Commitment is an Action

When is it okay to be wishy-washy?

It’s perfectly acceptable to be undecided in a restaurant while ordering food. It’s fine to hedge your bets in a game of fantasy football.

It is not okay to be uncommitted in the cockpit of a $30 million F-16 fighter jet.

When engaging enemy forces in combat, the flight leader calls to his wingmen, “Commit! Commit!” This unambiguous call to action affirms to the rest of the formation that they’re all-in and going for it — there is no turning back until the job is done.

The simple command language “Commit!” is a powerful example of how clarity and unwavering resolve tend to result in winning teamwork. But it’s not just for fighter pilots; it applies to every leader. In his book, Never Fly Solo, Lt. Colonel Rob Waldman tells leaders, “Never take off on a mission unless you are 100 percent committed to victory.”

In the business world, we usually don’t have to dodge anti-aircraft fire, but we are attacked by missiles of distraction, disasters and dissension in the ranks. Let’s unpack what extreme commitment looks like for those of us on the ground…

Commit or Fail.

Picture a squadron of jets patrolling the skies over a battle zone. Suddenly, their radar shows unknown aircraft heading at them. Can you imagine our “top gun” pilots being undecided, unclear, or divided about how to respond? I guarantee there’d be no debating, delaying, or waffling. On the contrary, they would take immediate, decisive action with the full commitment initiated and modelled by their flight leader.

Here’s a leadership principle I’ve found to be true: When a highly committed leader takes action, others follow. Even at their own risk. Instead of hesitating or wavering, the team member’s reaction is, “Even though I might get shot at, I will not hold back. In fact, I will push in for the sake of my teammates and our worthy cause.”

Learning to inspire that laser-focused “go-for-it” attitude in others is a skill that applies directly to our roles as civilian leaders and influencers.

Lt. Colonel Waldman says, “Before you commit to a product demonstration, a business meeting, or launching a new internal strategy, take time to reaffirm what it means to commit.” That involves asking your peers and team members if they’re fully onboard. If there’s confusion, doubt or pushback, consider calling off the mission until everyone involved (including you) is totally committed to the plan.

Confidence breeds commitment.

One way to win a group’s trust (and subsequent commitment to a cause) is by training and conditioning them in advance. Football coaches knows this. Army drill sergeants know this. Expedition guides know this. A comprehensive emphasis on practicing skills and planning for contingencies builds self-confidence. Military leaders put it this way, “the more you sweat in peacetime, the less you bleed in battle.”

Same for us, minus the blood.

Imagine a CEO behind the podium at a stockholder’s meeting. In front of him are 500 shareholders and employees. He smiles and acknowledges the applause. Then his PowerPoint won’t start up. And his microphone doesn’t work. He panics. His mind goes blank. He hasn’t planned what to do if things go sideways.

He may have been radically committed to the company’s future, but he was not conveying it. His lack of preparedness was conveying confusion and weakness.

Every leader (no matter how experienced) feels anxiety and stress under pressure. It’s normal. It’s what happens when unforeseen events occur. But a committed leader prepares himself and his team in advance, so that when decisive action is required, no one chokes up, gives up or vacillates.

Making sure that you and your team are as prepared as possible helps avoid being frazzled, overwhelmed or caught off guard by adverse circumstances when it’s time to actually work the plan.

In the Air Force, they call this rehearsal technique “chair flying.” Top performers in many disciplines (race drivers, astronauts, attorneys, surgeons, etc.) train by going through simulations of the actual task. From saving lives in the ER to expanding into new markets, the best way to ensure that team members will handle unexpected events is to replicate a wide variety of scenarios — in a safe environment.

Whenever possible, work out the bugs in advance. Have a contingency plan for all conceivable mishaps. Imagine if the CEO who suffered tech failure during his speech would’ve had a backup plan ready to go. Instead of projecting awkwardness and embarrassment, it would’ve reinforced his commitment to excellence — and in turn, boosted the crowd’s commitment to whatever he was presenting.

Both rookie and veteran pilots (and all leaders) benefit from the prep work that flight trainers call “practice under pressure.”

To strengthen the commitment level of whatever group you’re leading, be sure they are confident in their skills — and yours.

Speed of the leader.  

It’s seems almost too obvious: Having a committed team begins with having a committed leader. And yet I’ve seen many examples of organizations — companies, sports teams, and nonprofits — falter because those at the top were not able to convey and inspire the passion, courage, and vision it would take to reach the ambitious goals they were presenting.

This “transfer of commitment” is true in the business arena and on the battlefield. I’m certainly not endorsing his motives, but Napoleon Bonaparte was a committed leader whose personal resolve inspired unswerving commitment from his followers. Even his sworn enemy, England’s Duke of Wellington, said, “I consider Napoleon’s presence on the field the equal of 40,000 troops.”

Surely, the opposite is true! If co-workers, customers or clients sense weakness, indecision, or lack of commitment from a group’s leader, they’re not likely to support the mission when the chips are down. Can you blame them? At the first sign of adversity — failure, fatigue, rumors, market fluctuation — they’ll back off or jump ship entirely.

Ask yourself: Is my commitment level so high (and so evident) that my presence in a meeting or in the plant or on a sales call inspiring? When the unexpected happens, or when things take a turn for the worse, is my presence helpful or hurtful?

Commitment is contagious.

Speaker and author Nathan Jamail often begins his leadership talks with a question to the audience: “How many of you leaders wish your employees were as committed as you are?”

I’m sure you can guess the answer! Most, if not all, leaders raise their hands with a resounding “yes.” My experience as an executive coach confirms this. In virtually every situation, the leaders are more committed to their organization than the employees.

Why is that? The reason might surprise you. Many employees (or volunteers) are not fully committed to their their organization because they perceive that their leaders are not fully committed to them. Ouch.

As leaders, we may be exhibiting behaviors that destroy trust in us — and not even be aware of it. These actions (or lack of actions) tellingly demonstrate that we may not be as committed to our employees as we think we are.

Jamail uncovered several not-so-obvious “trust killers”…

  • Leaders who allow non-committed employees to remain on the team
  • Leaders who only get involved after employees fail or are in trouble
  • Leaders who are not willing to hold all employees equally accountable

Because most of us want to avoid conflict (or legal problems), we don’t always confront or remove employees who are performing below standards. Staffing is tough these days, and we don’t always discipline or deal with workers exhibiting a negative attitude. 

Leaders want to be popular. I get that. We want to be viewed as nice people. So sometimes we don’t tell struggling employees that they’re struggling. As a result, the under-performing employee doesn’t know they’re failing or doesn’t care.

Both cases adversely affect the rest of the staff who is striving for excellence.

Seeing leaders ignore problems or sweep them under the rug shows our team we’re not totally committed to the values we espouse. At some level, every worker knows the job of a committed leader is to address and resolve inequities.

So why don’t we?

Maybe it’s because we ask ourselves, “What if the struggling team member responds negatively or quits or files a messy complaint (or worse) to HR about us?” Those are valid concerns, no doubt. But if you’re really committed to your team’s success, you’ll protect them from the bad apples and bad attitudes.

Teams that don’t fully respect their leader won’t fully commit. If they think the leader is disconnected or incapable of resolving problems, they get nervous. Again, can you blame them? Why should some team members “go all in” if we allow others who are obviously not fully onboard to work alongside them and reap the same benefits?

Here’s the takeaway: Be committed to your employee’s success and their work environment, and they’ll be committed to you. The best talent will not stick around if they sense our lack of commitment.

Lace up your running shoes.

Bestselling author Ken Blanchard understands commitment. He says a “great human organization” of members committed to a mission takes discipline and preparation. “Leaders must ensure their people receive the training and development necessary for them to live according to the organization’s vision. The problem is leaders often don’t thoroughly understand the critical nature of support and development training.”

Like most worthwhile things, development training doesn’t happen overnight. It can’t be rushed, and it is not the product of wishful thinking

For instance, becoming a USAF fighter pilot takes 18 to 24 months of intensive training. One graduate said, “It requires dedication, motivation, extreme mental fortitude, resiliency and a can’t-quit attitude.” No wonder so few actually make it.

For every 1,000 qualified applicants, only 3 will become fighter pilots. And once they do earn their wings, it requires 15 to 20 hours of flight time per month just to stay sharp. That’s commitment!

All business leaders would like to have a well-trained, mission-focused workforce. But they don’t always succeed — because of misplaced priorities. Which brings us to the critical difference between “being interested in something” and “being committed to it.”

For instance, suppose you’d like to get in better physical shape. An interested person will make excuses for missing a workout: “I’m tired. It’s raining. My schedule’s packed. Skipping one session is no big deal.”

On the other hand, a committed person resolves to exercise, no matter what: “I’m tired, but I can push through. It’s rainy, but I can wear a poncho. My schedule’s packed, but I can adjust my appointments around the gym. Missing a workout is not an option.”

I can come up with a dozen rationalizations to avoid jogging or exercising on any given day. So can you. But committed folks don’t take the easy way out. Committed people don’t procrastinate. Committed people stick it out and inspire others to do the same.

When you’re “interested” in doing something, you only do it when it’s convenient. When you’re “committed” to doing something, you don’t accept excuses, only results.

James Womack is considered the “father of the lean movement.” For decades, he has been deeply committed to spreading lean practices and thinking to the worldwide public. How does he do it? Womack says, “Commitment unlocks the doors of imagination, allows vision, and gives us the ‘right stuff’ to turn our dreams into reality.”

Roger Wilco.

As we’ve seen, preparation builds confidence. Confidence builds commitment.

What destroys commitment? In a word, complacency.

Lt. Waldman says, “Complacency kills business brands and causes industrial accidents. Let’s not get shot down in what we do. Let your passion drive your beliefs. Stay committed for the love of the fight. Take action; recommit yourselves to action.”

Every leader wants followers who are as committed as they are. By adjusting our attitude and our priorities, we can inspire that. We can lead a group of mission-ready team members eager to succeed even in the face of adversity and challenge.

When a squadron leader orders his team to “Commit! Commit!” the other fighter pilots do not respond by saying, “Are you sure? Seems risky. Can’t we sit this one out?”

Instead, they respond by saying, “Roger, Wilco!”

Why this odd reply? When radio was invented, the word Roger was used for the letter “R” in the phonetic alphabet. In the military, the word “Roger” stands for “received.” It means the message was received and understood. The second half of the phrase, “Wilco,” stands for “will comply.” It confirms the recipient is acting on the request.

As philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said, “Commitment is an action, not a word.”

Who is your wingman?

Combat pilots know their success depends on having a trusted, reliable wingman. This key person has their back, offers an outside perspective, and leads them to the intended targets. In a way, that’s what I do. If we decide to partner, I’ll help you and your organization perform at a higher level. If that makes sense, contact me for an informal chat about your upcoming missions and how I might help you accomplish them.