I recently partnered with two remarkable military leaders to write a paper we titled Sharing Our Message: The Migration from Embedded to Social Media. In it we contrast two military operations. One failed in part due to an absence of embedded media, while the other was a strategic success in part because media was there to share the story with the international audience. We also advocate for Military Commanders to not rely so heavily on outsourcing the communication of our message to media professionals and to more directly share the message by using social media outlets. If and when it gets published, I will be sure to share it. The point of the paper, and it’s just as true with any relationship built on trust, transparent communications is critical toward realizing a desired end state. And just to clarify, the word “Transparent” is defined as “free from pretense or deceit”, so please know I am not advocating for dishonesty, misrepresentation, or psychological operations of any sort.
Let’s face it, many people are overly cynical, excessively judgmental, and often times question the motives of those with whom they are not familiar. Acknowledging that, I see merit in shaping the perceptions of a given audience. I use the word “shaping” not to communicate any effort to mislead them, but to acknowledge that perceptions are shaped to the extent to which they are informed. As a leader at work and father at home, I see great value in spending the time on the front end of a decision to explain why it was made; I believe it is worth the time to provide some element of a back-stage pass to the discussions of “desired intent” versus “unintended consequences”; and I have personally witnessed on numerous occasions the target audience completely misinterpreting things when left to their own analysis. In essence, by actively and transparently communicating, the resulting perceptions are more likely to be in keeping with our true motivation. Many experts speak of the merits of transparent leadership and many of us lobby for transparency from our leaders, yet most leaders are not interested in providing such access. Whether it is communicating the progress of, means used, and rationale behind our military operations to an international audience, or the context of our actions to those with whom we lead, there is great value in what I like to refer to as “The Power of the Voice Over”.
Many times we are presented with a table of statistics, a stand-alone PowerPoint slide, or a decision from our boss relayed second or third party. We are left to interpret the information in isolation, as we make our own assumptions, come to our own conclusions, and oftentimes misinterpret the information we have in front of us. The “Voice Over” is the paragraphs that explain what the statistics are attempting to communicate, the oral monologue that expounds upon the bullets on the slide, and the rationale for the decisions made by higher authority. I have recently spent some time evaluating our “Voice Over” efforts during my tour as Commanding Officer and all in all, I believe the Command Triad did a good job. We were too transparent for some and I am certain that in many respects we over-communicated the decisions we made. We developed an engagement strategy that included Facebook and a Command Blog amongst other communications intersections. The intent was to extend our reach of communication to family members, to inform command members at their leisure, and to provide future members of our team with a glimpse into what would soon be there command. We also did weekly book abstracts with the objective of providing the entire command with access to great books, exposing each other to new ways of thinking, and strengthening our command culture. As I have acknowledged repeatedly, many times in life WHAT we do is not nearly as important as HOW and WHY we do it. If we don’t give others the benefit of understanding WHY or seeing HOW, WHAT we do is of questionable significance.
If I have the privilege of Command again, I will appoint an individual or small group to hold us accountable for telling our story; for ensuring we communicate with great transparency in a 360 degree array; and for engaging each target audience in their medium of choice (I still don’t understand why so few military leaders have a meaningful presence in social media and so many constrain themselves to cascading comms down a chain of command). In the interim and as I return to staff duty, I will do my part as individual contributor to play that very role with the projects I champion and to continue to use this forum as a deliberate part of my voice over. Leadership positions come with a built-in audience, therefore we must engage those under our charge before we lose their attention. Leaders without a position create our own audience as a result of the trust we build through deliberate engagement. The more we share with our team, the fewer the questions, the more infrequent the distractions, and the faster the pace of progress. Let’s all make the time to demonstrate a commitment to transparent communications; to leveraging “The Power of the Voice Over.” Those with whom we serve deserve nothing less.