Meet Our Advisory Board Member: Bill Cohen- Drucker's First Executive PHD Student

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Brittany Hink

Bill Cohen was the first executive PHD student of Peter Drucker in the special doctoral program that Drucker co-founded for executives. When I asked about his many accomplishments, Cohen described himself as very fortunate. Cohen is a retired Major General of the US Air Force and was a member of the Israeli air force during the Yom Kippur war. He is an avid writer, publishing 58 books, which have been translated into 23 languages, with another on the way in 2016. He also co-founded CIAM, California Institute of Advanced Management an accredited non-profit MBA graduate school that combines theory and practical experience with actual consulting in every course.
Cohen has a life full of experiences and stories to share and is someone that I really enjoy talking with. We had the chance to cover so many topics and ideas and I wanted to share some with our members. He really is a joy to work with and a great contributor as a member of our advisory board!
You were Peter Drucker’s first executive PHD Student, what kind of impact has Drucker had on your life?
He had a really tremendous effect, even one that I didn’t realize myself. He wrote some very nice things about me at the time, and he also liked the military connection. After his death, his wife Doris-before her own death at the age of 103 last year… told me that I was Peter’s favorite student. I think a lot of that was because of my military background, although I was out of the Air Force, and had been a relatively junior officer at the time. Later it seemed to me that he was really interested in the military, but I didn’t recognize it at the time.
He did have a tremendous effect on me. I didn’t realize myself just how much until I wrote my first book about about 2009. I wrote this book, A Class with Drucker, and as I went into my own mind and reviewed these things from thirty years previous, -I realized just how much that I was doing that owed to him including in writing books; but above all in my thinking and how I thought.
"Peter, more than anything else, taught his students how to think."
How did Peter Drucker affect management and leadership?
It was amazing to me, and maybe this is why that Drucker and I were so in sync, what he taught was pretty much the leadership that I had been taught and learned at West Point and applied previously up until that time.
He taught that leadership was a service thing and that you did it not for yourself, but you did it for the organization, and for the people that you were leading.
Your background in the military and your education is very impressive. With your lengthy list of achievements, what are you most proud of?
I guess the thing that I am most proud of at this particular point in my life is CIAM, California Institute of Advanced Management. We started with nothing. We’re a non-profit, but we have a benefactor Mr. Minglo Shao who supports us. We have really excelled in an environment that is anti-small private school, and it’s very very difficult just to exist, much less thrive. I am really proud of CIAM and what the people that I work with have accomplished under very difficult conditions.
There are a lot of things that I was able to accomplish with some really great associates that I am really proud of and failures, too, that I would rather forget. But, I think CIAM is probably at the top of my list. The school is the thing that most drives me right now.
What advice do you give to HR professionals and leaders?
The main thing to me, more than anything else is integrity and to do what’s right. I have been questioned about that sometimes publicly in the classroom or when I’ve given presentations, and some say ‘gee you can’t do it, it’s a jungle out there, you have to do things which aren’t quite honest occasionally.’ I always say ‘no, that’s not true.’ Your integrity is more important than your success. Even if it means risking your career, or even if it means getting fired, you should- above all else- do what’s right. I think that’s really important and that would be the strongest advice I would give to everyone and its what we teach at CIAM, what I believe in, and that’s how I run our school. Integrity is more important than success.
I have a story that I can tell you, this goes way back. I use this because it really…when people say ‘how did you become a general?’ ... I think this was the turning point.
As a young Air Force lieutenant back in 1960, I was a new navigator on a B-52 crew. Among my responsibilities was the programming and launch of the two air-to-ground "cruise" missiles nicked named "Hound Dogs." The missiles were also new and there were still many problems with them that hadn’t yet been solved. The few crews in my squadron that had flown with them got mixed results. Sometimes they hit right on target. Sometimes they weren’t even close.
Actually, we really didn’t launch the missiles. That would have been too expensive, as each missile cost millions of dollars. What we did was to program the missiles while they were flying to the launch point. That took several hours as I updated the missile repeatedly and told it’s computers where it was. When about fifteen minutes from the target I would put the missile into a "simulated launch" mode. I then instructed the pilots to follow a special needle indicator on their consoles. If the needle turned right, the pilots turned the aircraft right. If the needle turned left, they turned the aircraft left. When they did this, the aircraft followed the course to the target according to information in the missile’s inertial guidance system.
Two minutes from the target we turned on a tone signal. On the ground, a Ground Control Intercept or GCI site tracked our aircraft on radar. At the point where the missile would dive into its target, the missile would automatically interrupt the tone signal. The course the missile would take to the ground once it started its final dive was based on predetermined factors. This included the weight of the missile, its shape, etc. This unpowered flight path from the air to the target on the ground is known as the missile’s ballistics. So plotting the aircraft’s radar track and knowing the missile’s ballistics, when the tone signal stopped, it was easy for the GCI site to calculate where the missile would impact if it had actually been launched. Its accuracy was generally dependent on the accuracy of the information that I gave the missile’s computers during programming. This was the same way that the aircrews practiced making bomb runs without actually dropping any bombs. The only difference was that the pilots followed a similar needle that was wired to the bombardier’s bombsight.
These practice runs had a major impact on our careers. Crews that got good scores got promoted. Those that did not, were held back. And it went that way all the way up the chain of command. Woe to a unit commander, when one of his crews got a "bad bomb," or now, a "bad missile."
My crewmates were all far more experienced than I was. My aircraft commander was a lieutenant colonel. Before going to flying school during World War II, he had been a first sergeant. At six foot two inches, he was still tough, and looked the part. My co-pilot was a captain. The electronic warfare officer was also a major. All were very experienced and had seen real combat. The senior navigator, who was also the bombardier, was another lieutenant colonel and veteran of World War II. Finally, my crew had one non-commissioned officer. That was the gunner. He was a master sergeant and a Korean War veteran. I was a lieutenant and fresh out of flying school.
My crew had never flown with missiles that had been graded previously. The Air Force had assigned them to the squadron but no one had had much luck with them. But since we were still learning how to use them, bad impact scores were not counted against us. However, while on seven-day alert, my aircraft commander called the crew together. "We have missiles for the first time," he said. "I don’t want to discuss it. We’re going to cheat to make sure we get good scores. All I want to know is how we’re going to do it."
I was shocked and speechless. After all, I was a West Pointer. We had been taught not to lie, cheat, or steal, nor to tolerate anyone who did. The bombardier spoke up. "That’s easy. Don’t follow the missile needle. I’ll figure out an adjustment for the ballistics, and I’ll "bomb" the target using my radar bombsight. All you have to do is follow the bombsight’s needle as we normally do. The GCI site will not know that we’re actually bombing the target. It will be easy, and no one will know."
My aircraft commander dismissed the crew immediately afterwards and they were released from their duties on alert. They had three days of crew rest before getting together to plan the mission which would involve the twelve-hour flight with the missiles. It would include the simulated missile launch, some regular bomb runs, some navigation and bomb runs at low level, an aerial refueling, and a celestial navigation leg.
The three days were absolute hell for me. I was new to the crew and the squadron, but I had heard that this type of cheating was not unusual. Now I was being ordered to do it with the very missiles to which I was entrusted. I talked it over with several friends. They told me not to rock the boat. They told me that this sort of thing was routine and that everybody did it. If I didn’t cheat, they said, it would be the end of my career.
I had worked long and hard for my career. I had worked long and hard to enter West Point, and with difficulty managed to make it through my four years there. I had spent a year in navigation school, six months in bombardier school, and attended Air Force survival training, and more weeks of B-52 ground and air training. It had been six years altogether, not counting three years I had been in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) before I went to West Point. How could I let it all slip away for this one little lie that apparently nobody cared about anyway? But this lie was contrary to everything I had been taught and believed in.
When we met to plan the mission, I asked to speak to my aircraft commander privately. As soon as we were alone I told him: "If you want to cheat on these missiles, that’s up to you. But get yourself a new navigator, because I’m not going to do it." You can imagine that this very experienced commander was furious and I was threatened and intimidated in just about every way you might imagine. Then, he slammed the door to the little room and left. It felt like the entire building was shaken. I was plenty scared, and I thought it was the end of my career and didn’t know how I would tell my parents or even how I would earn a living.
An hour or so later, my commander was still angry and not very gently he said that wanted to see me alone. Once alone he said, "Okay. We’ll do it your way. But those missiles better be reliable." I told him that I would do everything possible to make them reliable short of cheating.
Later I heard that this commander told someone, "I don’t know whether Bill’s a good navigator or not, but I trust him. He’s honest and he’s got guts."
The missiles were reliable. To this day, I don’t know if I was skilled, or lucky, or whether the two lieutenant colonels had figured out a way to fool their inexperienced young navigator and cheat anyway. What I did know about myself was how far I would go for what I believed to be right. And the answer was: all the way. I believe that knowledge has helped me immensely over the years and I believe that I owe whatever success I have achieved in part to it. In fact, it still affects my thinking today. Had it ended my career then and there, it still would have been worth it for this priceless piece of knowledge about myself.
What’s my biggest recommendation? You’ve got your honor and your integrity and that’s one thing that you can control. I don’t care what career you are in, I think that we get challenged by these things and its decision time. My recommendation is you make the right decision and do the right thing.
Cohen is a monthly contributor to HRIQ and continues to share insights and stories. Make sure to become a member to receive updates on the latest content.