#Leadership: What did you see?

When describing the fundamental rules of leadership, the phrase "see-think-do" is an especially useful framework; these words summarize the basic technique for assessing student performance among student pilots. The best way to determine where a student’s problem began is by asking a series of questions—What did you see? What did you think? What did you do?  Once you know these answers, you are able to offer specific techniques to fix the exact mistake that created the student’s problem.  As a result, your instruction is more effective because you quickly get to the point and fix the root cause of the problem.  

Instructor and Student

Imagine a debrief between an instructor pilot and his student after a one-versus-one training mission where the instructor does not closely follow this technique:

Maj. Mark Lorange explains a flight routine to an Iraqi student instructor pilot. (U.S. Air Force photo, SSgt David Salanitri) 

Instructor:  “Let’s take a look at this part of the engagement and see how you could have avoided getting shot.  Tell me what was happening right here.”
Student:  “I was thinking about how I was getting closer to the floor since we had been maneuvering and descending quite a bit and as I maneuvered towards it I was also thinking you might start moving into a position for a gun solution.”
Instructor:  “That’s good thinking, but you didn’t maneuver out of the way in time and that is why I was able to achieve a valid gun kill on you.  Next time that happens, I want you to think this way instead…(detailed explanation)…and here’s how I want you to maneuver…(more detailed explanation).  Any questions?”
Student:  “Only one.  Do you have any techniques for knowing your altitude so you don’t have to keep looking forward?  I understand what you told me, but I never saw you move into that position since I was looking forward at my altitude during that time.”

The student’s decision to stay above the minimum altitude and his execution to do so were correct based on what he saw, which was his decreasing altitude on his displays when he looked into his cockpit.  The instructor’s techniques for deciding when to maneuver against a threat and how to execute those maneuvers were also correct for what he assumed the student saw.  The instructor’s feedback was not effective because it did not address the root cause of the student’s problem, which was not seeing the same thing the instructor saw.  The instructor could have avoided this problem if he simply asked the student, what did you see?

Leader and Follower

Now replace instructor and student with leader and follower.  Think about situations where you have been in either role where a simple difference of perspectives unnecessarily created problems.  I believe the differences in what a leader and follower sees creates the majority of the friction and bad situations.  While not addressed in detail here, decision-making and execution are also significant contributors and worthy of further discussion.

U.S. Air Forces Central Command deputy command surgeon (left), walks with AFCENT chief of clinical operations, during a mentoring session. (U.S. Air Force photo, A1C Jonathan Bass) 

The value of discussing ways to fix a bad situation and prevent it from happening again cannot be emphasized enough, whether in a formal debrief like this example, a “hotwash,” or a regular staff meeting.  After the fact, when time is not a constraint, it takes effort on the part of the leader to initiate this type of follow-up and not get tied up in simply moving on to the next task.  I have found it difficult to gain open and honest feedback without leading the discussion to some extent, but these three questions are effective.  I have also found these questions to be the best means for helping me reason through why a mistake occurred and focus on asking  the right questions to address it.  This is a veiled way of saying these questions help me calm down if I get mad about a particular outcome and find myself getting angry at my subordinate, or even my peers, for what I perceive to be a particular mistake.  By asking myself these questions, I am often able to understand better what their perception may have been and how it led to their decision to execute a particular action.  More often than not, I discovered it was merely a difference in perception typically stemming from a lack of clear guidance on my part.

This way of thinking can also be useful for a follower.  If leadership is discussing a problem and is already asking these three questions, you can contribute more effectively by offering specific ideas to fix its true cause.  If not, you may be able to drive the conversation by asking these questions because they are less likely to invoke any sense that you may be questioning his or her actions.  Asking to know more about your leader’s perceptions not only yields insight into his or her way of thinking and perception of a situation, but also into the thinking and perception of those leaders above who greatly influence your own leader’s actions.

So far, I have only focused on these concepts in the context of a discussion that occurs after the fact. As important, though, your effectiveness as a leader and a follower increases when you can answer these questions before a mission begins.  As a leader, you set your expectations for your followers when you brief before a mission.  The details you provide ensure everyone shares a common view of the situation you all will face, the tasks needed to accomplish your mission, and how you will go about doing them.  Your brief should convey what decisions you will likely make and how you expect everyone to execute the operation.

This also applies in a staff or office environment.  Staff meetings, working groups, and other interactions are opportunities to discuss expectations based on the conditions surrounding that particular project or task.  These opportunities also allow you to provide insight into the decisions you will make along the way.  This manner of thinking helps you maximize the time spent in these meetings by focusing your discussions towards aligning the perceptions of you and your followers.

Asking the right questions to fix a problem as early as possible is even more critical during execution.

Your responsibilities as a follower during this preparation phase are the same as previously discussed in the debriefing phase.  When you recognize your leader’s use of these three questions, you are able to contribute more effectively by asking specific questions to clarify any of these three key points.  If your leader is not using this construct, focusing your questions on these three areas allows you to clarify any misunderstandings without dominating the limited time available.

Asking the right questions to fix a problem as early as possible is even more critical during execution.  Time will likely be of greater concern with less of it available to have drawn-out discussions trying to answer these questions.  Too often, military leaders feel obligated to make immediate inputs as a means to demonstrate their competency and increase confidence in their ability to lead.  By keeping these three questions in mind, you are more likely to identify where a subordinate’s problem is just beginning despite your inevitable lack of complete situational awareness.  Use the time available, no matter how limited, to ask these questions and confirm your perceptions, then offer your inputs to prevent further issues.  If you do not have time, then you must rely on your experience and judgment, still focusing on these questions to make the best input possible.

In the military, we know that followers must immediately execute the orders given to them without question.  This framework does not change that principle.  Your leader cannot possibly brief every detail for every possible contingency you will encounter.  Using this framework should simplify your decision to seek further guidance once a situation differs from your leader’s original expectations, or to execute as your leader expects using your own best judgment.

What did you see, think, and do are three powerful questions for determining where to offer inputs to prevent relatively small mistakes from becoming much larger problems.  This three-question construct is applicable for both leaders and followers to use and most often thought of in terms of learning from mistakes after a mission or project is complete.  While true, the best use of this construct is before those begin as a means to synchronize perceptions and expectations.  Even in benign staff environments, this construct can be useful, if for no other reason than to inculcate this framework into the thinking of leaders and followers so they are both better able to use it in more critical and stressful situations.

Steve "Spanky" Luczynski is a U.S. Air Force officer currently assigned to the Under Secretary of Defense (Policy)-Cyber.  He is an experienced fighter pilot, U.S. Air Force Weapons School graduate, and former squadron commander. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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