Saving superman: and his Crew Chief Achilles.
In the case of Superman, the super hero had one weakness that surfaced in the presence of Kryptonite, a mythical radioactive mineral from his home planet, Krypton. In the presence of Kryptonite, Superman lost his superhuman abilities and began to die (1). In the case of Achilles, the ancient superhero had one weakness located in his heel. Achilles was universally known as the most powerful and skilled warrior in all of Greece or even the known world. Supposedly, the mother of Achilles had attempted to make him immortal by dipping him in the sacred river, Styx. Only the heel that was held by his mother went un-dipped, and was thus unprotected. Eventually a stray arrow hit Achilles in the heel during a battle and he died (2). In both of these famous stories, the two super humans Superman and Achilles, were invincible except for one life threatening weakness. Both have similar weaknesses that make them all too human and even more vulnerable than their peers. In the case of Capt. Superman, his fatal weakness is a result of his extraordinary talent and his inability to say no to ever increasing demands on his time. In the case of Sgt Achilles, his flaw is his Type A personality that causes him to be overly self critical and almost incapable of admitting failure. Although surprising to friends, Type A personalities sometimes harbor deep insecurity and suffer inadequate self-esteem (3).
Although seemingly superhuman, both Capt. Superman and Sgt. Achilles are in danger and need a friend or supervisor to intervene and save them. Within a few days, Superman will awake several times during the night to tend to a sick child. The next day, he will go into the squadron early to finish a special project for the commander before briefing for a flight. After the briefing, Superman will eat a quick lunch comprised of a candy bar and a soft drink while answering a few e-mails at his desk. In the van ride out to his jet, he will be seen making a cell phone call to his wife to give her guidance on what needs to be fixed on the car at the dealership so that they can drive to see grandma the next weekend. Before climbing into the jet, he will realize that he left his water bottle on his desk but will decide to press on without it since he just downed a coke. During the flight, Superman completes his planned mission but adds an extra engagement because he is not happy with his performance on the last engagement. During the additional engagement, Superman will perform an inadequate anti-G straining technique and will lose consciousness. His aircraft will hit the ground before he regains consciousness.
He will feel that he might have failed to give the captain a good jet and somehow this caused the normally flawless pilot to die. None of this will be true. He becomes depressed and starts drinking more. He stops exercising and shows little interest in extreme sports. He will try to give his favorite hunting knife away to one of his best friends, but the friend will decline without telling anyone. One morning, the usually punctual Achilles will fail to show for work but coworkers will assume that their supervisor had approved leave for him. After work, his wife will call the squadron to ask when he will be home. After a frantic search on base, a friend will find his car parked in a local parking lot with him inside. Achilles will be deceased with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
How can someone save Superman and his Crew Chief Achilles? Both of them might fit what is known as the "superman model" of affiliation. In the superman model, leaders and peers may "evaluate [people] and support those who appear to be most likely to exceed their generalized expectations of human nature" (4). This may be related to the "halo effect" where physical attractiveness leads people to assume that the observed person is similarly above average in other characteristics (5). However, the superman model is based more on demonstrated performance that implies the observed person is somehow more resilient and less vulnerable in all aspects of physical, mental, spiritual and social qualities. For many people, this expectation by superiors and peers may cause intense pressure on the individual to excel in all aspects of life even when the additional effort may cause excessive stress, decreased performance and less resilience. In the case of Capt. Superman, had the squadron commander seen the signs of physical exhaustion, maybe that special project could have been given to someone else. Had a wingman noticed that Superman seemed preoccupied before the flight, maybe they could have called knock-it-off before that extra engagement. In the case of Sgt. Achilles, if a supervisor had known that he was blaming himself for the loss of Superman, maybe they could have arranged for counseling. If a friend had recognized some of the signals of suicide (depression, loss of interests in hobbies, increased drinking, attempting to give away keepsakes), maybe they could have escorted him to a medical professional who could have helped save his life.
With all this said, most of us in the Air Force know a Superman or an Achilles. They are hands down the best people we know. They excel at so many things, it is hard to believe there is any area of their life that they don't have under control. However, the reality is that most of us in the Air Force are over achievers, and all of us are only human. Every day, the Air Force loses Airmen to preventable mishaps and self defeating behavior such as suicide. Leaders and supervisors should recognize this and avoid overloading star performers just because they are so good at what they do. Friends and relatives should also recognize that no matter how "together" we think another person is, they are still susceptible to self-defeating behavior and we should always be on the lookout for signs of depression and personality changes in others. It turns out that saving Superman and Achilles in the Air Force is the responsibility of every Airmen and every supervisor. In the end, each of us is a Superman or an Achilles and we all have human weaknesses that can bring us down.
Over the next few weeks, will become despondent over the loss of Capt. Superman.
Even needs a good Wingman!
1) Siegel, J., & Shuster, J. (1932). Superman. DC Comics.
2) Plato. (180). Symposium.
3) Friedman, M. (1996). Type A Behavior: Its diagnosis and treatment. New York, Plenum Press.
4) Sullivan, J. L. (1990). Candidate appraisal and human nature. Political Psychology, 11(3). 459-484.
5) Thorndike, E.L. (1920). A constant error on psychological rating. Journal of Applied Psychology, IV, 25-29.
The lead photo for this article was staged for illustration purposes only. We realize it it not an authorized uniform combination.
BY CPL. J. ALAN MARSHALL, Ph.D. | PHOTOS BY SENIOR AIRMAN STEPHANIE RUBI