Leadership Lessons: Building connections that matter

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Neil Aurelio
  • 69th Maintenance Squadron commander
I recently listened to a Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) talk entitled "The Illusion of Being Connected," given by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. In his talk, McChrystal postulated that connectivity in today's world does not guarantee the connections that really matter. "Connectivity," he said, "gives us the illusion of knowing." In today's world of instant information gratification, McChrystal's comments prompted me to stop and think about what it really means to be connected.

When someone asks about connectivity, we immediately look to our smart phones to check how many bars we have indicating signal strength. Or we look for the warm blue light coming from the WiFi button on our laptops to ensure that it is actively looking for a wireless network connection so we can log on and check e-mail or Facebook. The world and a plethora of information is at our fingertips. We can read the latest news, look at the weather forecast, and check the score of the game. We can purchase airline tickets, Skype with friends and family on the other side of the world, and look at YouTube videos on how to fix your car. We text continuously throughout the day. Connectivity has facilitated every aspect of our day-to-day lives and permeates our culture.

Connectivity on the battlefield has evolved over time and has been driven by technology. Sitting in his command center in Iraq in 2006, McChrystal had more connectivity than any military commander in history. He was able to watch multiple full-motion video feeds from Predators piping in real-time reconnaissance and strike footage. He was able to listen to and monitor any communication from the field thanks to multiple computer, radio, and satellite linkages. He could reach out and communicate with everyone from the President to any private in the field. McChrystal's communicative capabilities as a commander greatly exceeded those of his predecessors. From field commanders sending notes via riders on horseback, to Civil War generals utilizing flags, bugle calls, and the telegraph, to the Vietnam War where commanders flew overhead in helicopters and communicated with radios, commanders have utilized technology to connect with their troops.

However, McChrystal warns us that these capabilities can deceive us. "I was enamored by the technology," he said, "then I was seduced by it, and finally I was bound by it." Connectivity has the potential to give us a false perception of knowing through the ubiquitous situational awareness that we crave. Likewise, modern connectivity cannot guarantee the connections that really matter. Today's leaders cannot afford to solely wage wars from command centers because they sacrifice building real connections with their troops. These connections are imperative as part of making informed command decisions. As McChrystal pointed out, a disengaged commander does not "feel the cold wind, hear the dogs barking, the crack of a bullet, and feel the grip of fear. They are not there."

Real connections are the relationships built through face-to-face engagement over time. They are built through conversation, eye contact, handshakes, and candor. Relationships are forged and nurtured when people learn to connect with others, endure difficult situations together, and work together to achieve a common goal. McChrystal used Ranger school as an example of soldiers working together to overcome the seemingly unachievable, and at the same time building a bond that endures throughout their careers.

How do you know that you've built this type of connection? McChrystal believes that you will feel it. Besides your immediate family, these are the people you would not hesitate to call for advice, guidance, or a favor, because you trust them and have good rapport with them. Likewise, you would do the same for them. I still keep in touch with several of my classmates from ROTC even after they have left the military. Additionally, I remain in contact with several people that I have deployed with over the years. Over my career, I have met and worked with some exceptional people and I have learned to not only value them as professional colleagues, but also to cherish them as personal friends. I imagine that you have similar people in your lives. It is not a coincidence that the wing commander had colleagues that he's known for more than 20 years sitting in the crowd at his change of command ceremony.

As leaders, how do we build this type of relationship with our Airmen? Get out from behind your desk and visit them in the workplace. Converse with them and find out what's on their minds. Learn what difficulties they face on a day-to-day basis and ask about potential solutions. As an aircraft maintenance officer, I require my officers to stand ground with our maintainers on an aircraft launch or recovery. Why? Because we cannot lead troops if we are not there with them. We cannot truly appreciate the effort it takes to put a jet in the air unless we experience it first-hand, the proverbial "I won't ask you to do something that I would not do myself." On a similar note, I was always impressed how the wing commander and command chief carved time out of their busy schedules to do a weekly walkabout. On a few occasions, they visited me in my office. But they made the biggest impression on me when they visited me after they noticed I had more to say at a meeting that was cut a little short. They wanted to hear what else I had to say. I will never forget the professional courtesy that was extended and I strive to emulate that based on their example.

McChrystal does not advocate completely setting aside technology. Rather, it should be supplementary to building connections. He said, "we should seek to build relationships that can be buttressed and reinforced with modern connectivity, but not replaced with it." He went on to say, "relationships are the sinew that hold the Force together." I, for one, could not agree more.