Billy Mitchell

12 December 2016

Billy Mitchell was the founding father of what is now the Air Force. His legacy of tragedy and triumph resonates with the proposition that success always starts with failure. The tragedy of his court martial, subsequent resignation after a long military career, and early death ended in triumph because his vision became a reality in the creation of today’s independent Air Force. Mitchell’s vision for the Air Force past and present was a theory of airpower not based on a single idea but on the combined ideas of the strategic value of airpower, operating under the command of an Airman, within a separate and independent service department.

His leadership created a forward-looking organizational culture in the United States Army Air Corps and Air Forces centered on technology and airpower and that contribution is his legacy that endures in the Air Force today. Consider first Mitchell’s leadership role in the creation of organizational culture in the United States Army Air Corps and Air Forces and the role technology played in his formation. It began with his birth in France as the son of a United States senator whose leadership style was refined by his military experience.

Billy Mitchell Essay Example

The Army Signal Corps where Mitchell served as officer was the most technologically advanced of the Army’s branches and required familiarization with subjects ranging from aeronautics to electricity. This acceptance of the role of technology in warfare developed into a worldview embraced by Mitchell that, through his leadership, influenced the organizational culture in the Army Air Corps and Air Forces and even today’s Air Force toward an insatiable appetite for the latest technology. The burgeoning contributions of a new technology introduced as airpower influenced Mitchell who envisioned its strategic role as a rival to that of the Navy.

Advances in aeronautics were quite promising for the role of airpower in the war chest but the restrictions imposed by being subordinate to the Army while competing for funding with the Navy were stifling to Mitchell who led the charge for independence. Billy Mitchell envisioned how things could be even better if an independent Air Force jettisoned from the Army and established as a separate department all its own that focused on airpower and run by fliers instead of non-flyers. What he needed was an organizational process to effect this change but one did not exist to suit his urgent demands.

The resistance Mitchell met in the Army bureaucratic hierarchy was similar to the problem recounted by Harford who said the idealized organization with an idealized hierarchy can rarely learn from mistakes but instead becomes a hierarchy of wastebaskets that prevents feedback from reaching the top. ” What works is a more chaotic and rebellious organization. Mitchell’s feedback finally reached the top during his court martial for insubordination after grandiose public statements regarding military aeronautics, National Defense and calling the actions of the Navy and War Departments incompetent, criminal, and treasonable.

All this led to his resignation from the military and the start of a new but brief career as a civilian journalist in his quest to spread his aeronautical ideas. After considering Mitchell’s contribution to organizational culture consider now an evaluation of his legacy in the Air Force today. Mitchell’s strategic vision reflects the various competencies regarding leadership, training, and equipping the force combined with the belief air superiority is absolutely essential in winning a war and that it works best when controlled by an Airman.

Unfortunately, in trying to separate out the Army Air Corps, Mitchell instead separated himself from senior leaders who were in a position to effect change. His was a strong vision and his was an equally strong personality that sometimes came across too aggressive and unorthodox to suit his superiors. As a consequence he was court-martialed and resigned his commission as noted above. Marginalized, Mitchell took on the same task of organizing a separate Air Force as a civilian journalist.

Perhaps figures like James Doolittle and Hap Arnold had as much to do with the actual founding of an independent Air Force as did Mitchell since Doolittle and Arnold stayed in the Air Corps and Air Forces respectively to effect change from within the existing culture, yet it was Mitchell who got the ball rolling. They could select new leaders who shared their views and operated according to accepted conventions. The most potent way a leader’s assumptions permeate into an organization and perpetuate is through the selection of new members by the leader.

Arnold was able to embed his assumptions about airpower in the new Air Force as he selected the next generation of leaders. The difference between Arnold, Doolitte, and Mitchell was in their having patience to work with the system compared to the impatient approach of working against it which eliminated Mitchell before being able to see the effect of his recommended changes. While an early supporter of Mitchell, Arnold was later unwilling to go along with the General Headquarters (GHQ) proposal and believed in a slow struggle for a separate Air Force.

Yet, the enduring legacy of Mitchell’s contributions lies in how his personality shaped the organizational culture of the Air Force. It is almost as if Mitchell pursued a Napoleonic strategy of annihilation by craving a decisive battle in the military courts martial to establish a separate and independent Department of the Air Force. Following this analogy, contrast Mitchell’s strategy of annihilation to the strategy of attrition employed by Hap Arnold who outlasted Mitchell in the Air Force and therefore had more opportunity to effect real and lasting change.

Mitchell’s enduring legacy in the organizational culture of the Air Force is in his primary emphasis upon flying and the pilot as supreme, all others being secondary. This commitment to flying on the part of flyers past and present is so strong there is a thought that they consider themselves pilots first and members of the Air Force second. The identity of a flying culture where the pilot reigns supreme propelled the Air Force along Mitchell’s vision of airpower. It was the deciding factor in victory during warfare. Without it no nation could win decisively.

The superiority of airpower prevailed in Air Force culture. The progressive forward-looking vision of Mitchell carries on in today’s Air Force. His legacy of unconventional thinking is still a hallmark in a service department that values training, technology, and integral application of air, space, and cyber power. Consider this quote from Mitchell regarding the type of strategic thinking necessary. “In the development of airpower, one has to look ahead and not backward, and figure out what is going to happen, not too much what has happened.

That is why the older services have been psychologically unfit to develop this new arm to the fullest extent practicable with the methods and means at hand. ” The modern concept of centralized control and decentralized execution is another enduring legacy of Mitchell. The extent of this is in the joint area today as the JFACC is always an Airman. The air component is independent of the others and led by an Airman who has centralized control of the Air Forces. The proposition that success always begin with failure rings true in the life and legacy of Billy Mitchell and the establishment of an independent Air Force.

His leadership role created a forward-leaning, progressive organizational culture in the United States Army Air Corps and Air Forces centered on training and technology that extends to the strategic vision of today’s Air Force. If it takes an unsightly, chaotic, and rebellious organization to get feedback to the top and to learn from its mistakes then the United States Air Force can thank Billy Mitchell for positioning it well on the organizational spectrum.

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