Keyboard Leadership

A little more than ten years ago I embarked on a journey that would set me on a path of stability, success, life enjoyment, challenges, and of course learning.

I enlisted in the Air Force roughly a year after graduating high school. While my initial intention was to attend college I found myself somewhat dissatisfied with the idea of going to school for a business degree when I knew in my mind I could not be happy in business. Growing up in a family of military veterans, the next step seemed like a logical one, enlist and get a job that I would enjoy. That was exactly what I did and now after ten years of being a meteorologist – once during a period of 4 years of Active Duty and the second period of time, still counting, with the Air Force Reserves – I am able to see the richness of my experiences of the past ten years with amazing clarity. Without accomplishing the simple initial steps, I would not have been able to enjoy the life, and quality of life, that I enjoy today.

As I transitioned from active duty in 2007 and into the civilian labor force, I made a conscious effort to not bring with me the traditional rigid aspects of military life into the civilian environments. I made an effort to listen, to step out, to engage, and to learn from others and accept a more relaxed learning, work, and social environment. To say that it was refreshing to get out from under the rigid military environment is an understatement. However, eventually, I realized that as a structure the military accomplishes a great deal organizationally due to the rigid environment and clear hierarchical levels of authority.

Today, I am an airline pilot and the industry I so greatly enjoy has many carry-overs from the military, structurally speaking. As a line pilot, my direct supervisor is my base Chief Pilot. He/she is assisted in their duties by Assistant Chief Pilots who have just as much authority as the Base Chief except for final disciplinary or administrative decisions that may contradict company policy. Above the Chief Pilot’s office is the Director of Flight Operations, or as line pilots call them, System Chief Pilot. Moving up one additional level is the Vice President of Flight Operations, and lastly – the President and Chief Operating Officer of the Airline. For the most part, most flight operation divisions of contemporary airlines are structured much the same way. Thus, the affectionately termed chain of command exists even in the civilian world.

In the military you have your direct supervisor, usually a person at least one or two grade/ranks above your own. This supervisor also has a supervisor, likely a senior enlisted individual for the enlisted folks or a senior company grade officer or junior field grade officer for the commissioned folks. Nevertheless, at some point in the chain of command, we move to the position of Flight Commander, Squadron Commander, Group Commander, Wing Commander, subsequently Commander of a Numbered Air Force or Major Command (think Air Combat Command, Air Education and Training Command, etc.) eventually rolling all the way up to the Air Force Chief of Staff, the Secretary of the Air Force, the Secretary of Defense, and lastly – the President.

The similarities exist in regards to the organizational structure and even in the challenges of communicating effectively throughout the organization (internally), with members of the community or others in the same industry (external), and amongst each other on an interpersonal level.

Increasing use of technology has helped aid in both internal and external communications in the military and civilian settings, however its rise has also threatened the effectiveness of interpersonal communications. Both segments have adopted technology to help improve the speed at which information is disseminated throughout various channels. Yet, one downside is the growing trend of keyboard leadership.

Keyboard Leadership

You may know a great keyboard leader, heck – you yourself may be a good one. Your phone is always with you, you’re always quick to react to the new e-mail or text message notification on your phone, tablet, or laptop. You may provide weekly words of encouragement to your employees – or troops – or even weekly words of admonishment. You know how to request a read receipt like the best of them, lest a subordinate decide to simply “DELETE” one of your 200 e-mails a week, you’ll know they at least received the e-mail. The above are simply a few characteristics that can define a great Keyboard Leader.

This week in my graduate studies I was fortunate enough to listen as Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s shared some of the things he learned over three decades in military service.

Gen. McChrystal takes us on an evolutionary tale of military leadership, remarking on the exceptional skills of today’s young service members, but also highlighting the challenges senior military leaders are facing. The advancement of technology has made it easier to send and receive information – but it has also disconnected us from the very interpersonal relationships that gave birth to exceptional leaders and the trust that came with such a relationship.

I saw countless keyboard leaders during my time in the military. Young Officers who had just graduated from an ROTC program or gained a commission immediately after finishing undergraduate school, lacking any other professional experience than that which the Air Force provided to them during a few years, or a few months, of indoctrination never instilled a great sense of pride in themselves and much less their ability to lead successfully. They certainly could write a 1500 word letter detailing changes in administrative policies – yet they couldn’t stand in front of 50 troops without stuttering or instilling confidence in their ability to actually lead on a regular basis, on an interpersonal basis.

Today, as a front line employee part of an airline that operates over 2,000 flights a day, I sadly see the same keyboard leader aspects throughout the various administrative levels at my company. The same impact is occurring within the employee base at my civilian employer as they did within the military – a lack of confidence in the leadership due to their continued keyboard leadership. Employees, in various divisions, continue to remark about the lack of sufficient communication and face-time with their divisional leadership individuals. Yet, if these same employees went five days without checking their company e-mail they would never hear or read a single thing from their bosses.

The reliance on technology to spread internal and external communication has posed a significant risk to the stability of leadership trust and confidence. Today’s leaders must appropriately manage their use of technology with a fair dose of face-to-face communication.

Successful conglomerate tycoon Richard Branson, oddly – also successful leader of Virgin Airlines, encourages organizational leaders to not hide behind e-mail, proclaiming that the most effective management tool is to simply show your face. In It’s No Wonder They Don’t Understand You, Branson remarks, “It’s a common pitfall. As technology has evolved, so has business etiquette. People tend to rely primarily on e-mail and text messaging…” Then, how does Branson suggest breaking down this barrier to communication? “… make face-to-face communications part of everyday life at your office. The Australian name for it is “going walkabout”; many consultants call it “management by walking around.” Whatever you call it, it works, and if you and your senior staff aren’t doing it, you are missing out on one of the most inexpensive and effective management tools around.”

Get up. Get out. Walk about. Be a real LEADER again. Whether you’re in the military or civilian sector – step away from the keyboard and give your employees and subordinates something to be proud of…working with YOU.

To read Richard Branson’s “It’s No Wonder They Don’t Understand You article”, visit Canadian Business.

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