COMMUNICATION FOR SUCCESS
Why communication with a human connection is vital to Australia’s defence
By Chris Huet
“If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed”. That’s the advice US Navy SEAL Admiral William H McRaven gave to the University of Texas class of 2014.
The admiral’s speech is popular among my social media connections because it reflects the traditional military focus on the details. If kids these days don’t have the self-discipline to get the little things right, the thought goes, then how will they make big things happen?
We love details in defence. Our briefings, minutes and presentations are full of them. Our planners, engineers and analysts thrive on them. If you’ve been to a defence conference, read an RFT or briefed your executive, you know we love details.
But these historical arrangements are no longer suitable for success in the 21st century. Defence, and by extension, defence industry’s focus on detail, structure and process is holding us back. Worse, we will fail in this rapidly changing landscape if we keep doing things the way we have.
The skill that our defence, security and industry leaders need today is not technical or detail-based. It is founded in the humanities, and it is grown in relationships. The skill we need is the ability to communicate with a human connection.
This communication is person-to-person. It reflects passion, conveys emotion and demonstrates empathy.
We must Communicate, not Plan, our way to Success
Our world is changing rapidly. We operate in a fast-paced environment where multiple interdependent factors react in unpredictable ways.
Non-state actors, with access to technologies previously controlled by state agencies and militaries, create volatility. Traditional nation-states use mass combined with the same technologies to flex their might.
Beyond this, global challenges such as climate change, dwindling resources and the potential for financial disruption also put a stress on strategic relations and global security.
The hierarchical structures and linear processes of our defence organisations are poorly suited to this complex environment. Strategic planning, chains of command and traditional contracts are less relevant than in the past, and are potentially useless.
General Stanley McCrystal recognises this in his book Team of Teams. Applying his lessons from commanding the Special Operations Task Force in Iraq, McCrystal encourages militaries and businesses to break down traditional structures and create networks of small groups.
These teams thrive through a “shared consciousness” that creates trust and a common purpose. Regular face-to-face, transparent communication enables the organisation to adapt quickly to changes in the environment and respond more rapidly.
This communication requires empathy and cross-cultural understanding, to share our ideas clearly and to understand those of others. We connect through emotion, not details or plans.
In this context, leaders succeed by passionately delivering a vision and giving their teams the power to act on that vision.
We must Feel, not Think, our way to Cultural Change
Our organisations recognise the need to change, even if they are slow to adapt. In response to environmental challenges, we are evolving our cultures to become more innovative, more inclusive and less risk-averse.
Cultural change requires persuasive leadership. Facts and data are not enough – we need to know the why. To make change stick, our leaders must connect to the heart as well as the brain, through story-telling, empathy and passion.
LTGEN David Morrison’s video on unacceptable behaviour in the Australian Army is memorable for his heartfelt and clear directives: “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept”, and, “If that doesn’t suit you, then get out!”.
The Army chief’s face and voice show us that he believes what he is saying. He took a risk showing such passion publicly, but communicating with this clarity is necessary when past approaches to cultural change have failed. It is a video worth a thousand breakout room posters.
As humans, we are also moved by a narrative. Although defence training gives us an appreciation for data and analysis, these things do not naturally persuade us. We think in stories, remember in stories and are motivated to act by stories.
Personal stories can nurture trust in our leaders through creating an emotional connection and shared understanding. Examples of desired behaviours in action are powerful motivators to change, much more so than online training programs or pamphlets.
We must Share, not Design, our exploitation of Technological Change
Much of the change in defence is focused on digital technologies, how we can exploit them and the threat they present in an adversary’s hands. But we cannot allow the technical details to consume our attention at the expense of our human resources.
It is not enough to develop these technologies. We need to talk about how we are going to use them, how they interact with humans, how we are going to contract, develop and support them. To do this rapidly and responsively requires relationships and open communication.
A lot of the detailed work of the future will be completed by machines using automation, data analytics and artificial intelligence. The digital age requires fewer number-crunchers, programmers and sequential thinkers. Successful defence and security staff of the future will have non-technical skills of persuasion, collaboration and creativity.
We must be wary of the current focus on STEM education. While we will always need brilliant technical minds, they alone are not sufficient. We need to share ideas passionately, debating not just the what and how but also the why. No matter how brilliant, an idea that stays in someone’s mind dies.
When addressing the ADM Congress in 2018, LTGEN Angus Campbell (above) recognised this and promoted the concept of STEAM, which adds arts and humanities to the technical skills. He spoke of “partnerships of thought and action” based on sharing ideas.
LTGEN Campbell promoted conferences for the connection they facilitated, and said, “Connection is not an end in itself. What really matters is the communication it allows.” It is through communication that we will maximise the benefit of new technologies.
Less What, more Why
The services, Defence, and defence industry are structured, orderly and process-focused. And for a good reason – the consequences of errors are potentially dire.
But in this rapidly changing world, facts, data and analysis are not enough. To be adaptive and resilient our defence and security organisations require a clear and compelling vision, rapid information sharing, and empathy to motivate our people through a human connection.
Cultural change is necessary for defence to become more innovative, not just in technology but also in tactics, logistics support, contracts and structures. We must base this cultural change on the sharing of ideas through conversations, relationships and stories.
Let’s communicate more with emotion and empathy. Let’s show passion in our messages. Let’s focus as much on the why as we do on the what, how and when.
Only this way are we going to succeed in the 21st century.
Chris Huet has over thirty years of experience in public and private sector leadership and technical and creative communication. He spent twenty years in the RAAF as an F/A-18 pilot before moving to consulting and business development.
Chris is also an award-winning spoken word poet and two-time TEDx presenter. He draws on practical knowledge and the latest research to help leaders speak more effectively, to inform, excite and persuade their audiences.
This article is the first of a four-part series on communication in Defence which ran in ADBR in May-June 2018.