Tony Basile’s military and civilian work propelled him into a variety of leadership roles, but it was the lessons of a personal tragedy that he wanted to talk about.
In his teens, Basile starred as a sprinter on the track team at Christian Brothers Academy and is in CBA’s Hall of Fame. He graduated in 1973 and landed on the track team at Fordham University in the Bronx, where he majored in marketing.
“I came back home and worked at Carrier as a maintenance supervisor,” Basile said. His boss, the superintendent of the night shift, had a son who was a pilot at the 174th Attack Wing of the New York Air National Guard. He talked up the Wing to Basile, and Basile decided to take the Guard’s test.
That decision launched his career as a fighter pilot with the 174th. He flew 67 combat sorties during four combat deployments, the first one during Desert Storm in 1991. He rose to be wing commander of the 174th, overseeing about 1,500 people at Hancock Field in Syracuse from 2003 until 2008.
From Syracuse, he moved to New York Air National Guard headquarters near Albany. He oversaw about 6,000 people as chief of staff of the state’s five flying wings as well as the air defense sector. He retired as a colonel in 2010 after 31 years in the Guard and joined C&S Engineers to manage the firm’s airport projects.
He said Mac MacMurray, the C&S CEO, also put Basile to work on drone issues. In 2013, that work propelled Basile to NUAIR, the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance headquartered in Syracuse. Basile soon became chief operations officer of NUAIR, which operates a 50-mile corridor between Rome and Syracuse to develop and test the systems needed for safe operation of unmanned vehicles in the national airspace.
When I schedule a Conversation on Leadership, I email a standard list of about 20 questions. You see the conversation that results each week. By the end of each conversation, I seldom have asked every question on the list, so I conclude by asking:
Is there anything in the list of questions that I didn’t ask and you really hoped I would? Or is there anything you’d like to say or emphasize about leadership and didn’t have a chance to?
“Well, you know, I see your question about the toughest challenge…,” Basile began softly, almost haltingly. I thought he might talk more about the challenge of combat. “I’m not sure I can get through this,” he said. “It was a more of a personal challenge.”
OK, I’ll ask: What was that personal challenge and how did you meet it?
My first wife, Barbara, and I went to grammar school together. We started dating as sophomores in high school and that was the reason I went to Fordham. I was recruited by a number of colleges, but Barbara was in Syracuse, so I decided not to go too far away. We married and had three daughters.
In 1993, we were converting the Wing from F-16 A models to C models. I was out at Luke Air Force Base near Phoenix. I’d been out there about a week, and Barbara was coming out to visit the following week.
She was pregnant with our fourth child, but it was really early in the pregnancy, and she hadn’t even been to the doctor yet. We didn’t know that it was an ectopic pregnancy. One night, Barbara hemorrhaged. She died in her sleep. My daughters were 11, 9, and 5, and they found her. She was 37, and I was 38.
I got the call out in Phoenix from the Wing, and I flew back. I was thinking about the challenge with our daughters on the way home. I didn’t do their hair. I didn’t know how to buy their clothes. (Long pause as he holds back tears.)
That was the biggest leadership challenge of my life. On the way home, I realized that you have two directions, the path less traveled, the fork in the road – however you want to look at it. You can sit and pout and wallow in grief. Or you can find a way to move on, and that’s what I chose to do. I tried to put a happy face on it, or as much as I could with three scared little girls, and we eventually moved through this.
That was my biggest leadership challenge. Getting the girls not to feel sorry for themselves and to realize that life is going to kick you hard at times. I’ve done that with folks that I work with now. When I hear of somebody who’s lost somebody, I reach out to them to try and support them. As cold as it seems, there are two ways to go. You can feel sorry for yourself, or you can find a way to move on.
It was 28 years ago, and you can see how it still affects me.
My wife (Barbara) had actually met Carol (Basile’s current wife). Carol was dating my wingman in the war, and he was a confirmed bachelor. He was an airline pilot and he’d bring a new flight attendant every time we went out. One weekend, he brought Carol. My wife said: She’ll never last. She’s too good for him.
I always thought that Barbara picked Carol. Carol adopted the girls, and it’s never been a stepmother-stepdaughter relationship.
So, when I saw your question, it wasn’t a combat challenge or a professional challenge. Typically, every day has a challenge. This 50-mile corridor is a challenge that has consumed five years of my life.
My biggest challenge has not been professional. I tell people, especially young people: Retirement’s not guaranteed. Old age is not guaranteed. Within reason, live life. Take trips. Enjoy each other.
Ask yourself: What’s the big picture? What’s really important?
It’s not work.
What leadership lessons did you draw from combat?
I learned the importance of training and trusting your training. That first day of the war, you’re seeing missiles flying and flack going off just like you would see in the movies – in “Twelve O’Clock High.”
For me, 11 years of training kicked in. I saw the importance of repetition and training and trusting yourself. Certainly, that was important every time we crossed into Iraq and switched to master arms so the airplane’s now hot. As soon as you start hitting buttons, things start falling off the airplane, and your mouth goes dry. It was a gut check.
Going back to trust, you never fly into combat, at least in our role, by yourself. You may be part of a 70- or 80-ship package, and you all are relying on each other, but you typically rely the most on the flight lead and a wingman. You and the wingman fly typically a mile or two apart from each other, a line abreast. I’m always looking at that person, and they’re always looking at me. We can see behind each other if somebody is rolling in on us or there are missiles targeting us. Basically, you’re placing your life in their hands.
What’s your advice to be an effective leader?
Get out of the way of your people. Empower them.
In the civilian world, you don’t wear your rank on your shoulder, but people know who the chief executive officer is and who the chief operations officer is. You have to be careful of what you say and how you say it because people may think that that’s a direction when you don’t want to necessarily direct them. I’m not always the expert in something, and I usually will couch it in a question: What do you guys think? How do we do this? How do we get to there?
Being yourself is key. If you’re only trying to emulate George Patton or Barack Obama or whoever you admire, you’re probably not going to be successful.
You need to know the strengths and weaknesses of your own personality – especially the weaknesses. Be honest with yourself. That will help you get to where you need to be and get your people where they need to be.
You have to make sure that you’re not doing things to make it all about you. That’s not necessarily an easy thing to do.
When I was a young fighter pilot, people would ask: What do you do in the service?
I’m a fighter pilot.
When I got to be in senior levels – chief of safety, vice commander, wing commander, chief of staff – and people asked me what I did, I would tell them: I’m a military officer.
Explain that distinction to me.
Flying, especially flying a fighter, is a very ego-driven thing. First of all, you have to be in the top 10 percent of your pilot training class. So, you’ve got this ego thing. And it really is a rocket ship, especially an F-16, a high-powered aircraft. You almost think you’re bulletproof.
As you get through the ranks and you’re starting to train fighter pilots and be responsible for security forces and make sure they’re getting the resources they need, you realize it’s not about you anymore. It’s about the organization.
At some point I realized – and I don’t know that it was a light switch as much as I evolved – that this is more about the organization than about you flying a fighter. And I’ve taken that into what I’m doing now. When I meet somebody, I never tell them that I flew fighters. I don’t want to say it’s not that important to me, because I’m very proud of what I did. It’s just that I think it almost deflates the message. I don’t want people to focus on that fact. I’ve done a lot of things in my life. I’ve had a lot of great things happen, and I’ve had a lot of not great things happen. So, I’m not just a fighter pilot.
My first assignment in the military that wasn’t in the actual flying portion was chief of safety. I think I learned more in that job than I learned throughout the rest of my career because I went through all the different sections in the base. As a pilot, it’s always maintenance can’t give us enough airplanes this week. When I went down to maintenance, I could see their struggles. The same was true in security forces, personnel – all those areas of the base.
I try to lead by example. I don’t tell them I’m the leader. In high school, I saw how to show by example. My track coach, Jerry Riordan, and the athletic director, Gary Barnaba, really influenced me on how to deal with teams.
If you show without saying, you have a much bigger impact.
I don’t have to tell people that I’m the chief operations officer at NUAIR – except in an interview when you ask me what I do.
What qualities do you see in effective leaders?
I really like leaders that are not full of themselves.
I worked for 13 years for Gen. Bob Knauff. I served under him as the chief of safety and then as the vice commander, and then he went to be the chief of staff of the New York Air National Guard, and I took over the wing. When he retired, I followed him in that step, and he was the first CEO of NUAIR.
He was understated. He was somewhat introverted. He was very credible, and credibility is another big thing that I look for. I see leaders that are all pomp and circumstance, and that’s not what I aspire to be.
I am inspired by leadership that is more understated than overstated.
What attributes do you see in poor leaders?
I don’t know if attribute is the correct term. They have not demonstrated credibility to their folks. They have not motivated their folks. They probably have given misdirection or at least confused what the direction needs to be. They’ve taken more credit for things that have happened and less of the blame for things that haven’t happened. That’s typically what I see out of what I would call failed leadership.
Once you have lost your people, it’s really hard to get them back.
The weekly “Conversation on Leadership” features Q&A interviews about leadership, success, and innovation. The conversations are condensed and edited. To suggest a leader for a Conversation, contact Stan Linhorst at [email protected]. Last week featured Al Schnier, guitarist and vocalist with the band moe. He talked about what it takes for the founders of a band, or any business, to stay together for 30 years.