Don’t walk past a problem you know exists

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BLUF – Leaders have the courage to not stay silent on a problem, even at their own expense.

Your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.” This famous quote is from the movie Top Gun, delivered from Captain Tom “Stinger” Jordan to Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell after he disobeyed a direct order to land his plane in order to respond to his wingman Lieutenant Bill “Cougar” Cortell who was having a negative response to enemy engagement. This movie line can be applied in the workplace when you see someone taking action because they believe they are doing the right thing, even when superiors or peers have given them direct feedback to do something else. So here is the recent check I wrote…

Last month I was attending the normal wing readiness update, where each squadron commander is required to brief the wing commander on the status of their deployable assets and personnel. This meeting is a verbal review of information input to a larger system. With new leadership comes new interpretations of information, so the presentation format of the meeting has been evolving based on both local and higher headquarter reporting requirements. This is fairly common with leadership changeover, and our job is to adapt and take action to meet leadership intent. During this particular meeting, the wing commander was absent but we proceeded with the vice commander (who normally didn’t take this meeting) in her place. The meeting started and drug on, with slide after slide being clicked through containing so much information that was either repeated or too difficult to decipher that the vice commander stated, “So, I don’t normally attend these, but this stuff doesn’t make sense. Why are we reviewing this information in this manner? I don’t have a decoder ring in front of me for half of it, and the other half is you telling me nothing has changed from last month. Has the boss validated this is what she wants?” The response was “No, we haven’t received feedback from her yet. We’ve been working towards what we think she wants, which is why there is almost twice the amount of slides that are actually needed. We need her to approve our attempts so we can get this meeting right.” Fast forward to last week, of which there was a friendly reminder at the wing staff meeting of the upcoming readiness update for the month. Having a keen memory of the waste of the time the last meeting was, I immediately asked, “Has the format of the update been settled and we’ve cut out the unnecessary parts to streamline the event and stop wasting everyone’s time?” Before I opened my mouth, I hesitated for .673 seconds because I knew I was about to “write an ego check.” However, I overcome this hesitation because I was frustrated at not making any progress on an important meeting where there was clearly enough time to fix the issues before we gathered again. Commanders at all levels must be cognizant to take actions that protect the one resource no one can make more of: Time. At the core of our job as a commander is the responsibility to make decisions, and we must shape the environment accordingly to make those decisions in a timely manner.

I could feel an uneasy energy shift from the wing leadership table when the wing civilian director replied with a smile, “We’ll talk about that after this meeting.” I could feel the wing commander eyeballing me, and I could also feel my peers backup in their seats to avoid any collateral damage by return fire headed my way. The wing commander interjected, “I was the one that inserted those new slides because honestly, it takes me too long to understand what you all are trying to tell me. Some of you write novels, some of you barely give me cliff notes. Some of you measure this way, while others measure that way. I still don’t feel like we have this right. So until we get it right, the new slides will stay. Let’s move on.” I nodded in agreement and the meeting carried on.  After the meeting convened, about 6.73 seconds passed and then I heard “gaberock!” The wing commander was motioning to me to come over. I met with her and she said, “Here’s the situation: on one side I get too much information and on the other side I don’t feel like I get enough. I even come in on Sunday to review readahead updates for multiple hours prior to the meeting for what I’m told is mandatory for me to read and the meeting is still a struggle. Find a solution in the middle to get this right.” 

I’m currently still on the hook to improve the readiness update. Nope, this isn’t my day job. I could’ve easily just ridden out my last 23 days of command and spent my energy elsewhere. Instead, I chose to open my mouth and not ignore the problem of wasting leadership’s time…and now I have additional homework to complete. I don’t believe the check my ego wrote can’t be cashed, and I’ve already rallied the subject matter experts around me to develop a better update. If I didn’t open my mouth and stayed silent, all of us would’ve walked into the same meeting that does not deliver the value-added it should. Instead, we will have an interactive discussion to finalize the format to meet leadership intent and optimize the event altogether. I’m not saying I’m the sole catalyst that finally improved an inefficient meeting that was wasting the time of multiple commanders. I will say that I’m more than happy to work on the solution.

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