Communication is a Terrible Thing to Waste

  • Published
  • By Col. Randy Kaufman
  • 36th Operations Group Commander
Throughout my almost 23 years of military service, the single most common trait I've seen all great commanders possess and the most valuable tool in their toolkit is the gift of effective communication. According to Webster's, communication is: "a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior".

In my opinion, the most important word in the Webster definition is "common". The United States Air Force is an incredibly diverse organization, with various ethnicities, religions, beliefs, customs and languages. As effective leaders this means that we have to transfer our objectives and orders in a manner that all our Airmen can understand.

At its core, communication is a two-way street, consisting of a sender and a receiver, and as with many skills this requires practice. To be effective, the sender must precisely convey their intent and meaning in a manner that the receiver understands. Many times in my career I've heard "but that's not what I said" or "that's not what I asked for" when the receiver did not do exactly what they were asked to do.

Early in my career, I was assigned to the 64th Flying Training Wing, Reese AFB, as a T-38 Undergraduate Flying Training Instructor and I learned the value of "be careful what you ask for" because you might get exactly what you asked, even if it in no way, shape or form, was what you thought you'd asked. On an initial contact, basic aircraft handling sortie, my student was required to takeoff and fly a heavy weight single engine practice approach and landing. We spent the pre-brief talking about the takeoff, the single engine approach and local area basic flying maneuvers and I'd thought I'd done a great job talking about what he should do and the standards I expected during the flight. The student did a perfect takeoff and departure, but when he flew his heavy weight single engine approach he failed to use the rudder to coordinate the aircraft on final approach.

After this first attempt I asked the tower if we could delay our departure to the local area in order to conduct another single engine approach. During our transit around the visual pattern I told him that while his first approach was "okay", he needed to use more rudder to ensure that he flew a coordinate approach to minimize the drag on the aircraft. I believe the words I used were "you need to step on the good engine". He said he understood and I allowed him to configure the aircraft, putting the gear and flaps down, before I "pulled" his engine to idle. Now before I proceed with the story, let me tell you that with the gear and flaps down the T-38 can roll very quickly. So when my student did exactly what I'd asked and "stepped on the good engine we very quickly found ourselves upside down at 1200 feet above the ground. Not a good place to be in any aircraft. I took control of the aircraft and continued the roll to the wing's level position and then gave him back control of the aircraft, and after the initial miscommunication he did a perfect approach to a touch and go and flew the rest of the sortie without error.

During the de-brief I learned the value of clear, concise, correct communication, one of the four standard pre-brief items that almost every aircraft commander, instructor or evaluator stresses during their mission briefs and one that should be common in any discipline of our Air Force.

In this instance, I thought I identified my expectations and thought I communicated them effectively, but there was obviously a disconnect with what I, the sender, thought I said and what my student, the receiver, heard.

As I've progressed in my Air Force career, I've tried to retain this lesson and remember that when I don't get the results I think I've asked for, I remind myself, that it's not my Airmen who failed to meet my expectations but my failure for not communicating effectively. Every single Airman in our service wakes up every morning dedicated to performing their duties to the best of their abilities. In most cases, any lapse in performance or failure to meet expectations is normally a result of our inability, as leaders, to effectively communicate our intent. So before you chastise or reprimand one of your most valuable assets, your Airmen, ask yourself, "did I communicate effectively?" If the answer is "no" or "maybe not", then take the responsibility on yourself and strive to better communicate your expectations and desires the next time. Our Airmen are the best the United States Department of Defense has ever had and any deficiency on their part is normally a failure on our part, as leaders and mentors, to effectively communicate.
 Lastly as you communicate be careful what you ask for, because sometimes you might get exactly what you asked, even if it isn't what you thought.