Maybe “C” is better than “just good enough.”
As a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point during the mid-Eighties, I may have been generously described as a “fair-to-middling student” at best. An eager adherent to the durable Academy adage—“2.0 and Go”—I was blessed to pin on my second lieutenant bars before someone in the Dean’s Office recalculated final G.P.A.s. By the grace of God, I met the required C average for graduation.
The academic domain notwithstanding, the letter “C” played a consistent role along my journey towards further leader development. The late General Norman Schwarzkopf, USMA class of 1956 and commander of coalition forces in the first Gulf War, inextricably linked character and competency in a 1991 address to the Corps of Cadets. The heralded four-star general outlined just how interconnected moral leadership must be with demonstrated proficiency. An indelible cornerstone in the leader-builder business, character is the guiding principle of “doing the right thing; whereas competency directly relates to demonstrated proficiency in the task at hand.
While also affirming the importance of competency, Dr. Vernon Lindsay also highlights more perception-based “C” characteristics such as confidence and charisma. And since leaders serve as protagonists for an organization, their faults and foibles can present as tragic flaws that impede organizational success. Harvard Professor Barbara Kellerman, in her 2004 leadership treatise, Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters, identified corruption and callousness as alliterative challenges to leader success. By selecting courses of action and shaping subordinates’ impressions, leaders serve as the margin of victory or roots of demise.
But of all the above identified critical “C’s” related to effective leadership, one transcends all the rest. Across the four years I served as a Light Infantry Officer in the United States Army and the quarter-century I spent leading and being led in federal law enforcement, communication was the leader trait that most critically impacted operations. Simply defined as “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs or behavior,” its effectiveness is directly related to the conveyer of thoughts, ideas and orders.
Timely communication, artfully and empathetically delivered, is what separates the good leaders from the truly transcendent ones. Can a leader’s delivery be evocative enough to inspire and motivate? Does it help attach an employee to their work? Will it result in what President Dwight D. Eisenhower, West Point class of 1915, once posited? “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”
In the military, a leader conveys specific directions to subordinates via an Operations Order that identifies a “commander’s intent.” Relating this critical information cannot be in the form of ambiguous, amorphous, nebulous or nuanced directions. In the military and law enforcement realms, orders may never be misconstrued when human lives are at stake. Which is why subordinate leaders are directed to request clarification if ever in doubt. This can be achieved via the “back brief”—the process by which an employee repeats back what they understand to be the directive. Communication is as much listening as it is talking.
Effective communication simply serves as the main determinant for success in the realm of interpersonal relationships between commander and subordinate leaders. This applies as much in private industry as it does on the battlefield. Successful companies mirror the military precept of centralized command and decentralized execution. Battle-tested leaders also understand that success can only be attained by the continuous application of open and precise two-way communication. Those reporting to you should never feel nervous about sharing the truth.
And when leadership failures occur, root-cause analysis can often lead directly back to a lack of communication or a misunderstanding of “commander’s intent”. I am acutely aware of the disastrous impact of communication breakdowns in the law enforcement realm. On February 14, 2018, a 19-year old former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida murdered 17 students and staff in a shooting rampage that shocked the nation. As a TV law enforcement analyst, I was dispatched to Parkland by CNN to report on the tragic incident from the front lines. The network wanted experienced boots on the ground. Over the course of nearly a week, positioned just outside the grim crime scene, I came to learn some painful details about the shooting. Two glaringly unconscionable communication breakdowns, in all likelihood, further contributed to the unfathomable slaughter of innocents.
Firstly, FBI Director Wray was forced to publicly acknowledge that “under established protocols,” information relayed to FBI Public Access Line (PAL) “should have been assessed as a potential threat to life,” but wasn’t. Caller-generated tips are triaged, evaluated on credibility basis, with ultimate determination whether viable threat posed, and whether information should result in actionable intelligence. Somewhere along transmission channels between call center operator and assessment team, this galling communication lapse had catastrophic results.
Secondly, there were the infuriatingly obvious disconnects resulting from missed/ignored lessons learned after the Columbine mass shooting in April of 1999. One such culprit in the law enforcement failure at Parkland was Broward County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Scot Peterson. He was the school resource officer who established a perimeter and refused to enter the school to interdict the shooter. Peterson was indicted on felony child neglect charges, and fired after video footage surfaced of him rooted to a safe position outside of the school for 45 minutes after the shootings had commenced inside the school. Peterson failed here, but certainly wasn’t the only grossly negligent or culpable party in the department. Four other officers were also terminated for various acts of dereliction of duty.
The common thread in this series of cascading systems failures at Parkland was law enforcement’s communication breakdowns. Whether related to flaws in established protocols, gaps within training exercises and documentation or miscommunication from leadership, these lapses resulted in a catastrophic incident that could have been mitigated or entirely prevented.
Of all the leadership characteristics, communication is the “C” with greatest impact on success.