I left the Joint Air-to-Surface
Stand off Mission (JASSM) as a systems engineer to start
a new program called the Small Diameter Bomb (SDB).
I thought that this would be a good opportunity to make
the transition in to program management.
This little weapon, though, was not just representative
of a transition in my career. It was a paradigm shift
for the Air Force. Traditionally, we’ve held the
American outlook of “bigger is better.”
Look at our cars, our houses. So this program was symbolic
of a culture shift. It was important to make a switch
to smaller weapons, because the Cold War was over, and
we were going into smaller areas. Collateral damage
became a big issue, and we were limited in space on
But can smaller get funded?
Being naïve, I thought, “We’re going
to start up a program. Somebody must want this. They’ll
give me money, we’ll lay out the strategies, and
we’ll get started.” I was frustrated when
it didn’t go that way. Somebody told me that it
takes patience to be a Program Manager. I thought, “Well,
I’ll work on that.”
While I was working to obtain funding to develop an
acquisition strategy and to build coalitions, I was
also trying to make people understand what we were doing.
The weapons side of the house doesn’t get a lot
of money thrown down to us compared to our aircrafts.
So at first I had a very small team of only four people.
The four of us worked day in and day out coming up
with acquisition strategies and working with our warfighter
users to develop requirements. But every year we’d
find out that we were just under the cut and that we
wouldn’t get funded. And every year I would think,
“It’s time for me to leave.” But I
kept going, kept trying to build it. After three years
of trying to start this, I had laid out about 20 acquisition
strategies in any flavor you wanted. I had all kinds
of choices for anybody that came along.
Then it snowballed
It was Super Bowl weekend of 2000—not that I
watch the Super Bowl, but my husband was watching it—and
I was working on getting my numbers together. I had
gotten a call that Friday afternoon saying that General
Jumper, who at the time was the Commander of Air Combat
Command, wanted to pursue development of this weapon.
So they said, “We’re going to fund it.”
I was so excited. I went around briefing my strategy
and got things going. But what happened was that when
this program started, I was in my comfort zone. Then
my span of control went haywire overnight. Over a period
of two months, I went from managing four people to 30
At this point, I had made every decision about the
program along the way. It was my vision, my baby, my
masterpiece. I knew everything about this system. And
I liked it that way. I loved being able to make every
decision and to tell everyone what they needed to do
to make my vision a reality. When I went into the teams,
everybody knew how I operated: I tell you what to do,
and you go do it.
Then I was sitting around the table one day in a meeting
trying to get our Request For Proposal (RFP) together.
What I found is I had driven these people to expect
me to make every decision. All of a sudden, I got overwhelmed.
I had about 25 people around the table, and I’m
saying, “We need to have these factors developed.
I need you to write your section L, you to write your
section M, you to write your instructions for the offer,
and then bring it all back to me.” They all looked
at me and said, “How do you want me to do that?”
I thought, “I’m in over my head. There
is no way that I’m going to be able to do every
one of these people’s jobs, or tell them exactly
what to do, or check all of their work.” I just
left the meeting.
Releasing the grip
There was a retired Colonel who worked for me as a
support contractor. I used him as a sounding board a
lot. I sat down at his desk and said, “Bill, I’m
in trouble. All of these people expect me to make every
single decision and tell them exactly how to do everything.
I’m not going to have time to do it anymore.”
He said, “You’ve got to let go of this.
You have no choice. Otherwise, you are not going to
It was extremely hard for me, because I felt such ownership
of the program. I felt like I was giving up my firstborn
when I gave it to these people to try to implement.
But I called everybody back in the next day.
They were waiting for me to give them instructions
on exactly how to write up their RFP. I said, “Here’s
the deal. I’m not going to think for you anymore.
We’ve got to get on contract in six months.”
I said, “If you’ve never done it before,
you’re going to learn now. I’m not telling
you how to do it. You had better figure it out. I’ll
be happy to help you, but I can’t do it all.”
I was very nervous though. Here I was not tracking
everything day to day. I wasn’t right on top of
it writing it myself. But by the end of the source selection,
surprisingly enough, things had changed. Some of the
people that wouldn’t go to the bathroom without
asking permission were up at the front of the room,
coming up with their own methodologies, leading the
pack, and making decisions. All of a sudden, they had
emerged as leaders.
A new understanding
At that point, I was more proud of having let go than
of doing it all myself. My focus had changed from the
details, the implementation of developing every one
of these criteria, and dealing with the contractors,
to leading the people.
When I realized that I had to do that, things got easier.
You would think that it was an obvious thing, but sometimes
you have to learn the hard way. Heroes are people that
can come in, take over, and do it all themselves. But
when you lead people, you don’t have to do it
yourself. You’re leading them to the vision.
I don’t know that I necessarily ever would have
gotten slapped in the face like I did had I just been
on a normal program. After having gone from four people
to 30 people in a two-month time frame—and having
them staring me in the face, wanting to know everything
to do—the light came on. No matter how good you
are, this isn’t a one-man show. There are no heroes
Lynda Rutledge was an Air Force systems engineer on
the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) during
the source selection phase. After leaving JASSM, she
managed the concept exploration and planning of the
program that is now the Small Diameter Bomb (SDB). She
is currently Deputy Director in the Precision Strike
System Program Office within the Armament Product Group
at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.