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Strong writing skills can make or brake

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- As I near the end of my third year as a squadron commander, I'm amazed at how much I've learned about leadership, both good and bad, since the day I first accepted the responsibility of command. In fact, I continue to learn more every day and recognize that there are many, many things I still don't know.

However, there is one thing I know for certain: I will be forever grateful to those supervisors and mentors who challenged me to learn to write and speak well.

I certainly haven't enjoyed the process, and I continue to struggle with assignments like this article. However, I believe the end result is a leader who can clearly communicate vision and expectations. I've also learned that strong writing skills are invaluable when advocating outstanding ideas and issues, and believe my customers and squadron members are well worth my effort.

From the vantage point of my desk, where I spend far too much time sifting through staff summary packages, performance reports, decorations and other official paperwork, I've come to the conclusion that a fairly high percentage of folks would rather get a root canal without anesthesia than prepare a staff summary package complete with memos and bullet background papers. Only public speaking seems to have a greater ability to immobilize the average person than being asked to prepare an important document or research paper.

I know that many have preached that the most important job of any leader is to nurture new leaders. I agree 100 percent. By making a commitment to the personal development of our people, we help guarantee mission success. At a time when organizations are reaching deep into the ranks to make things happen, despite manning shortages and frequent deployments, we cannot afford to ignore our most junior officers and enlisted members. After all, they may be in charge next week. Helping our subordinates learn to write and present information in a concise, cohesive fashion is fundamental to effective communication and leadership.

Occasionally, I see a package that looks flawless to me. It's well written, concise, key points are in the correct order and it's obvious the author took the time to check spelling. As a commander, I know that I could give any task to that author and he would pay attention to the fine details. The effort put into preparing a staff package says a lot about a person.

Aside from impressing your supervisors and garnering all the love and praise that it brings you, learning to write well prepares you to lead and recognize your subordinates. It's a competitive world and the performance report or decoration you prepare for your subordinate could be "it" - the deciding factor on whether he or she gets selected for promotion, assignment, etc.

Not too long ago, I was reviewing a decoration submission for one of my top-notch staff sergeants who was departing for a permanent change of duty station. Part of my review included looking over his last few enlisted performance reports. One of the bullets immediately jumped out at me. It read, "role model; set the standard for peers to immolate." I'm sure the writer intended to say "emulate," but somehow "immolate" managed to get by numerous layers of review and is now forever ensconced in my staff sergeant's permanent record. Immolate means "to kill a person or an animal, for example, as a ritual sacrifice, or to commit suicide as a protest, especially by burning." I don't know about you, but that's not the kind of role model I want to be. Luckily, most don't recognize the meaning of the word "immolate."

Improving one's writing is not difficult, but it takes practice and work. There are a lot of tools and classes available. Automated spell check is important, but doesn't replace attentive personal review as demonstrated in my staff sergeant's performance report. For military writing, using properly formatted templates is a necessity and can save a lot of time. Another strategy is to collect examples of well-written staff packages, award submittals and performance reports and use them as needed.

Finally, supervisors who take the time to personally review written materials with subordinates and discuss ways to improve writing skills is essential and can contribute to better writing methods and saved time on everyone's part in the future.

Focusing on writing and speaking doesn't preclude getting out from behind the desk to provide visible leadership. In my opinion, it facilitates interaction. With a strong emphasis on leadership communication fundamentals, units become more efficient and effective in mission accomplishment, people get well-deserved recognition and rewards, and great ideas are given a voice.

Editor's note: The headline homonym is deliberate.