Leaders connect

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Neil Woods
  • 8th Flying Training Squadron commander
During the American Civil War, Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, was known to pass through camp on nights before a battle in order to personally connect with every soldier he possibly could.

Because of his commitment to look every troop in the eyes and offer an encouraging word of confidence, General Lee often met the battle the following day without any sleep. His men loved him and would follow him into the darkest hell because he had earned their loyalty and deep respect. They firmly believed in his leadership, in large part because they knew he believed in them.

In today's high tech military with stand-off weapons and increasingly more leadership by e-mail, commanders and leaders at all levels would do well to learn from General Lee's example.

While our weapons of warfare and means of communication have taken a quantum leap, the time tested methods of motivating and inspiring people remain unchanged. The old cliche, "they don't care how much you know until they know how much you care" really is true, and it's still as pivotal for today's leader as it was for leaders of yesteryear.

Great leaders know you can't move people to action unless you first move them with emotion. That's what John Maxwell calls "the law of connection" in his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.

Great leaders know the importance of connecting with their people individually and connecting with them as an audience. Leaders who take the time regularly to greet and have sincere personal conversations with their followers earn their trust and admiration and glean greater results for the organization than those who don't take the time.

Leaders also find out what's important to their workers and to their families. They take the time to praise strong performers and encourage weaker performers towards higher achievement, and they are there to show compassion during tough personal circumstances.

When a leader uses that same passion for individual members to motivate and inspire them in a group setting, the organization will be far more likely to get behind their leader and make his or her vision their own.

During his campaign and in his eight years as president, Ronald Reagan used the law of connection effectively and became one of the most beloved presidents in our nation's history. His ability to connect with people at all levels changed the course of history as he influenced the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

A practical look at how connection works in my squadron to successfully fulfill our mission is to look at how we interact with student pilots.

The 8th Flying Training Squadron conducts primary pilot training with students brand new to the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps and who have very little flying experience. Sitting across the briefing table from their instructor pilot, who seemingly holds their fate in his hands, can be a downright scary experience for the students.

Scared students don't tend to fly very well, so the IP's ability to connect with a new student, take some time to learn some unique things about them and help them relax and build their confidence at a personal level makes a big difference in how they perform.

Instructor pilots that learn how to connect as young leaders will stay connected as they grow into greater leadership roles. It's something we focus on every day.

Likewise, I believe in doing my personal best to push away from my desk and connect with my IPs and students as often as possible in their flight rooms, in the hallway and in the aircraft to make sure they know how valuable they are to the team and how successful I know they can be. I also love to connect with families, send them a card for special occasions and help spouses and kids know how important they are to the success of our mission.

For me, connecting is the best part of being a commander.

As important as the law of connection is for leaders on the job, it is equally important off the job. As military leaders, our ability to connect with the American public in the community makes all the difference in earning their enduring trust and support.

Vance members are leading and connecting with the community in a variety of ways, including Adopt-a-School, special presentations, coaching athletic teams, Boy and Girl Scout leaders, Habitat for Humanity workers and in various other community service projects.

We have a lot of leadership to offer, and the more we connect with people in our community of all ages, the more pride and appreciation they have for what we do. More importantly, the better chance we have to influence a bright future for the next generation of leaders and influence them towards a career of service to our nation.

So go ahead--push away from the keyboard and send your message in person today. Get out in the community and connect there too. Take a close look at how well you're connecting and then do it just a little better.

It's rewarding, it's fun and it sure beats e-mail.