To Be Or To Do: Boyd – The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War



John Boyd was an ace pilot who developed the E-M theory of aircraft performance, designed the F-15, F-16 and helped develop a strategy that led to a successful campaign in the Gulf War. He was a force of nature. Yet, in spite of all his achievements, he remains a relatively low profile figure, unlike many careerist 4-star generals turned politicians in the United States. His abrasive and blunt personality rubbed many of his superiors the wrong way but no one could doubt his moral courage and integrity.

Once, a general requested Boyd write a paper to champion a B1 bomber. Most of us upon receiving instructions and orders from a superior would have obeyed. But Boyd refused. The furious general gave him his marching orders but in true ‘Boydian’ fashion, while Boyd complied with the paper, he then wrote a memorandum explaining why he disagreed with his own paper. And he told the general he considered the two papers a package; if the first was released, so would the second.

“If your boss demands loyalty, give him integrity. But if he demands integrity, then give him loyalty”

It wasn’t just for things that were against his principles. He was insistent even toward things that did not matter to most people. One time when the Air Force launched a Zero Defects campaign and the commander wanted everyone to sign to pledge to make zero mistakes in the coming year, Boyd refused to sign as he didn’t believe that it was possible to make zero mistakes. Following his lead, a group of soldiers under him also proclaimed that they were 100% against Zero Defects as well.

Boyd was a perfectionist and an extremely hard worker. Early on his career, when he was a flight instructor and while crafting his paper on the Aerial attack study, he wanted to be relieved of his teaching duties until he could complete the training manual. The commandant refused. Though furious, he worked on the paper on his own time instead. For a month, he slept two or three hours, taught in the morning, flew in the afternoon and worked on it till dawn. He was relentless.

Later on in his career, when he fought the bureaucrats in the Air Force, his fundamental work ethic was this:

“You can never be wrong. You have to do your homework. If you make a technical statement, you better be right. Because once you lose credibility, you are no longer a threat, no one will pay attention to what you say.”

He took this diligence so far that for all his briefings, each letter had to be precisely written. Each line and chart shaded correctly. And if at 1am he found the slightest imperfection, he would call the technicians to correct the mistake immediately.

Boyd also had a flair for creativity. During his posting as base commander in Vietnam, he saw problems that needed his attention but was bogged down with mountains of paperwork from the Air Force bureaucracy. His solution – to respond but to add material that caused them more paperwork than it caused him. In only a few weeks, the requests almost disappeared. “Pain goes both ways,” he said.

“You must have inductive thinking. There is not just one solution to the problem. Never commit to a single solution”

Upon retirement, Boyd could have followed the path of other military officers. But he saw the dangers of accepting a monthly wage.

“If a man can reduce his needs to zero, he is truly free: there is nothing that can be taken from him and nothing anyone can do to hurt him”

It all came as a big cost to his family though. He stopped buying clothes. The car he owned was a wreck and despite his family’s unhappiness, they continued to stay in a run-down apartment. If it wasn’t for his patient and long suffering wife, it is unlikely that he would have been able to achieve all that he did.

In spite of all his failings, nothing epitomises his moral courage and brilliance more than this:

“One day, you will come to a fork in the road. And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go one way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments. Or you can go another way and you can do something – something for your country and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be the favourite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. To be or to do? Which way will you go?