Vocabulary For Leaders, Words Three and Four

I’ve just returned to work after a vacation with family and dear friends from my US Air Force days. One of those friends, James (quoted here) has recently retired from active duty. In one of our customary late night socializing sessions, C-Dog asked James, as James was discussing his post-military career plans, what he was good at. James’ response?

Leading people.

Ah ha! A favorite theme! Maybe time for a quick observation on another essential element of leadership: appreciation.

In the fall of 1999, I was completing my fourth and final year of active duty in the USAF. I was stationed at Osan Air Base in the Republic of Korea (ie South Korea). The entire Korean peninsula -the good guys, at least- was in hardcore training mode for Foal Eagle, an annual exercise involving US and ROK forces that I have heard described as among the largest military exercises in the world. It is a week-long field exercise that pressured every unit on base and others across the peninsula including forces that had been deployed from Japan, Okinawa, and back stateside. Long days, longer nights, minimum rest, and maximum effort. Foal Eagle.

I was a K-9 handler (a cop, security resource, and poster child for coolness all wrapped up into one self-confident package) assigned to Osan’s Security Forces unit. This assignment was the real deal. At that time, Osan was the largest K-9 group in the USAF and our dogs worked just as hard as the 2-legged troops every day- but especially during the exercise.

As the week drew to a close, we all began to speculate as to when we would hear those magic words over the radio: EndEx. Exercise over.

End Ex was eventually announced and very quickly followed by word that one of the Security Forces shifts would be immediately transitioning from exercise-operations to real-world ops. The base, its equipment, and (most importantly) its people still needed to be protected- EndEx or not.

I was part of the few dozen cops that would be transitioning back to real-world operations on that lucky first shift after EndEx. We were immediately relieved from our exercise posts to grab our real-world gear and assemble for guardmount (the pre-shift formation for Security Forces).

I distinctly remember the bittersweet feeling of returning to the empty barracks to switch out my security equipment for my law enforcement gear. After an exhausting week we were facing a full shift with no rest as a buffer. Even worse, we knew that every one of our peers would be soon celebrating EndEx- and then sleeping.

As the guardmount formation slowly assembled, Master Sergeant French, our Kennel Master, came into the room. An experienced K-9 handler and senior NCO, French would load up a bar for dead lifts until it bowed. He was gruff, focused, and altogether frightening. As the Kennel Master, he was responsible for the K-9 program. He did not work regular shift operations. But that night he would be our Flight Chief- responsible for the execution of all security and law enforcement operations on base.

Also present as the shift assembled was our Superintendent- the senior-most enlisted cop on base. A Senior Master Sergeant, her rank insignia took up half the sleeve of her BDU (Battle Dress Uniform). She, too was an intimidating figure. Not for her physical presence but- like Msgt French- she possessed that gruff demeanor. Unlike MSgt French, she also exuded a general attitude of disapproval. Any grumbling that we small-fry did at having to work the post-exercise shift was certainly quieter for her presence at guardmount.

MSgt French spoke quickly. His perspective was plainly direct. We had a job to do. We were going to go out and get it done. As he finished, he turned to our Superintendent. “SMSgt ___? Any words?”

This good readers, was a leadership opportunity. An opportunity for our Superintendent to inspire- to lead in execution as well as position. Her response to MSgt French?

“No. Carry on.”

Our Superintendent failed as a leader in that moment. She could have said almost anything. We didn’t need a Braveheart-inspired speech to rouse us to action. As service members, we were accustomed to hard jobs that simply had to be done. At the very least, there were two words that she should have uttered before sending us to our respective posts:

“Thank you.”

That’s it- the titular 3rd and 4th most important words in a leader’s vocabulary. Those were the words that she should have sent us out with. (What’s that? Words one and two? I shared them in this post.)

In my career, both military and civilian, I’ve been fortunate to work for a number of great leaders. Those highly effective leaders each had their own personalities, styles, and perspectives. All of them set high expectations for their teams. They held us to those expectations. And all of them used the words “thank you” on a regular basis.

When a leader uses the words “thank you”- and is sincere when doing so- it demonstrates their commitment to their people. Any leader, even incompetent ones, are dependent on their teams. It is an acknowledgment of the team’s own commitment and effort. It nurtures engagement. I see that expressed appreciation as an extension of integrity.

These words and the perspective they demonstrate are not required for a team’s success. A lucky would-be leader may inherit a group that has all kinds of success and engagement. But that is not effective leadership. That is someone that got lucky. And if they aren’t able to convey their appreciation sincerely, they may be about to transform a high-performing team into one that struggles- or one that fails.

I don’t think that I’m revealing any hidden truths here. You may have even had the bad luck to work near or (worse) for a bad leader. I’ve seen people get results from fear and intimidation. Given the right circumstances, one can. At least for a while. But that’s not leadership. That’s bullying.

If you ARE in a leadership position, do you use the words “thank you” on a regular basis? Do you say them with sincerity? Do you demonstrate that appreciation in real ways? More importantly, do your people feel appreciated?

If so, bravo! You’ve mastered another essential element of leadership. Now go lead your people.

If not, why? Is your team succeeding with you?

Or despite you?

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