Ash Carter, former United States Secretary of Defense and current Director of Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, has a new book called Inside the Five-Sided Box that shares lessons from leading the largest institution in America – the Department of Defense. While the strategy is intriguing, I most appreciated the leadership communication advice this respected leader gave, including communicating in a crisis, being vigilant with the press, bringing out the best in others, and using repetition to be memorable. Here are four favorite concepts and quotes from Ash Carter’s book.
Turn Down the Temperature in the Room
When dealing with a crisis, the first job of a leader is to determine when a decision needs to be made and why. Often leaders make that mistake of “getting caught speeding”— a phrase attributed to Air Force Secretary Mike Donley. Rushing because everyone is hot under the collar due to the crisis often means that decisions are made on false or incomplete information and without considering all the options.
“Once you turn down the temperature in the room, you’ll find that, quite often, what your team members really need from you is not an immediate decision but simply a sense of clarity and an orderly process.”
Better to take a few hours or a few days to gather information and examine possible solutions. In the meantime, communicate to your team that you are doing so and will make a decision when a decision is needed. It is also helpful to give team members tasks that are relevant to the situation while awaiting your decision.
Be Vigilant in Interactions with Press
With budget cuts that limit fact checking, shortened new cycles that limit balancing fairness, and a negativity bias that seeks scandals, today’s journalism limits high-integrity news reporting.
“The changes we’ve see in the world of the media have made it harder for journalists to ply their craft at a consistently high level of excellence. That means a SecDef – like other leaders in the public eye – must be more vigilant than ever about his interactions with press and public.” (in the book the author switches between use of his and hers as pronouns)
While there are still excellent, principled journalists out there, spokespeople are wise to be conscious and careful when speaking with the media.
Bring Out Followers’ Best with Reinforcement
Communicating an organization’s values, historical knowledge, and culture can be the less glamourous, and therefore undervalued, part of leadership. But without this focus on the underpinnings of success, there can be chaos and continual conflict. Sometimes it is better to build upon a strong foundation rather than move in a novel direction.
“Reinforcement means bringing out the best in your subordinates — not by leading them in a new direction, but by clarifying and supporting skills and behaviors they may not have fully understood, recognized, or felt free to practice.”
Both leading in a new direction and strengthening existing structures and process are important for leadership, and the wise leader knows when each is needed and most valuable.
Communicate with Repetition to Be Memorable
Because leaders are smart and keep current, there can be a tendency towards recency bias – talking about the newest thing. While this builds a personal reputation of being sharp and up-to-date, it does not reinforce a brand nor help people remember what is most important about an organization or a project.
“I came to respect the power of repetition to ensure that a message is heard, understood, and believed. I worked hard to define key concepts in a few words that were precise and memorable, and then to use those phrases on every possible occasion.”
While it may get boring to repeat the same phrase over and over, it really works to clarify messages and communicate priorities for audiences. It works within a given speech and it works over a period of time.
With 36 years of leadership experience at the Department of Defense under presidents of both political parties, Ash Carter has demonstrated an artful push for innovation utilizing effective leadership communication. One final piece of his leadership advice that behooves us all to follow:
“When in doubt, act if somebody’s mom may be watching.”