At the end of the Vietnam War a considerable strain of skepticism, aimed at national and Air Force leadership, ran through the fighter force. Some pilots concluded that the leadership did not care about them. Less than five years after the war ended, disgruntled pilots voted with their feet as they walked into commercial airline jobs.
Then captain Ron Keys expressed their collective feelings eloquently in a famous paper that has since become known as the “Dear Boss” letter.
Keys and others in the Tactical Air Command had received orders to write down their concerns so they could be forwarded to Gen. Creech. Keys had no intention of putting in his resignation and hadn’t even planned to write the letter, except that his boss said it was both mandatory and urgent that he do so.
In September, I had the privilege of hearing General Ron Keys address the Air Force Association conference when he recalled the circumstances of the now-famous “Dear Boss” letter.
This summarizes the letter:
Well, I quit. I’ve finally run out of drive or devotion or rationalizations or whatever it was that kept me in the Air Force this long. Why leave flying fighters and a promising career? I’m resigning because I’m tired.
Ten years and 2,000 hours in a great fighter, and all the time I’ve been doing more with less-and I’m tired of it.
I thought I could do it just like all the rest thought they could…and we did it for a while…but now it’s not the job. I can do it. I did it. I can still do it-but I won’t. I’m too tired. Tired of the extremely poor leadership of our senior commanders-people who can’t even pronounce esprit de corps. And let me clue you-in the fighter business when you’re out of esprit, you’re out of corps-to the tune of 22,000 in the next five years.
Why hang around in an organization that rewards excellence with no punishment?
I’ve worked hard. I’ve established myself; I can do the job better than anyone else-does that make a difference?
It’s the organization itself. A system that allows people that lack the aptitude or the ability to do the job. Once they’re in, you can’t get them out. So now we have lower quality people with motivation problems, and the commander won’t allow anyone to jettison them. If you haven’t noticed, that leaves us with a lot of people in fighters, but very few fighter pilots.
And the clincher-integrity. Hide as much as you can…particularly from the higher headquarters that could help you if only they knew. They never will though-staff will see to that: “Don’t say that to the general!”
And that’s why I’m resigning…long hours with little support, entitlements eroded, integrity a mockery, zero visible career progression, and senior commanders evidently totally missing the point (and everyone afraid or forbidden to inform them). I’ve been to the mountain and looked over and I’ve seen the big picture-and it wasn’t of the Air Force.
After the letter, Ron Keys went on to serve nearly thirty more years in the Air Force, retiring at its highest rank. Far from a disgruntled, underperforming employee, Keys, a virtuoso by any measure, accumulated more than 4,000 flying hours, including more than 300 hours of combat time, led squadrons and wings, the Fighter Weapons School, a numbered air force, and the highest echelons of the Air Force.
The Dear Boss letter stands as a legend because it captures the frustrations exceptional performers have always felt and outlines what those who lead them should do differently. Exceptional performers want access to their bosses, resources, other talented people to work with, career progression, and integrity.
Most of all they want their bosses to listen to them.
For more information and the entire Dear Boss letter, see Sierra Hotel by C.R. Anderegg