The design and delivery of the F-35 Lightning fighter aircraft is one such example. For starters, in addition to Lockheed, the lead contractor, there were two other prime contractors and scores of subcontractors. Multiple nations were involved, and because the fight was paid for with government funding, Congress and the parliaments of countries like the United Kingdom, Netherlands, and Australia, among others, needed to be involved.
Heading it was Tom Burbage, retired President of Lockheed Aircraft Systems and EVP for developing the F-35 and the F-22. He is the co-author of a new book about the project called, F-35: The Inside Story of the Lightning II.
In a recent interview, Burbage told me that partnering with many parties was like dealing with a Rubik’s Cube. “We had many different interests. We had many different perspectives, many different countries, a huge industrial team, and we had to make all that come together into a pattern that actually worked.”
Ongoing technological advances
Because the F-35 is a next-generation aircraft, Burbage, a former Navy aviator, was heading a team developing new technology never tried before. “I think every program that pushes technical barriers along the way is under threat of being canceled. There’s always another group or another interest community that wants to program to go a different direction or wants to take the budget and do something else with it. So you’re constantly in a little bit of trench warfare as you go through these extensive programs.
Getting the pattern correct was getting people to agree to a joint mission, or as Burbage put it, putting on the Joint Strike Fighter t-shirt. “It was a big, huge team of people, a lot of really good leaders, good strong government program managers, good strong industry side, and people that were willing to sort of take off their company badges and put on their J S F T-shirt,” says Burbage. “We’re no longer trying to husband your company interests. You’re now totally committed to making the J S F program what it needs to be.”
The F-35 is three different aircraft. One for the Air Force that uses long runway take-offs. One for the Navy using catapult launching short runways. And the third for the Marines, who needed the aircraft to take off and land vertically. “If I put the three airplanes in front of you… and sat in the cockpit, you wouldn’t know the difference. They’re, they’re identical.”
The goal was to create a fleet where the planes could fly and fight together regardless of their branch of service. “Integrating those technologies those differences into an airplane that’s supersonic and stealthy” required the team to push the boundaries of physics.
When designing leading-edge technology programs, there are two essential types of individuals. Innovators can integrate new technologies in ways that enable new performance capabilities. You then need leaders who are “really good at managing teams.” As the metaphor goes, everyone has a seat on the bus. The challenge is matching innovators with managers who can cooperate and collaborate for the betterment of the mission.
In the Fort Worth facility alone, there were 4000 employees. “And every new employee that came on the program went through an onboarding process. Everyone got some of that ‘pixie dust’ sprinkled on them” to help them realize they were part of a team, not just the company that hired them. “You have to walk a thin line when you do that,” says Burbage, “because there are company interests that you have to respect.”
The team had to create a culture. “We had a common set of guiding principles. We had a common set of objectives.” Burbage employed what he calls “the best athlete concept.” That is selecting team leaders for their skills and abilities, not simply for the company that employed them.
Three top executives were called “The Wizards,” a nod to the Harry Potter series. “I didn’t want the wizards in their office. I wanted them walking around and mentoring the young folks,” says Burbage. The younger tech-savvy employees ended up “mentoring” their older colleagues.
In turn, the veteran employees shared their experience and expertise. “It built this esprit d’corps among the team during some very challenging days.” Working on such programs is always demanding, so it was imperative that the culture be rooted in respect for one another, explains Burbage. It helped to drive “superior performance.”
Four leadership principles
Burbage told me that he gave his grandson, a recent graduate of the Naval Academy and now in flight training, some advice. His shared four principles are as relevant to aviators as leaders heading large teams. “The first is that enjoy every day, learn something new,” says Burbage. Challenge yourself to do more than you can because you can.
“The second [principle] is to realize that every person has a unique perspective on the world. And a new sailor turning a wrench on an airplane or, or a new employee just out of college can be a valuable contributor and you can learn from him or her.” Get to know them. Advocate for them and remove barriers that prevent them from doing their best.
“Third, there’s no limit to what your team can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit. You know, give the credit where it’s deserved.”
The fourth principle is to understand the difference between management and leadership. “Management is the ability to look at data” to determine the project’s health. Leaders focus on another kind of health. “Leaders inspire ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”
Getting the F-35 into service required the efforts of thousands of highly trained people and leaders who understood how to balance innovation, management, and budget with a culture that enabled everyone to do their best.
First posted on Forbes.com 00.00.2023