The Leader’s Playbook-3: One of the Toughest People I know

I read with great sadness this morning of the passing of Professor Stephen Hawking.

I have had the incredible honor of meeting some very tough people in my life – none tougher than Squadron Leader (Ret) Ned Cullen, MBE, and his Family.

Ned is a Royal Air Force Fighter Pilot and “TopGun” graduate – and one of my best friends in the world.  He looks exactly what you would think a dashing, brave, smart talented RAF Fighter Pilot would look like – reddish blond hair and all.

Ned and I met in 2002 as our nations trained together for a very sensitive, very special mission which ultimately went down in the western deserts of Iraq in March of 2003.

On the first night of the war in Iraq, Ned was there, overhead protecting the UK Special Air Service (SAS) and our special forces while flying in his RAF Harrier jump jet – taking the fight to the enemy night after night.

One evening in April of 2003 Ned came up to me and told me he was not feeling 100% – that his fingers were tingling a bit.  That did not stop him from flying combat missions night after night.

Upon returning to the UK in the Spring of 2003 Ned was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease or Lou Gerhigs Disease as it’s known here in the US.

What would stop most people in their tracks… has never… not once… not for one second stopped Ned or his incredible wife Heather, or their Son Rory from attacking life.

There are hard as nails people you meet in your life… and then there is the Clan Cullen.. every single one of them.  

When I think of bravery – I think of Ned.

When I think of courage – I think of Ned.

When I think of tenacity with a huge side of humor – I think of Ned.

When I think of unconditional, never-ending, pure to the core love – I think of Heather and Rory.

Every single day the Cullens attack life no matter what gets sent their way, and every person who is blessed to know them and love them is grateful every day for the chance to be in their lives.

Today is a tough day for the world with the loss of Professor Hawking.  He was a giant of a man.

It is also a day to rejoice at the incredible honor of knowing and loving other giants who even now continue to walk this earth – and yes, I’m talking to you Clan Cullen.  I love you all.

The Leader’s Playbook-2: “I trust you, you will do the right thing, no matter what… I have your back”

On September 11th, 2001 I was the Chief of Weapons and Tactics at Andrews AFB, MD assigned to the 121st Fighter Squadron flying F-16s.  My Wing Commander was Brigadier General Dave Wherley.

There are so many vivid memories from that day.  They oftentimes move through my mind like a set of polaroids.  One of the clearest memories is not of the Pentagon burning, or the fires in New York, rather it was the leadership shown by General Wherley.

After the second tower was hit, our Wing, on orders from the White House, scrambled to protect DC from further attacks.

While a group of us prepared to fly, General Wherley coordinated with the national command authority and was passed the rules of engagement that we were going to use during our missions.  They were extremely liberal and put the onus of the decision to shoot or not to shoot on us.  This was completely unprecedented.

After quickly briefing our mission and getting our equipment on, we ran to the operations desk to get our final instructions before running to the jets.  As we stood there, General Wherley gave us our mission, our instructions, and our rules of engagement.  He then paused for a moment, took a deep breath,  and looked straight at us.

To this day, I will never forget his words.

“I trust you, you will do the right thing, no matter what I have your back.”

Never in the history of mankind,  has a leader said a more right thing, to the right people, at the right time.  Period.

In the very toughest of times, it is on us as leaders to remember that it is all about taking care of the team, and boy did Boss Wherley take care of us that morning.

General Wherley was a giant of a man and a great leader.  He loved leading warriors and loved being a Fighter Pilot.

Maj Gen and Mrs. Wherley where they were happiest – together.

Tragically, on June 22nd, 2009  we lost both he and his lovely wife Ann when they were killed in the Metrorail collision in Washington, DC.  They had just left Walter Reed Army Medical Center where they were volunteering and serving our Wounded Warriors.

Our unit misses him but remembers with perfect clarity the incredible leadership example from that morning.

Thanks Boss for the incredible gift of a good example. Never forget.