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NEWS | Oct. 21, 2015

Leading with candor, kindness

435th Fighter Training Squadron

As a member of the 435th Fighter Training Squadron Deadly Black Eagles, I had the distinct privilege of meeting a seasoned veteran in the realm of leadership – Bill Hybels.

Hybels has written more than 20 books on leadership and has pioneered an annual leadership training seminar called the Global Leadership Summit, attended by more than 200,000 people in more than 100 countries. He is a man who knows how to lead and is passionate about sharing his insight with future generations.

Hybels met with eight members of the 435th FTS during the session and invited us to explore questions about leadership, culture and feedback.

The three things we learned most applicable to the flying training environment were how to give feedback with candor and kindness, separating coaching from evaluation and how to create a self-correcting culture in your work environment.

“Candor with kindness” is a central theme to Hybels’ organizational structure and begs us to rethink the way we conduct feedback. The Air Force’s formal evaluation system requires initial feedback, mid-term feedback and formal evaluations.

During flying training, we debrief every flight and provide upgrade instructions on what areas need the most improvement for individual Airmen. As we gain experience as instructors, we learn what to say, how to say it, what proportion should be positive or negative and when to say it.

There’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach to feedback but here’s a few important things Hybels led us to consider. 

Hybels highlighted the three types of feedback – appreciation, coaching and evaluation.

When are you the most receptive to feedback? When you’ve been told you’ve done some things well or when you’ve been beaten down?

Research shows a person being evaluated is most willing to learn when he’s had a steady stream of appreciation before receiving negative feedback.  Hence his organization’s commitment to “candor with kindness.”

According to Hybels, when providing feedback, the best reception is gained by presenting feedback in a caring manner. Be emotionally committed to your feedback, especially when negative – “You’re better than that!”

A second challenge we face is separating evaluation from coaching.

The reason it’s so important to separate evaluation from coaching is because when a person has been demoralized by evaluation, they’re generally not interested in being coached.

The key, Hybels recommends, is to find ways to separate the two by evaluating, and then providing a break. When the recipient is ready, provide the coaching. This approach is particularly challenging in the flying training environment, when time compression often makes this approach seem inconvenient at best; unattainable at worst.

I know that many of the most powerful coaching moments in my life were during casual conversations, not immediately following evaluation.

This “tactical pause” between evaluation and coaching might make the difference between “getting through” to a person and being “tuned out.” It might require creativity, such as a phone call or a word in the hallway after the evaluation. This could provide the Airman with the coaching they need at the right moment when they’re ready to receive it.

Coaching is a great way to improve the impact you make on a student, not only to improve the working environment, but to lead your peers or, stated another way, lead laterally.

While leading up and down is important, leading laterally is often overlooked in leadership development.

Hybels recalled an employee, who he heard about years after an incident occurred. The employee mistreated another employee during a meeting with about 15 people.

In an organization that doesn’t champion leading laterally, the 14 other people would have called Hybels to voice their anger and spur the boss into action, but that didn't happen.

What happened though, was quite remarkable and didn’t even involve the boss. The offending party was called on 14 times, each by the other individuals in the room, who voiced their disappointment and insistence that, “We don’t treat people like that here.”

The Air Force champions the idea of Wingmen, the active bystander who intervenes to prevent harm in situations of suicide and sexual harassment. Do we ever overlook or remain silent when we should self-correct our peers?

Not all things should be strictly left to the first shirt or commander. Of course there are situations that must be elevated to supervisors, but those instances are a small percentage of the many opportunities we have to lead laterally.  We should encourage each other as peer leaders to correct issues before deviations become serious infractions.

Our candid discussion with Hybels was an invaluable experience that I’ll never forget. His humble, credible approach to leadership, backed by years of research, teaching and experience, inspired me to apply the principles he espoused and motivated me to continue my leadership development.

We should strive to provide candor with kindness to our students, separate evaluation from coaching and challenge ourselves and each other to lead laterally to create positive improvements in our culture.