Boyd’s “To Be or to Do”

by Cameron Schaefer on March 12, 2010

As I’m reading my second Boyd biography, “The Mind or War: John Boyd and American Security” by Grant T. Hammond (my first was this),  I’m trying to absorb more of the things that made him an innovator and a leader.  It’s obvious that he was incredibly intelligent, motivated and creative, but there seemed to be an underlying outlook on life and his career that carried him through the times when things got rough, but one that also put him at odds with the status quo.

This section of the book singles out a large portion of his unique perspective on life, one that made him quite a controversial figure in the halls of the Pentagon:

Along the way, he set out to implement his personal credo — philosophic and strategic — in everything he did, every job he held, and every decision he could influence.  Simply stated, it was more important to do what was right than to be promoted…On active duty, Boyd delighted in finding the very best officers the Air Force had (Air Force Academy graduates, promoted below the zone two or three times and thus several years ahead of their contemporaries) and challenging them.  They were the epitome of company men, team players who wouldn’t rock the boat and who wanted desperately to become Chief of Staff of the Air Force.

One such example was Jim Burton, then a lieutenant colonel recommended to Boyd by a colleague because he was bright…Burton would go on to occupy a critical post in Test and Evaluation and to blow the whistle on rigged tests in the Army’s procurement of the new Bradley Fighting Vehicle.  He recalls the Boyd “To Be or To Do” speech as follows:

“Jim, you are at a point in your life where you have to make a choice about what kind of person you are going to be.  There are two career paths in front of you, and you have to choose which path you will follow.  One path leads to promotions, titles, and positions of distinction.  To achieve success down that path, you have to conduct yourself a certain way.  You must go along with the system and show that you are a better team player than your competitors.  The other path leads to doing things that are truly significant for the Air Force, but the rewards will quite often be a kick in the stomach because you may have to cross swords with the party line on occasion.  You can’t go down both paths, you have to choose.  So, do you want to be a man of distinction or do you want to do things that really influence the shape of the Air Force?  To be or to do, that is the question.”

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Badski March 15, 2010 at 5:59 am

Sounds like some good stuff. Boyd sounds like a good dude. All the more impressive is that he actually made it that high with an attitude like that. In my minimal experience in the AF I have observed that many officers who are more aligned to the second path Boyd describes end up deciding to get out of the Air Force. Maybe their decision has something to do with the monetary rewards available for being ‘different’ in the private sector. Maybe they are just looking for a system that is set up to let them acheive both kinds of success at the same time (actual meaningful accomplishments and recognition for those accomplishments). Or maybe it is just intrinsic and the way those guys are wired. You will have to let me know how the book turns out.

Cameron Schaefer March 15, 2010 at 12:10 pm


Yeah, Boyd had a tremendous impact on American security, probably more so than any officer in recent memory, yet he’s largely unknown by our service…the Marines have honored him in far greater ways, incorporating many of his ideas into their doctrine. This is in large part due to his methods…he cared more about ideas than how shiny his shoes were or the rank of the person he was discussing things with.

It’s true what you say, most of the really good officers end up leaving because they get fet up with the great immovable status quo. Until the personnel system is overhauled I don’t see this changing, especially in light of the growing trust gap between jr. and sr. officers, the former increasingly having more combat experience than the latter.

Finished the book by the way, a must-read for anyone who wants to understand strategy and how we should think about security and to a greater extent, the world around us.

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