Leadership and Civil Discourse

September 25, 2018

 

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to watch cable “news” shows.  The discussions devolve quickly into shouting matches, with panelists making little attempt to listen to or understand one another’s thoughts on the topic at hand.  Have you held meetings like that – where the passions of the moment override the ability to examine the issue from several differing viewpoints?  An effective leader has to be able to conduct business in a manner by which everyone’s voice is heard…and nobody leaves at the end of the day thinking they work in a circus.  I learned this lesson several times over my career.

 

The first large organization I commanded was comprised of Pilots, Maintenance professionals, Intelligence, Life Support, Admin and numerous other specialties.  Until that point, for the most part, I had been surrounded by and led only fighter pilots.  As I’ve shared in earlier posts – USAF fighter pilots are highly skilled, brutally candid with each other, and usually men.  In fact, when I took command of this organization I had never had a female pilot in any of the units I was in.  As a result, my language was coarse, blunt, and laced with flying jargon.  On my first day of command, I gathered the squadron together – almost 300 men and women – and proceeded to give my “I want us to be the best squadron on the base…and here’s how we’re going to do it” speech.  As I finished my talk I walked to my new office thinking, “I crushed it!”  The senior enlisted member of my squadron, a Chief Master Sergeant, interrupted my self-reverie.  He asked if he could speak with me in private (I said “of course”) and he closed the door and said “SIR, YOU CAN’T TALK LIKE THAT!!  When he saw my surprised look he explained:  “You’re the commander and leader of this squadron.  Most of those men and women you just talked to are young enlisted folks, not fighter pilots. You swore WAY too much, you used terms they’ve never heard before, and you set an example as an Officer and Commander that is unlikely to make us the best squadron on base”.  He was absolutely right; it was the first time someone pointed out my proclivity for uncivil discourse and I never forgot that powerful lesson.  He and I crossed paths frequently over the remainder of our careers – the last time in Djibouti, Africa.  I reminded him of that encounter, told him that I shared that lesson with all new commanders, and thanked him for helping me become a better, more effective leader.

 

Unhealthy communication skills don’t start and stop with new leaders.   Many years later as a General Officer in the Pentagon I was sitting in a meeting about a highly contentious program. The meeting was co-chaired by two very senior OSD civilians and attended by dozens of General Officers and our Civilian counterparts.  As the meeting progressed it became clear that the two co-chairs had widely divergent thoughts about the way ahead.  One of them made cogent, thoughtful points about the challenges and offered possible ways ahead.  The other got increasingly frustrated, began shouting, and the meeting broke down as he refused to engage in further discussions.  As I left the meeting my colleagues and I remarked about how disrespectful and destructive his behavior had been and the negative impact it would have on a program that we all wanted to succeed.

 

Uncivil discourse, whether it’s profane or belligerent, is rarely productive.  As I modified my behavior as a leader I was instantly aware of the changes in others and myself.  When I spoke without profanity I was amazed at how often I had used it before.  I schooled myself to pause before swearing and attempted to make my point by other methods.  The sheer number of times I found myself pausing in a conversation was surprising and telling…and reflective of how unskilled I really was in communicating as a leader.  My fellow Aces and I have said this before in our offerings; organizations reflect their leader.  Your behavior sets the standard that everyone below you should be expected to uphold.  I’m hopeful I’ll see a return to the type of civil discourse that allows competing ideas to be examined unemotionally and respectfully.  I’ve worked for plenty of highly effective leaders that set this type of environment.  It takes work and you’ll need to set the example from the top down but your organization (and the people in it) will benefit greatly.

 

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