“What we have here is a ‘Failure to Communicate’” is a memorable line from the classic movie, Cool Hand Luke. Without a doubt, ‘Failure to Communicate’ is a problem found in many organizations. I witnessed ‘Failure to Communicate’ early in my military career and it taught me a valuable leadership lesson. I often relied on this lesson throughout my local government career.
As a young US Air Force Officer, I was assigned the position of Wing Executive Officer – which meant I was the chief gopher for the Wing Commander (the CEO of the base). It was a great job for it gave me a front row seating to every significant event occurring on base. Almost a year into the position, the existing Commander retired and his replacement, Colonel Ryan, arrived.
Not long after Colonel Ryan’s arrival, a tropical storm hit causing various levels of damage throughout the base. A meeting was scheduled for all senior officers - the men and women responsible for every major function on base. The purpose of the meeting was to assess storm damages and prioritize needed repairs.
After everyone gave their damage assessments, Colonel Ryan stated the first priority would be to initiate repairs to the firehouse located on the runway. Immediately, the Financial Officer (Lt Colonel Smith) spoke. He said, “Sir, we don’t have funds available to pay for those kinds of extensive repairs.”
Colonel Ryan countered saying he hoped to solicit ideas from the senior staff to see where they thought funds could be transferred from to pay for the firehouse repairs. The entire senior staff sat quietly.
Lt Colonel Smith spoke again, “Sir, repairing the runway firehouse might not be a real priority. Many of us think runway fire emergencies can be covered using the main firehouse located on the other side of the base.”
Colonel Ryan said, “Gentleman, we cannot jeopardize 72 operational fighter aircraft each valued at over 3 million dollars; the runway firehouse needs to be repaired ASAP.” He asked all units to review their budgets and come up with possible funds that could be re-allocated to help pay for the repairs to the damaged firehouse. The senior officers, still quiet began to rummage through their papers.
Again, Lt Colonel Smith spoke and said, “Sir, we know what you want to do; however, we don’t have the funds. Your predecessor did not adequately budget for unexpected building maintenance projects.”
When Lt Colonel Smith finished, Colonel Ryan slammed the palm of his hand on the table, looked directly at Lt Colonel Smith and spoke the most powerful leadership words I have ever heard. He said, “Colonel Smith, it’s obvious I am broadcasting on ‘FM’ and you are receiving on ‘AM’. I would highly recommend you adjust your dial and start receiving my transmission. Colonel Smith, I have no idea whether you like your assignment here at XXX Air Force Base; but unless you get on my frequency in the next three minutes, this will be your last day as the base Finance Officer.”
Every Senior Office at the table sat straight up, adjusted their uniform jackets and looked in earnest at Colonel Ryan. Smith, now looking like a deer caught in headlights, sheepishly spoke and said, “Sir, why don’t you let me meet with the various Unit Commanders (major department heads) today; we will try to locate funds we can transfer into the firehouse repair account.”
“Thank you,” replied Colonel Ryan. He stood up and walked toward the door. Prior to stepping outside the room, he announced, “Meeting adjourned.”
Shortly before 4:00 p.m. that day, Lt Colonel Smith called me and asked me to inform Colonel Ryan that he had met with every squadron commanders and he had identified sufficient funds so repairs could begin on the runway firehouse ASAP.
The three leadership lessons I learned that day were: As a Leader -
1) State your goals or objectives clearly to your staff;
2) Confirm everyone is receiving your message and clearly understands your objectives; and
3) Ensure everyone understands the consequences if there is a ‘Failure to Communicate’.
As a County Administrator, I probably went overboard in stating my goals and objectives to all county employees; however, I wanted everyone to know the direction I was walking so they could follow. Finally, I never had to warn anyone about the consequences of a ‘Failure to Communicate’. It was obvious in my tone and previous actions – that we won’t have a ‘Failure to Communicate’.
An interesting side-bar to this story needs to be shared. Just about every officer in that meeting room, as I recall, went on to retire from the United States Air Force with pretty much the rank they wore that day – with one significant exception- Colonel Ryan. Colonel Mike Ryan went on to achieve notable advancement; he was eventually promoted to the rank of four star general and then became the Chief of Staff for the entire USAF. As far as I know, he never had a ‘Failure to Communicate’.
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