JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. --
How often do you say something you wished could be taken back the moment it left your mouth? Those situations happen all of the time, and to nearly everyone. Sir Winston Churchill, one of Britain’s most influential leaders and speakers, once stated, “We are masters of the unsaid words, but slaves of those we let slip out.” It is so easy to let something seemingly trivial enter normal conversation without giving it a second thought. However, the words we use can often be received negatively, even when our intentions were far from harm.
Words matter, especially the words of a leader…at any level. In my opinion, this lesson should be taught as early and as often as possible so we grow leaders who understand the power of their words. In our Air Force, words inspire Airmen to do great things, words initiate the execution of historically significant missions, and words also bring comfort to those in need. During these moments, and countless others, we should be careful to choose the best words in order to achieve the best results. We own the words we choose to say. We should select them wisely, knowing they will be attributed to us, and possibly used by others. Here’s a great example:
Leaders constantly communicate how much they value Airmen and their stories. They use these stories to highlight the commitment, courage and compassion driving our Airmen toward success. Why then, do so many leaders refer to Airmen as “bodies”? I hear it all of the time; in the past I’ve even used the term. It happens on every base, in many offices and conference rooms. “I need 23 bodies to accomplish this task.” “Send them a body so we can get this off our plate.” “Just tell me how many bodies you need.” Most likely, these and countless other similar statements were made without malice, but still bear the unintended consequence of sending a silent message to those who happen to be in the room. Unfortunately, we typically learn the impact of that message long afterward.
If we want our Airmen to truly believe they are valued, we should stop referring to them as lifeless, empty shells. If you think they don’t care, I encourage you to ask; many of them will have a completely different view. I understand that it’s just a figure of speech. Couple that with other words they hear, such as, “You’re going to Base X? They don’t really care about you there.” Then lump on a poor sponsor and an overtasked supervisor, pretty soon our Airmen don’t feel the importance of serving in the Profession of Arms. Instead, they can feel more like a zombie workforce. Leaders can communicate their appreciation for Airmen all day long, but they should realize their remarks can be quickly countered with one ill-conceived word or phrase.
True leaders inspire others to accomplish meaningful things. They strive to do this through their actions. Though more often than not, leaders are forced to do their very best to inspire with their words; many times without ever seeing the team they are trying to motivate. It is important then, when communicating, to ensure each word is given the proper amount of thought. These words, and the emphasis you place on them, could be the only way an Airman connects themselves to you, your intent and your vision for success. It is true that actions speak louder than words. I believe it is also true that a leader’s choice of words can inspire others to greatness, or could deflate that same team into oblivion.
All of our Airmen deserve leaders who value their skills and professionalism. They also deserve to be treated with dignity. This means we need to be cognizant of the things we say, how we say them, and to whom we are speaking. When we communicate, we should strive to choose the correct words and make those words matter. You may never know the impact of what you say, but I assure you there is someone paying attention. Mr. James C. Humes, an author and former presidential speechwriter, once made a simple, yet very astute observation: “Every time you have to speak, you are auditioning for leadership.” Those are great words for leaders to remember when choosing how to address their Airmen.