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Face-to-face communication key in knowing your people

Chief Master Sgt. Randall Raper, 11th Wing command chief, talks to Airman 1st Class Suzanne Reis, 11th Wing, about events for the day July 10 in the 11th Wing command section. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Sean Adams)

Chief Master Sgt. Randall Raper, 11th Wing command chief, talks to Airman 1st Class Suzanne Reis, 11th Wing, about events for the day July 10 in the 11th Wing command section. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Sean Adams)

BOLLING AFB, D.C. -- Recently, the new 11th Wing commander, Col. Jon Roop, shared his feelings about e-mail to members of his staff. The colonel said he is very much a person who believes in face-to-face communication.

The colonel's comments reminded me of a commentary I wrote last year about the importance of personally communicating in person with people rather than sending a quick message. Leaders need to get out from behind the desk and visit their Airmen. Communicating in person has always been - and remains so today - important in today's Air Force.

We have all been ingrained with the definition of leadership. After reading numerous professional military education articles, one could recite a phrase that would probably sound like, "Leadership is the art or the ability of an individual to influence and direct others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the organization and its mission."

There are other ways to describe leadership. Ultimately, leadership is the ability of great leaders to effectively and efficiently lead Airman to execute the wing's mission while making the Airman feel they contributed to the Air Force's overall mission. To me, that exemplifies true leadership.

This is no small task in today's military. With units deploying to multiple war zones, family separation issues, long hours backfilling at home because 60 percent of the shop is gone and countless others factors, Airmen may feel a heavy physical and mental strain. No rank is immune to these stressors.

Within our advanced military culture, we have now come to a crossroads in communicating with our folks. Long forgotten is the talent of the "one-on-one, face-to-face" mentoring that was commonplace in our Air Force of yesterday. E-mail has certainly expedited the communication process, but it has also hindered, to some degree, the ability and willingness of some of us to "get out from behind the desk." It's taken away from the time we spend with our Airmen because we spend so much time e-mailing. I've seen Airmen send e-mails to someone 10 feet away from them in the same office. Is this the way we want to communicate with each other in today's stressful environment?

In a peacetime military atmosphere, relying on e-mail to communicate is sufficient. But a wartime force with all the demands placed upon it needs face-to-face communication. An often neglected leadership principle in today's environment of technology is getting to know your workers and showing sincere interest in their problems, career development and welfare. It's hard to show someone you really do care about them in an e-mail.

I believe today, more then ever, we need to put more emphasis back on face-to-face communications. Gen. Ronald R. Foglemen, former Air Force chief of staff, once said, "To become successful leaders, we must first learn that no matter how good the technology or how shiny the equipment, people-to-people relations get things done in our organizations. ... If you are to be a good leader, you have to cultivate your skills in the arena of personal relations."

I believe cultivating our personal skills is as simple as just taking the time to talk to your subordinates and get to know them, the things they like, the things they dislike and their hobbies. Or, perhaps ascertain from the "young Airman" about his or her next deployment. Show them you genuinely care for them. A leader who knows his Airmen will be able to recognize when one of them is having problems either in their personal life or with assigned tasks and hopefully you will be able to take steps and actions to cause effect in the situation.

As the PFE states, "Leadership involvement is the key ingredient to maximizing worker performance and hence the mission." With that said, get out there and lead your Airmen because they deserve good leadership. And secondly, the demands of the ongoing war efforts not only need your attention but require it. Let's face it - we can't do it from behind the desk.