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Art Callaham: On message or off target?

July 08, 2012|By ART CALLAHAM

Last year I started to do a series on leadership; my premise was to have some of our local elected officials comment on the subject and I would print in this column whatever was submitted. 

What I quickly found out was I don’t have total control over what is published — that final control rests with the newspaper.  So, I tabled the idea.

However, several of my friends have asked me to write more about leadership and to use a different approach; instead of using others’ opinions, rather, focus on my own opinions about the subject. 

In the classroom, teaching for Hagerstown Community College, University System of Maryland, Kaplan University (I go back to the days when Kaplan was known as Hagerstown Business College), Mount Saint Mary’s University, both undergraduate and Master’s students, I use a nine part lecture series on the principles of leadership.

These lectures and the principles they promote are based loosely on lessons learned during the American Civil War.  So, over the next few weeks, as we await the real beginning of the presidential campaign season (there will be lots to write about then), I’ll write about some or all of the following principles of leadership: communications, timing, patience, decisiveness, self-assuredness and focus. 

Remember, these will be my opinions about principles that have served me well. You may call them by different names and some may not appeal to you, while others may have played a role in your own life.

In every aspect of life, and particularly vital in leadership, communications plays a significant role. To my way of thinking, seldom does any positive result occur unless there has been good communications. As far as interpersonal communications is concerned, the basic model (sender to receiver) begins with a thought picture in the mind of the sender. 

Remember what your mom taught you: “Put your mind in gear before you put your mouth in motion!” Just like leadership, good communications always starts with thinking before acting.

Your mouth (verbal) is not the only medium for communicating; consider the thought process before writing, gesturing or any other form of communicating. Your mom could have said simply “think before you communicate.”

The thinking process is just the first step. Most of us (I really believe it is everyone) filter our thoughts through a process I call “encryption.” Each of us has a set of encryption filters that include such things as language, age, race, religion, gender, position in life, income, reality, nationality, perception, prejudices and on and on. 

Two quick examples of encryption filters: Most people “talk down” to children and try to “talk up” to our elders — that’s an “age filter.” Similarly, most of us talk differently to a “bum” (reality or perception filter) than we do to our “boss” (position filter). 

This filtering process affects our message and may ultimately effectively limit our ability to communicate well.

What is interesting about the basic communication model is that the reverse of the filtering process occurs on the receiver’s side. As a message is passed from the sender, with the sender’s thought having been filtered, the receiver filters the message through the receiver’s filters — I call this “decryption.”

A receiver’s decryption filters may be the same or different (most often) from the sender’s filters.

So, in the model of sender to receiver we have a sender’s thought encrypted, a message passed and decrypted by the receiver, resulting in the receiver having a thought. 

Here’s the bottom line: Good communication only occurs when the receiver’s thought is exactly the same as the sender’s thought; if that does not occur, then only a message has been passed.  Great leaders have the ability to communicate and do not spend a lot of time just passing messages.

During the battle of Antietam, sender (Robert E. Lee) passed the following message to receiver (John Bell Hood): “Move up alongside hill.”  Faced with a line of battle to his front that included Generals A.P. Hill and D.H. Hill, as well as a topographical feature that we often refer to as a “hill,” Hood was faced with properly decrypting Lee’s thought.  From Lee’s perspective, Hood got it wrong and heavy Confederate causalities occurred in the now infamous “Miller’s cornfield” as Hood moved up beside the “hill.”

Lee was a great leader and Hood likewise. Yet, poor communications nearly lost a major battle in the early morning hours of Sept. 17, 1862.  Lee, I’m sure thought he had communicated his intentions; but he merely passed a message.


Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees. He is married to County Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham.

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