A culture of no

  • Published
  • By Col. Rob Spalding
  • 509th Operations Group Commander
Does your unit have a culture of no? If you're not sure, take this test. For the next week, count the number of times you or the others around you respond with a no whenever someone asks for something. If you find that no is the predominant response, maybe it's time to make a change.

Be prepared though, because you will find getting rid of the word no is easier said than done. Those who abuse the word no have a number of good reasons to continue doing so. Some are:

 Air Force Instructions prohibit it
 We don't have enough money
 We don't have enough personnel
 It's not our job

It may help the naysayers if you provide some historic examples of how leaders said yes when the easier and safer answer would have been no.

During the battle of Vicksburg, General Grant was finding the rebel forces difficult to dislodge. To get things moving, he decided it would be better to cut loose from his supply lines and travel cross country to attack Vicksburg from the rear. Many thought he was foolish, and when asked if this was a good idea he probably said no. The Army doctrine at the time would have backed them up for being technically correct. Grant, however, took a risk and said yes. He gathered supplies for a few days, lived off the land, and eventually was victorious. By saying yes, Vicksburg fell and the Mississippi was opened to Union shipping.

At the start of World War II, President Roosevelt needed a response to Pearl Harbor that would inspire Americans, and demoralize the Japanese. He turned to the U.S. Air Force for a response. Jimmy Doolittle was asked to fly B-25s off of an aircraft carrier. He could have said no. The effort was dangerous and promised low probability for returning alive. Instead Doolittle and his Airmen stripped their B-25s to the bare minimum, practiced low speed take-offs until they were sure they could get airborne, and flew into history.

In 2007, faced with deteriorating conditions in Iraq, President Bush decided to surge troops. It was a gamble, and numerous political and military leaders said it was an impossible task. President Bush said yes to a plan many said were destined to fail. The outcome was a decline in violence and a stable Iraq. Again, the President could have taken the route critics wanted, but the people of Iraq would have faced a horrible future. In addition, America would have left the region in defeat.

These three examples have similar themes. The first is that any of the leaders involved would not have been criticized for saying no. In each case the easy and secure answer would have been to say no.

Second, saying yes involved taking a risk. In each case, the leaders involved risked their careers and in some cases their life by saying yes. Finally, saying yes resulted in resounding victory. By saying yes, these American leaders continued a long history of defying the odds and taking the unconventional path that led to a better future. Each day we face small decisions that may not find their way in the history books, but they advance our cause just the same.

The next time you hear someone in your office or workspace saying no, try to help them say yes. Offer them this alternative instead - "yes, and" or "yes, but." For example: yes, and these are things that must be done; or yes, but we must do this first. In doing so, you will take your place among other American leaders who have said yes, and led our nation to freedom and prosperity throughout our history.