Effective communication vital for leaders, followers

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. James D. Marry
  • 55th Security Forces Squadron
When I was a lieutenant, my commander at the time, a Vietnam vet, occasionally complained about the discipline of the Airmen, "These young kids, they're always asking 'why '- we used to just follow orders." 

Recently, I heard the same complaint from a 20-year chief. "Troops these days, always asking 'why.' Didn't happen when I was an Airman...." 

Interestingly, I have read accounts of WW II generals, British officers from the empire, even Roman centurions, all with similar complaints about the "troops" asking "why" and not being disciplined enough to follow without question. 

Clearly, a follower asking "why" is not a sign of the times. Actually, I have learned over my time in the service that "why" questions are an indicator of a leader's effectiveness.
We expect our people at every level of the Air Force to show leadership. Unfortunately, we often say "leadership" when what we really mean is "initiative." 

General George S. Patton once said, "Never tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity." General Patton was saying a leader must create conditions to allow followers to act autonomously: the leader must not only set the task (what he wanted done) but must also expect - demand - initiative from the subordinate to accomplish the task and achieve the desired end state as "ingeniously" as the follower is capable. 

To tell a follower what to do, and expect them to show initiative doing it, the leader and follower must ensure the context or purpose of the task is clearly understood. As a commander, if I get a lot of "whys" when I set a task for my troops it's a clear sign I have not clearly communicated the purpose of the task, the effects to be achieved, or my intent for the outcome. If I don't effectively communicate the purpose, then my troops are not able to take initiative and make decisions on their own about how best to "get 'er done." 

Explaining the purpose of an order does not somehow limit my authority and a follower who asks for the purpose of a task or order is not challenging my authority. In fact, a follower who does not understand the purpose and fails to ask is failing in his or her responsibility.

 As a leader, if I suppress the follower's ability to clarify an order, the follower, not understanding the purpose, will only be capable of doing exactly what he or she is told and will unlikely achieve my desired end state. Of course, a subordinate who "plays dumb" in order to procrastinate or avoid taking initiative is another matter. I am sure General Patton was not one to allow subordinates to trifle with his authority. However, examples of his orders always included an explanation of why as well as what he wanted done. 

At this point, the old commander from my lieutenant days would be shaking his head and saying, "Some troops don't have enough experience to be allowed to ask why," and, "Sometimes there just isn't time to explain why." That may be true, but a follower without experience would require more explanations, not less - we call this training. One reason for training is to teach why things are done a certain way, which means that later in a time-constrained environment the "why" of an order or procedure has already been made clear. 

These ideas extend well beyond the Air Force. Recently, I came home and found my wife doing yard work. As I entered the yard, she pointed to a chair and said "don't sit there." I didn't ask why as I should have, and she didn't explain, but I did what I was told. I didn't sit on the chair; I leaned against it instead and found it was covered with wet paint.