post WWII Midddle-America. That fascination turned into research in his adult years and while juggling a career teaching history and journalism to 8th graders, he began writing books to share what his research had uncovered about these legends of the Greatest Generation.
Whether it is a story of General Eisenhower– not as a President – but his management and leadership qualities on the battlefield, or the untold story of a young naval officer repeatedly swimming through shark-infested waters in the Pacific to rescue his stranded comrades, Wukovitz brings these heroes to life in a personal way with intimate, readable stories about the person. Editorial critics call his style “turning an historical icon into a flesh-and-blood human being”.
That ability is apparent as he tours the country promoting his most recent book: Black Sheep – The life of Pappy Boyington. In a short 45 minute presentation, Wukovitz recreates the flesh and bones, turbulence-filled life of an undisputed late-blooming leader, Major Gregory (Pappy) Boyington. Described by many as a drunk and womanizer when he was with the Flying Tigers early in the war, when given the opportunity to lead a disorganized, dispirited squadron in 1943, he turned this group of Corsair fighter pilots into one of the most effective fighter squadrons of the Pacific War. He loved his guys and his guys loved him: First off the ground and the last to land – often choosing to fly the oldest most dilapidated plane so his boys could have the newest and best – he earned their respect by being a “natural born leader”.
The enemy called him the “Scourge of the Japanese Air Force” and on the January 1944 mission where he recorded his 26th confirmed kill, his plane was shot down over the South Pacific and he was hauled out of the water by a Japanese submarine crew. Sent immediately to the secret Japanese prison camp Ofura where this well-known “Scourge” was routinely beaten, he once again shone as a leader rallying the American boys to hang on, never give up hope and live to see their families.
Because the existence of Ofura was unknown, America thought it had lost one of its heroes when his plane was reported shot down and he was never listed as a prisoner of war by the Japanese. President Roosevelt awarded Pappy the Medal of Honor in March 1944, thinking it was being awarded posthumously. Imagine the surprise when reconnaissance photos months later showed Pappy was alive and being held in a Japanese prison camp.
When Japan capitulated and Pappy was rescued in mid-August 1945, he was told of his Medal of Honor award. His wry response was that the President only did it because they thought he was dead. Pappy was welcomed home by 21 of his former squadron members at a party on September 12, 1945 at San Francisco’s legendary St. Francis Hotel. His return – and his party were featured in a Life magazine story with the headline “Born to be a Swashbuckler”.
Whatever the magic ingredient that makes an exceptional leader and whether it is a dormant gene that only emerges when conditions are right – or whether it is the right conditions themselves that creates exceptional leaders, scientists may never be able to determine. What is clear is that early career failure does not necessarily predict the outcome for many who turn out to be swashbuckling great leaders.