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Five speeches

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Every good leader must also be a good communicator. Communication comes in varying forms and includes everything from short handwritten notes, to staff meetings, to this commander's commentary.

Leaders, supervisors, and mentors use their forms of communication to inspire, instruct and inform. There are many ways to develop these communications skills; one of my favorites is to read, write and study speeches. President Lincoln's words at the Gettysburg Battlefield, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and Sir Winston Churchill's words to the House of Commons all serve as powerful reminders of the ability for words to shape action and unite people. These speeches were powerful in their time and remain instructive for their elegance, passion and ideals today.

Speeches do not need to rise to the same loft and construction as the previous examples to be useful. I have sat in small lectures, commander's calls, and teleconferences that were equally effective in forming thought, expanding perspective and inspiring action. Over the last 18 months of command, I have found a few useful speeches that I use over and over to point out patterns, mentor squadron members, and develop professionals. I use them often enough that I have started referring to them by a short title like, "The Fractal Speech."

This commander's commentary lists five of the speeches I use most often. They are not as elegant as the great speeches I mentioned and lack any academic or scientific rigor. Nevertheless, they still seem to be helpful in communicating ideas to my squadron. They are presented for both instruction and good humor.

"The 70/30 Speech"
This is a speech about control or, more specifically, the illusion of control. It is my perspective that we have about 70 percent control over our careers. This 70 percent matters! It is critical for personnel to complete their professional military education, work on degree programs, be involved in the community, pass their fitness tests, and be an expert in their primary responsibilities. However, doing all these things will not guarantee a general officer's star or chief master sergeant chevrons. There is another component of our careers - the 30 percent that is beyond the scope of our control. Some refer to this component as destiny, some divine intervention, and some call it luck. Whatever it is called, it cannot be managed, controlled or planned. I see the 30 percent evident in the major who has "all the boxes checked," but wasn't selected for IDE, in the lieutenant colonel that wasn't selected for squadron command, and the master sergeant that wasn't selected for senior. The reason they were not selected may have been timing, writing styles on performance reports, chance, or one of a million factors beyond the scope of their control. This may not be "fair" or "equitable," but it is reality. The take away from this speech is 1) no successful person ever ignored the 70 percent, 2) be humble and grateful when the 30 percent plays in your favor, and 3) don't let your personal self-worth be so tied to your career that it falls victim to the 30 percent.

"The 60/40 Speech"
This speech is about decision making. Everybody must make decisions in their personal and professional lives. Often, when you make these decisions is just as important as what decisions you make. I start making decisions when I have about 60 percent confidence in the result. At 60 percent confidence, I have a clear preference for an option and it is rare that my opinion varies much even as I collect more information. I have found that executing a decision and wrestling with its realities and consequences early is more efficient and effective than waiting for enough data to reach a 90 percent (plus) confidence level. What 60 percent "looks like" is an intuitive call since it is difficult to measure confidence in metrics. I may also wait to make a decision if it is a high-risk or non-reversible one. In many ways this speech is a derivative Gen. George S. Patton's speech where he stated "A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week." General Patton, I agree.

"The Duck on a Pond Speech"
There are few things more graceful than watching a duck swimming on a pond. The bird seems to float effortlessly and silently across the water as it moves from place to place. From a top-down view, this perspective is correct. However, if you look at the duck from below the surface of the water, you would see a different picture. Under the water, a duck is furiously paddling its legs, kicking up sediment and feeling the currents for danger. The tumult of our professional lives is often more like the underwater view of the duck than the surface view. Taskers, deadlines, conferences, meetings and the daily "churn" of life can wreak havoc on our schedules. This churn is a natural part of complex military operations, but it is up to the member -- the duck -- which perspective is presented to their supervisor. It may feel thrilling and exciting to be so caught up in the churn that you miss meetings, skip deadlines and walk around sleep deprived. However, I can guarantee that no military member was ever promoted because they were so swamped with other important work that they didn't complete the commander's tasker on time. Paddle hard, but make it look easy.

"The Painting Rocks Speech"
The author of this idea was my seminar lead at the Army's School of Advanced Military Studies. He often asked our class this hypothetical question, "What is worse than spending four hours painting rocks?" The answer, "Spending four hours complaining about painting rocks and then spending four hours painting rocks." Painting rocks is a mundane task used to keep an in-garrison infantry unit busy. Yet, the task is a military order that must be followed at all subordinate levels. We don't paint many rocks in the Air Force and, based on its ops tempo, I doubt the Army paints many rocks these days, either. That does not mean there are not contemporary equivalents. Operational guidance, higher headquarters directives and administrative taskers are rarely as clear and concise as the lower echelons would like and they may seem like meaningless or purposeless work. Regardless, the recipient of this task has two choices: roll-out smartly to generate the best solution based on the guidance received or complain about the situation, ask a lot of clarifying questions, and spend late hours responding to the task anyway. My advice, "roll out."

"The Fractal Speech"
This final speech deals with patterns that repeat themselves on multiple levels. An actual "fractal" is a mathematical series that is similar regardless of the scale (think of a circle attached to three smaller circles, at the end of each smaller circles are three smaller circles, and so on). This pattern is very much like a bureaucracy. Do you think general officers don't get called into unplanned meetings that take up their whole afternoon? Think again. Do you think your NCOIC has nothing to do but go to the gym while you are on post? Think again. The truth is every Airman deals with similar problems day-to-day. These problems may be related to time management, relationships, personal finances, programmatic and resource constraints, support agreements, etc. This speech should advise personnel towards two goals: 1) have empathy and appreciation for your superiors and subordinates for the problems and challenges they wrestle with at their scale and 2) learn to deal with these problems now because it only gets more difficult in the future.