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COMMENTARY: Tools of the trade

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- On an uncharacteristically cool, crisp night, deep in the heart of Louisiana, efforts to evade capture by an opposition force came to a halt when, quite unintentionally, I managed to gift-wrap myself in the painful spirals of razor-sharp concertina wire that had been maliciously stretched across my intended escape route. Repeated flails did nothing to free me from the entanglement. One hundred meters west of my position, I could hear the movements of an l-shaped flanking maneuver begin to take shape. Alone, bound and hunted, the creepy twangs of a southern banjo riff felt more real than imagined. I had to find a way out of the mess.

As luck would have it, my cherished Leatherman tool - a cleverly designed, multi-purpose godsend of compact utility - was tethered to my belt loop. Disregarding the need to maintain noise discipline, I employed the Leatherman's many accouterments to pinch, pull, twist and cut the tangled mess of wire from my uniform; cue the angelic chorus of hallelujahs. Buoyed by a wave of adrenaline, I sprinted toward the friendly forces bivouac at a pace that would make Usain Bolt blush.

Nearly two decades have come and gone since my all-inclusive vacation at the United States Army's Joint Readiness Training Center, but the metaphorical entanglements brought on by life's professional challenges have yet to cease. Not surprisingly, I've relied on a wide array of tools to navigate through those challenges.

Most of the tools at my disposal were a lot like my Leatherman, tangible instruments that I could touch and wield. Shovels, pliers, hammers, screwdrivers and the like come to mind. Each gave me the flexibility to overcome a multitude of work-related challenges: fixing a malfunctioning M-16 rifle, digging a defensive fighting position and repairing a troublesome Humvee are just a few examples. Those activities pale in number, however, relative to the amount of fixin' I've had to do when interacting with the Air Force's most treasured resource - its people.

The Airmen that make up our force are a diverse group of men and women, each with a different upbringing, a different outlook on life and a different attitude. Trying to pinpoint what makes them tick and what keeps them on track, is about as easy as trying to button a shirt with your toes. So it should come as no surprise that, unless I was willing to follow the Mafioso handbook for taking care of personnel issues, using the tools mentioned above was not going to be an option when I encountered people-problems. Instead, I put my faith in an entirely different set of tools.

The tools I'm referring to are often called soft tools because they're intangible--forged not from metal, but rather by some invisible cosmic matter that, according to my wife, God excluded from my DNA-string. These tools are employed in a manner that influences a person's feelings, emotions and behavior. To supplement my genetic deficiencies, I had to learn these tools. By that I mean I had to modify the way I communicated, further develop my capacity to empathize, learn to express compassion, figure out how to understand and rely on instinct, and re-attune my listening skills. This was not a quick learning process. It took years to develop and hone.

Much to my chagrin, buying these soft tools from a store or pulling them from a drawer was never an option. To acquire their use and understand their value, I had to sit through seminars, participate in specialized training, seek professional certifications, pursue advanced academic education, read a lot of how-to books and listen to a lot of how-to advice from that special someone who said "I do" nearly 13 years ago.

Not a day passes that I don't use these soft tools in one manner or another. If you've ever tried to create synergy between teams, develop cohesion across organizations, modify behavior in a wayward airman, influence decisions from a commander, diffuse a confrontation, or inspire involvement from those that evade getting involved, then you know exactly what I'm talking about.

Once I fully understood the significance of what these soft tools were and how they helped me become a better leader and manager, I then had to learn how to sharpen them. That required more reading. You know, the fun stuff with the sexy titles: "Uncovering the Leader in You", "Managing Conflict and Resistance", and "Team Evolution: The Dynamics of Creating Successful Workgroups" are just a few examples available for your reading pleasure.

Yes, it has been a long journey and one that continues to this day. In that time I've amassed a sizeable repertoire of tools. Taken individually, each tool, whether tangible or not, was designed for a specific task, supporting a singular effort. Used collectively, however, I was able to employ my tools MacGyver-like across a full range of contingencies. Their collective use guaranteed my success and allowed me to be more flexible and dynamic--all important elements that provided maneuverability through and around the daily entanglements that conspired to derail me from effectively leading organizations and efficiently managing my resources.

By employing the tools of my trade, I've become sharper and more utilitarian. What's in your toolbox?