01 Oct 1996

Sherman Baldwin: Leadership under Fire

by James E. Aisner


Last winter, Sherm Baldwin (HBS '97), six months shy of his thirty-second birthday and a member of the School's new January cohort, sat in Aldrich Hall and awaited the possibility of his first cold-call. While many of his classmates anticipated the experience with a certain amount of apprehension, Baldwin could reflect upon his six years -- from 1987 to 1993 -- as a jet attack pilot in the U.S. Navy to put that prospect in perspective. More than most, he knew what it meant to face the pressures of the unknown.

In January 1991, after three years of intense training, then­Lieutenant Junior Grade Baldwin (known by the radio call sign "Tank") was on the aircraft carrier USS Midway in the Persian Gulf, flying 45 combat missions over Iraq in Operations Desert Storm and Southern Watch. As the pilot of an EA-6B Prowler, he led a crew of four in a high-tech aircraft designed to seek out, jam, and destroy the radar installations that were the eyes of Iraq's armed forces. Engines roaring on the carrier's pitching and rolling deck, Baldwin's plane was hurled day and night into the sky by one of two steam-powered catapults. The result was a rate of acceleration beyond the imagination of any drag-car racer -- from zero to 150 miles an hour in less than two seconds before Baldwin throttled up to a cruising speed of more than 400 miles per hour and headed for his target, where he reached a "top-end speed" of over 550 miles per hour during an attack.

Ahead lay danger -- and the possibility of death -- from antiaircraft artillery that filled the sky with exploding shells or surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that, in Baldwin's words, "looked like burning telephone poles" as they streaked through the air. Maneuvering the plane to avoid ground fire, Baldwin quickly understood the meaning of Winston Churchill's observation that "nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result." He also had to concern himself with midair refuelings with huge airborne tankers and with battling even the slightest case of vertigo, an affliction that could fatally rob him of all sense of direction.

But for Baldwin and other Navy pilots, nothing created more anxiety than landing on the carrier at night -- a feat that amounted to a controlled crash on a deck that was, in the case of the World War II­vintage Midway, less than a thousand feet long. Come in too low, and the 57,000-pound plane smashes into the ship. Come in too high, and its tailhook misses the arresting wires needed to bring the aircraft to a screeching halt.

Baldwin, who counts a Navy Commendation Medal for heroic achievement among his many honors, recalls his experiences in the Persian Gulf in a recently published book titled Ironclaw (the radio call sign of his carrier squadron). He completed the nonfiction account in 1995 during the last year of a final tour of duty in Washington, D.C., that included positions with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House Office of Science and Technology, and the Secretary of the Navy. "Through Ironclaw," said the trim and articulate Baldwin in an interview with the Bulletin between classes last summer, "I wanted to give readers an everyday look at what life is like on a carrier during war, as sailors, officers, and pilots work together -- under constantly dangerous conditions and often with extraordinary and unheralded courage -- to fulfill the mission they have been given by the President and the American people as the nation's first line of defense. When the safety of the United States or its allies demands a military response, naval aviation will always be at the tip of America's sword."

A Yale College alumnus (Class of '86), Baldwin found the Navy the perfect place to learn not only about the importance of trust and teamwork but about the essential ingredients of effective leadership. "First of all," he says, "you have to know yourself. If you try to be someone you're not, you won't be a good leader. You also have to know the people you work with. An awareness of what's important to them -- a daughter graduating from high school, say, or a family problem at home -- allows you to be a much more important presence in their lives. And finally," Baldwin adds, "there's no substitute for knowing as

much about your business as possible. A high degree of expertise paves the way to greater challenges and responsibilities."

Married to an attorney since 1992 and the father of an infant son, Baldwin, who already holds a master's degree in telecommunications, plans to land a job in consulting or an Internet startup after earning his MBA next June. Chances are his civilian career will continue to keep him flying high.


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