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Lorenz on Leadership: Creating candor

RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- If you ever have the chance to observe a flight debrief after a training sortie, you should jump at the chance. You will witness something special.

In the debrief, everyone makes constructive comments -- positive and negative -- regardless of their position or rank. If the flight lead did something that was incorrect or dangerous, the wingman is expected to say something about it. This is true even if the wingman is a lieutenant and the flight lead is a lieutenant colonel (or a lieutenant general). In the debrief, learning is more important than saving face.

In the flying business, it's imperative that the truth comes out -- even if negative -- and the best ideas are heard. That is why frankness in the debrief is so important. Perfection is the standard, and although we will never get there, we must always strive for it. This is why we are tough on each other. We discuss our shortcomings and make constructive suggestions on how to correct them. When the debrief is over and the door opens, however, we move forward as members of the same team.

Should it be any different for our other operations? I don't think so, but it takes a strong leader to create this atmosphere of candor.

In order to encourage our people to voice their alternative ideas and criticisms, we have to be confident enough in our people to listen to negative feedback and dissenting opinions, find the best way forward, then lead in a positive direction. We all like "warm fuzzies," when people agree with our ideas and give us positive feedback. We naturally dislike "cold pricklies," when people disagree and point out our shortcomings. As leaders, we have to be mature enough to deal with negative feedback without punishing the source ... the best leaders encourage frank feedback, especially when it is negative.

We all have blind spots -- areas where we think things are better than they are -- and to correct these, we need to be aware of them. This means that we need to encourage dissenting opinions and negative feedback. We should ask open-ended questions. What are we missing? How can we do this better? What's the downside? What will other people say? When our people answer, we should welcome their inputs, even when those inputs don't cast our leadership in the best light. In the end, our time as leaders will be judged by the quality of our decisions and the accomplishments of our people. The personal price we pay in the short term for creating candor in our organizations is well worth the long-term professional and institutional benefits of hearing the best ideas and eradicating our blind spots.

As followers, we must work at creating candor as well. While the leader must set the tone for open communication, it is important that those of us who voice dissenting opinions or give negative feedback do so in a way where it can have the most effect. We can't expect our leaders to be superhuman -- this means we should speak in a way that doesn't turn them off immediately.

Practically speaking, this means that we should avoid using superlatives and personalizing an idea or position. For example, which critique would be easier to accept: "Boss, your decision is really stupid," or "Boss, this decision could have bad consequences for our folks."? Remember that your goal is to influence your boss to do the right thing. You don't want to close the line of communication before you begin.

When giving an alternative view or dissenting opinion, the more objective you are, the more effective you can be. You should avoid emotional arguments. Instead, use facts and logic to back up your position. The more homework that you do beforehand, the more likely you will win the argument.

In addition, when voicing your disagreement, be prepared to propose a solution or alternative path. This allows you to stay positive during a critique. If you can't come up with a solution, at least be honest about that up front.

If you are pointing out a blind spot for one of your leaders, strongly consider doing it in private. This is especially true if the issue is more personal in nature. It's much easier for a leader to listen to a criticism made in private -- you want to avoid embarrassing your leader in public if at all possible.

We should also remember that the leader is ultimately responsible for the direction of the organization. If he or she decides to do something that you disagree with, you should voice your opinion, but be ready to accept the leader's decision. Remember, most decisions are decided based on personal experiences and are not right versus wrong, but right versus right. So long as the boss's decision isn't illegal or immoral, you should carry it out as though the idea was your own. That's the mark of a professional Airman.

Within our organizations, candor makes us stronger, and there are things we can do to create this openness while maintaining a sense of teamwork. As leaders, we should strive to set an atmosphere where dissenting opinions are welcomed. As followers, we should explain dissenting opinions with respect and objectivity. For both leaders and followers, the payoff will come as your organizations improve and grow. Consider it part of the price we pay to be the best.