On Joint #Leadership: The Importance of Communication

When I first arrived at the Pentagon to work on the Chairman of the Joint Chief’s staff, I was a major with no staff experience and much to learn. Fortunately, a Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant gave me two helpful nuggets of wisdom. First he said, “Sir, most problems I’ve seen are from a) not knowing who is in charge, b) not using the chain of command, or c) not understanding the commander’s intent.” Sage advice for any officer: know your chain of command, know your boss, and understand his or her intent. Second, “Remember… communication is the key.” This is spot-on advice. Effective communication is conveying a message clearly, and it is an essential part of leadership.[1] In my short experience on the Joint Staff, I’ve observed how senior leaders practice good communication in three primary ways: on a personal level through speaking and writing, at an organizational level from commander to subordinate, and on a national level in developing foreign policy.

Personal Leadership

General officers are usually exceptional communicators. Most of them write clearly and speak articulately in almost any situation and on almost any subject.  Their secret is simple: preparation. Generals and admirals prepare for everything. Public speaking comes naturally to some, but thorough preparation makes extemporaneous speaking look easy. Many will not speak in public without preparing ahead of time. Furthermore, when talking to the press, most senior officials are keenly aware that they are only responsible for an answer, regardless of the question.

Whether writing or speaking, effective communicators do not sacrifice clarity for accuracy. Regurgitating every minute fact of an issue is usually not helpful. It is better to present sufficient details to tell the story. Clarity is essential. A rookie staff officer might write three paragraphs, which must then be reduced to a single paragraph by his colonel or general officer boss before going to the Chairman.  The ability to condense complex thoughts into simple and clear language is challenging, but it is essential for any staff officer. This is the art of the elevator speech. Learning what to say and how to say it concisely takes time, but practice makes perfect.

Good writers know their audience and get to the point. Shorter is better. No fluff, no clutter. Delete unnecessary words. If you can’t say it in one page, you probably need to rethink your premise. For good or ill, generals don’t have time to read four pages on every issue, so remember the infamous quote: “I’m sorry this letter is so long, I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.”[2] Writing is hard and editing takes time, but a concise message is like gold to a busy reader.

Convincing versus Compelling

Saddam Hussein compelled to surrender by U.S. troops in December 2003.

The best general officers understand the difference between convincing and compelling. To convince is to elicit a voluntary decision. To compel is to force compliance absent a voluntary decision. Consider Saddam Hussein - in 1991 he voluntarily retreated from Kuwait after he was convinced he could not withstand the continued U.S./Coalition assault. He had multiple options (stay and fight, surrender, negotiate) but he freely decided to do what we wanted. In 2003 however, he was compelled to climb out of a hole in the ground in Tikrit after he was captured at gunpoint. Compulsion means he had no choice in the matter. Effective leadership requires both convincing and compelling, and the wisdom to know which to use in what situation. Most generals are able to convince their troops and compel their enemies. Truly exceptional leaders can convince anyone to do what they want (think Colin Powell). 

In the joint world, the art of convincing is particularly important. This is especially true in interactions with civilian employees, who may or may not be familiar with military issues. Effectiveness as a joint leader is directly dependent on one’s ability to persuade. In order to make headway in a room full of non-military policy-makers, one must be knowledgeable enough to distill an issue to its basic premise or dilemma, and then walk people through the range of options on how to respond. This requires stating reasons on why a particular course of action is better than the others, and doing so without losing your audience in a maze of military jargon and acronyms. Most senior officers understand this, and they know the importance of persuasion.

Organizational Leadership

Effective leaders do not need to compel their own troops; they inspire them. They motivate people to want to accomplish the mission. Ineffective leaders might resort to compelling subordinates through rank or intimidation, but in my experience, the results are never as good as those who can inspire.  Effective leadership hinges on conveying trust in subordinates and peers. If people understand the importance of the mission, and they know the importance of their individual contributions to the mission, then they will perform beyond expectations. Joint teams operate at the speed of trust, where the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.[3] This is what the American military does better than anybody on earth, and it demands effective communication.

Plan your work and work your plan.

Effective leaders understand what an organization is for, not just what it does. They begin by evaluating purpose and only then distribute and manage tasks. Organizational duties should match an organization’s purpose. Effective leaders are also careful to develop necessary forcing functions to realize organizational goals. They identify what is important and then measure progress in those areas while communicating clear priorities to subordinates. As the old saying goes, plan your work and work your plan.

Effective joint leaders are strategic thinkers who ask big questions and encourage their staffs to do the same. They do not get hung up on small solutions or insignificant details. They define problems before running off to solve them. They welcome feedback and accept push-back on their ideas. Furthermore, joint officers often support decision-makers who must know and continually re-evaluate planning assumptions. Because conditions change rapidly in today’s complex world,  they must identify both assumptions and risk, since these are the weakest parts of any plan. This is all part of strategic thinking.

National Leadership

Joint leaders must distinguish between can do and should do. In the policy world, there are two types of recommendations: what you think should happen, and what has a chance of happening. It is easy to confine one’s thinking to the second category, particularly in an era of tight policy restrictions where the reluctance to use the military instrument of power is pervasive. For instance, military planners might exclude recommending certain kinetic courses of action because they know civilian leadership will likely reject lethal options. But this should not be the case. Just because certain policy-makers are hesitant to use ground forces does not mean that those options should go unconsidered, particularly if they could accomplish a national security objective such as “degrade, dismantle, and destroy ISIL.”[4]  A range of options are available in most situations, and interagency discussions should consider the whole spectrum of responses that advance national security objectives, not just that narrow portion deemed politically acceptable. Senior military leaders must therefore know when to push the limits of policy limitations, and when to back off before losing credibility.

In this respect, joint officers need the right combination of boldness and tact. They need to be the contrarian when necessary, and use sufficient tact to present a case in an unemotional, convincing way. Advising a room full of young, well-educated political appointees on keeping all options on the table may not be easy, but it is crucial. Senior military leaders must also strive to keep the issues of policy, strategy, operations, and tactics in proper alignment. These issues should remain nested within one another, although they often become convoluted in practice. Policy committees in D.C. should not be pining over insignificant tactical details of operations occurring seven thousand miles away. This is akin to playing checkers while our opponents are playing chess. In this author’s opinion, military leaders in the interagency should encourage long-term strategic thinking, and facilitate an interagency dialogue that allows the combatant commanders both the space and authority to deal with the day-to-day issues of war. Again, this hinges on trust.

Can Speak versus Should Speak

Finally, knowing when not to communicate is also important. My boss told me about his first time on Capitol Hill to address staffers from the Senate Armed Service Committee. He was the lone uniformed officer sitting on a panel of civilians from the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Department of State, and he was feeling pretty important just to have a seat at the table. After about ten minutes, the tone of the questions changed and a legislative affairs assistant sitting behind him quietly passed him a small folded note that read, “Stick to talking points—this is about to get ugly.” He didn’t say a word for the entire hour and wisely avoided the wrath of angry staffers who focused their frustration on those doing the talking. He was prepared to talk, but he knew better than volunteering answers to questions he was not asked. This illustrates two important lessons: First, know when to keep your mouth shut. Second, trust knowledgeable staff and co-workers. They will keep you out of trouble.


Leadership is demanding, and effective communication is critical for any military leader. Clear writing and speaking helps them to build and maintain personal relationships.  It enables them to run effective organizations, whether in combat or on staff. It allows them to connect task with purpose to turn organizations into teams, whether squadrons, battalions, platoons, or military staffs. In a joint environment at the highest levels of government, crisp communication is necessary to present best military advice to civilian leadership.  This requires more convincing than compelling, and in this author’s opinion, it is more of an art than a science. Decades of military experience and the greatest idea in the world amounts to nothing if you cannot convince decision-makers that your course of action is the best option available. 

Stewart Welch is a U.S. Air Force Officer with experience as a Middle East Strategist on the Joint Staff. He was an Olmsted Scholar in Israel and has a Master’s Degree in Modern Middle Eastern History from Tel Aviv University. The views expressed in this article the author's and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

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[1] Communication formally requires a sender, a receiver, and a message. This article focuses primarily on the what the sender controls: the message and the means of transmission.

[2] Various versions of this quote have been attributed to many people over time, but is generally accepted to have been said by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal in 1657.

[3] Stephen Covey, The SPEED of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything (Washington, DC: Free Press, 2006).

[4] President Barack Obama, “Address from the State Floor of the White House” September 10, 2014, https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2014/09/10/president-obama-we-will-degrade-and-ultimately-destroy-isil.