Leadership Lessons from History: The Berlin Airlift

The Berlin Airlift is the type of inspirational story that makes you wonder why you did not learn about it in school. I only recently discovered it by stumbling across an old History Channel video, and have found myself thinking about it ever since. Not only is the Berlin Airlift a triumph in operational efficiency, but it is an impressive case study of what is possible with effective leadership.

The Set Up

Picture it, March 1948, three years after the end of WWII. Germany is divided into four zones of occupation by corresponding political power: British, French, American and Soviet. The city of Berlin, though located in the Soviet zone, is also divided, with the Allies taking the west and the Soviets the east. Food across Berlin is in short supply and relationships are strained. The west wants to open Germany up for business. The east wants to establish Communism. Convinced the Allies are plotting behind their backs, the Soviets begin restricting access to other zones, halting military trains and supplies. The Allies release their own money, the Deutschemark, and smuggle it into Berlin before the Soviets can stop it. It is the last straw.

On June 24, the Soviets seek to establish full control over Berlin, and attempt to force the Allies to evacuate, by cutting off all land and sea access into Berlin, as well as the main power supply. Now, the only way into Berlin is via the air, and only 36 days of food and 45 days of coal remain.

At this point, the Allied presence in West Berlin only totals about 20,000 troops. They cannot successfully mount an attack against the Soviet military. Due to concern over the spread of Communism, and international image, withdrawing Allied forces from the situation is not considered a viable option. Over two million people are effectively stuck and at-risk of starving.

The Challenge

General Lucius Clay, a respected combat leader, is at the helm, and consults with General Curtis LeMay of the Airforce, who has experience hauling. They partner with other experts to establish the minimum daily rations needed to keep the people alive.

  • Food rations resulting in 1,534 tons of food per day.
  • Plus an additional 3,475 tons of coal, diesel and petrol per day.
  • Resulting in a grand total of 5,009 tons of life-saving supplies requiring air transport, every single day.

Unsurprisingly, they do not have enough planes to get the job done. At this point, there are only 96 available American planes in Europe, able to carry approximately 400 tons per day. And while the British could quickly ramp up to add another 750 tons per day, they are still dramatically short of what will be required. They receive approval for additional, larger aircraft.

Officially dubbed Operation VITTLES, the first trip occurred on June 26, 1948. They are only able to deliver 84 tons the first day, with a plane landing every 4 minutes. By the second week, they are up to 1,000 tons per day. And while this is a significant improvement, it is obviously not enough.

The Turning Point

Ultimately, while these combat leaders are making incremental improvements, the operation is inefficient and not meeting the goal fast enough. The lives of two million people are at stake. A military leader comes to visit and realizes they have enormous opportunity. He witnessed a vastly different operation in a recent “Hump” operation over the Himalayas to China. The current leadership does not know what is possible. So, they bring in a new military leader with specific airlift expertise, General William Tunner.

In response to the early days of the efforts, Tunner writes,

“The hustle and bustle and excitement of Operation Vittles in the early days all comprised a case in point. The last place you should find this type of activity is in a successful airlift. The actual operations of a successful airlift is about as glamorous as drops of water on stone.”

Within a few weeks, William “I want rhythm” Tunner has completely overhauled the operation. He steps up routine maintenance; adds enough shifts to enable 24/7 operations; implements regulations to improve safety; recruits volunteers from German ex-military; establishes standards around loading to speed up processes; and keeps the pilots on-hand and happy by bringing free food and beverage directly to the runway (and served by smiling frauleins).

The operation lasts 15 months total, involving over 275,000 flights and 300 aircraft. At its peak, planes are taking off and landing every 90 seconds.

“When you get a job to do, do it.” William Tunner

Thankfully, most of us will never be responsible for preventing two million people from starving to death. Though many of you reading this do have enormous responsibilities. Whether running a health system, or managing a neighborhood restaurant, as a leader you are responsible for solving complicated problems. To one degree or another, lives and livelihood depend on you.

The incredible operational efficiency aspect of the Berlin Airlift story is certainly inspiring, especially to a Lean nerd like me. However, I am more compelled by the demonstrated leadership attributes and behaviors that apply to all leaders, regardless of title or scope.

Commitment to Understand the Problem

Success for the Berlin Airlift was specific, challenging and had an enormous cost associated with failure. The stakes were so high it was enough to motivate and rally multiple countries into action. This required the leaders to set SMART goals; the challenge was as Specific Measurable Actionable Relevant and Timebound as possible. Success was clear and easy to monitor. Grasping a problem fully requires upfront investment and can be incredibly daunting when you realize just how big the gap is. However, you cannot improve what you do not understand.

Courage to Learn by Doing

I have lost count of how many great ideas I have seen fizzle out because a team insisted on starting with perfection. For the Berlin Airlift, it was not possible to deliver 5,000 tons a day the first week. They entered in knowing they were going to fail at first. But they had a commitment to learn and adjust. They got started before they were ready or knew how to do it. They were brave enough to fail forward.

Humility to Defer to Expertise

The original generals in charge of the Berlin Airlift were not doing a bad job. They were improving every day. And still, the challenge demanded a faster learning curve. Incremental improvement was not enough. The Berlin Airlift demonstrates the importance of consulting with others and bringing in outside eyes and expertise to help define and create what is possible. There is usually a better way to do something, and someone who already knows how to do it. That someone will not always be you and that is okay.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” -Maya Angelou

Stories like the Berlin Airlift give me an enormous sense of urgency regarding the situations I can impact. When I find myself in another unproductive meeting, I think, “If they could figure out how to move 5,000 tons a day and prevent two million people from dying, then I better be able to find a way to help this executive team prioritize an annual plan!”

It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and lose perspective over what matters and what is possible. Lessons from history give me a helpful framework to rise above it and take action.

What problems feel unsurmountable to you these days? How might lessons from history help you approach them differently? We’d love to hear from you.




  1. Alison M on November 30, 2020 at 1:29 pm

    Wow! What an inspiring piece of history that I never knew happened. When a situation is life or death, it seems like there is easy buy in for leaders to step forward even if they might fail. In the business world we need to reframe failure as not being any worse than choosing inaction. Thanks for providing a framework around getting the ball rolling. (I’m still trying to wrap my head around planes taking off and arriving every 90 seconds! That’s inspiring.)

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