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Commentary: Building Coalitions

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill -- In Hawaiian the word “ohana” means “family.”  While that’s the literal translation, “ohana” also connotes a “way of life.”  I was born and raised in Hawaii along with two brothers and six sisters, and as you might expect, we had our fair share of fighting and bickering.  Our ages varied greatly and as a result, there were wide differences in the stages of life we were in, our behavior, and our attitudes.  We quickly learned, however, that things always went better for us if we worked together toward a common goal.  If we were divided we had a slim chance to achieve a successful solution for any of us.  Fast forward to a brand new second lieutenant stationed in Oklahoma thousands of miles away from my biological ohana, and thrust into my new Air Force family.  I learned quickly the art of Building Coalitions was the most successful way to ensure mission success for the majority of the stakeholders involved.  There isn’t a single equation for what “right” looks like, but my three focus areas for building any coalition are communication, expectation management, and going more than halfway.                      

It is an art to build coalitions and arrive at solutions that benefit all or most people involved, despite divergent goals.  The ability to communicate a goal can be challenging, especially if the person on the receiving end doesn’t understand the mission or challenges that are faced to achieve that goal.  As a civil engineer, we are required to help customers define the scope of their requirement.  Sometimes someone will come in and say they want a new building, but the best solution may be to repurpose and maximize the current space they have.  We work closely with them to determine their needs and communicate the best option for them to achieve their goal.  Part of communication is to understand the other point of view.  It’s important we have intellectual curiosity to truly understand what the other person is trying to tell you.

A second facet to build and keep coalitions is through expectation management.  People seem to respond to a situation better if you prepare them for potential outcomes to a situation, especially if it is an outcome they don’t want to hear.  People should all understand resource constraints, but they may not understand how those limitations apply to the situation at hand.  As a builder of a team it is our responsibility to help educate other teammates of what is in the realm of possible.  Engineers like to find solutions to challenges, even in the solution is something different than the original vision.    

Finally, the old saying of “meeting in the middle” doesn’t always build successful coalitions.  Each situation and team is different.  Sometimes the situation calls for us to go more than 50 percent of the way.  You may have to do more than your fair share of the project to ensure the team stays on track.  You may need to step in the gap to ensure mission success.  There may be a personality conflict in a team, and you might need to work harder to ensure effective communication takes place, and that everyone understands the finer points of the situation at hand.  Secretary of Defense James Mattis said “In this age, I don’t care how tactically or operationally brilliant you are, if you cannot create harmony-even vicious harmony-on the battlefield based on trust across service lines, across coalition and national lines, and across civilian/military lines, you need to go home, because your leadership is obsolete.  We have got to have officers who can create harmony across all those lines.”

No single unit or AFSC can accomplish the mission on its own.  We tend to work in silos, even within our own organizations.  Like I say to my engineers, we’re ohana.  Like family, we do not get to choose who we work with.  Like family, we need to stick together through the thick and thin.  We need to build coalitions inside and outside of our immediate family to maximize efficiencies and accomplish the mission.  We must ensure we are communicating, managing expectations, and go the extra mile to build those coalitions that make the Air Force the best in the world.

showcase airman

Capt. Timothy Vojak
375th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron
Flight Nurse Examiner

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