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Stories over stats — aspire to inspire

Lt Col Jamil Musa, 7th Airlift Squadron commander

Lt Col Jamil Musa, 7th Airlift Squadron commander

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. --

Before taking command of America’s Sharpest, the Swords of the 7th Airlift Squadron, a mentor counseled me, “First you get the guidon, then you get the mic … make your words count.”

It was a timely reminder that, as humans, we crave inspiration and we yearn for stories. This is a characteristic born with us since the dawning of time. It’s the reason we read to our kids at night, go to the movies and swap tales of the day’s passing in our heritage rooms.

In a world of mission completion statistics, individual medical readiness rates, inspection compliance slides, management metrics, logistics efficiency charts and staffed green folders—which all have a purposeful role—we must remember that leadership is about motivating, connecting and ultimately making people feel.

Our 62nd Airlift Wing commander evokes this notion when he cites former Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh: “Every Airman has a story. If you don’t know the story, you can’t lead the Airman.”

As leaders, learning our Airmen’s stories is paramount. As a complement, it is imperative for leaders at all levels to learn to effectively share these stories as well as those they’ve collected over time, whether first-hand or inherited.

Learn what resonates and what does not. Often, it’s not necessarily what the message is, but the context in how it is delivered that determines whether the message is successful or falls flat with an audience already distracted by time constraints and demands of the day.

For many of us, effective storytelling does not come naturally, but this shouldn’t be an obstacle for finding our own authentic voices. Interestingly, if the core message sticks and provokes reflection, the corresponding metrics and statistics tend to eventually follow.

Gen. David Goldfein, our current Air Force chief of staff, has emphasized and prioritized the revitalization of squadrons. Moreover, he has challenged commanders to inspire and give meaning to what constitutes being a part of a particular unit.

Arguably, this begins with effective stories, stories that are easily told, easily understood and, most importantly, easily repeated.

As a previous commander once explained, the purpose of friendly communication is typically to inform, to educate or to inspire.

To inform is to provide information. To educate is to instill enough knowledge where one may act upon his or her own. To inspire is to commit one to action.

Correspondingly, revitalization occurs when people are inspired to action.

The next time it comes to stressing the importance of the mission, improving readiness, addressing resiliency, instilling values, promoting innovation or discussing heritage, put the canned bullets aside and tell a story with a well-aimed message instead.

As Harvard Psychologist Howard Gardner notes, “Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.”

Aspire to inspire — our Airmen deserve nothing less.