Going off message: a modest proposal

What if process was the most important part of communication?

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III addresses the Air Force Association's Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition, Sept. 15, 2015, in Washington, D.C. ( U.S. Air Force photo by Scott M. Ash )

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III addresses the Air Force Association's Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition, Sept. 15, 2015, in Washington, D.C. (U.S. Air Force photo by Scott M. Ash)


GENERAL MALAISE: Thank you. Albert Einstein famously said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Except he didn’t. No kidding. Just found that out yesterday. Probably came from a Narcotics Anonymous pamphlet in the ‘80s.

I bring this up because I’ve been doing speeches like these a lot since some day years ago when people suddenly decided they needed to stroke my ego. And lately I’m starting to think I’m displaying whoever-it-was’s definition of insanity.

I mean, why do I think I can bring you some kind of memorable message?


GENERAL MALAISE: I mean, take Churchill, right? Damn gold standard for oratory. Only a lot of his speeches weren’t as well received or widely heard as we think. A lot of this message stuff depends on what you remember—which is very little and mostly the non-verbals—and what happens with that in the context of a day, a week, or ten years from now. Which I’m frankly too dumb to predict.


GENERAL MALAISE: But we retain everything now, right? Thanks to these supercomputers in our pockets. They’re live streaming me right now to an audience of … apparently tens of people. Who are treating this as background noise. At least five of them are on my staff. But, hey, with half of you out there typing away at least I know I’m getting through on social media.

[SCROLLS] Let’s see… @NattySecBo just said “Malaise starts @INANES remarks with quote from Einstein.” Which I guess is technically correct but kind of missed my point.

[SCROLLS] @GrandmaNukesEm said “Could do without the swearing.” [NERVOUS LAUGHTER] Darn right, ma’am. [LAUGHTER]

But, look, even if no one’s really going to absorb a lot of what I say here in person or on the Interwebs, what am I supposed to do? I’m here. You’re here. My SAMS grad was up all night revising this. But still, this Einstein thing has me thinking.

What if I just spent the next hour listening? Most of you are here because you have some thoughts about the things I’m thinking about. So what’s on your mind?


GENERAL MALAISE: Yes, please, ma’am. Go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED INANES INTERN: (inaudible) … the title of your speech.

GENERAL MALAISE: Yes. “The multi-domain revolution in the blackish-gray zone of competition.” What about it?


GENERAL MALAISE: You mean you don’t know either? Wow, that’s a relief. I have no idea. [GASP] Well, I have some idea, but it’s really simple and kind of scary, so we kind of dress it up so it seems like we have a big idea when we actually have a collection of problems and unanswered questions. Basically, we’re getting our as…um, butts…handed to us by some bad guys on a fairly regular basis. They don’t want to fight us head-on, but they do want to mess with us as much as they can, and we need to figure out a way to get our arms around everything we can do to protect ourselves better or mess with them. And get decisions on that and do it faster. Preferably without breaking laws or bankrupting the country. Make more sense now?


GENERAL MALAISE: Great. Thanks. I have a better way to explain it now. Sir, please go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED EXPERT: Well, since you’ve opened this door, General, I’m going to walk through it. I don’t work for the people you hire to do studies, and no one picked me for the study you did on this topic last year, but I think there are some real holes in your plan to…


GENERAL MALAISE: …so I’d like to get you connected with this exercise we have coming up, because I will tell you my guys absolutely aren’t thinking about that the way you are, and they need someone like you to kind of talk them through it. If you’re willing, we can make that happen.

Okay, we’ll, I’m way past time. Listening takes a lot more time than talking. But this was incredibly valuable. Don’t get me wrong, some of you have some pretty stupid ideas. [LAUGHTER] And there’s a lot of ideas you floated that I’m just not going to be able to touch, because I’m not living in the kind of world where I can make those things happen right now. But there was stuff said here that clarified and corrected things in my mind. I think that happened for you, too.

Just to kind of bring it back to the start: thanks for helping me do something different and get a better result. I’ve had that poor SAMS guy and my PAO sweating over strategic messages that will somehow make you like me and agree with me, and what I really needed was to have them figure out how to get me into real conversations with people. Build relationships. And now that I started down that path with a few of you…because, let’s face it, a lot of you I am definitely going to avoid [LAUGHTER]…how we keep that going while still giving me time to do what you’re paying me to do.

Real communication isn’t measured in messages. It’s measured in understanding and trust. That’s built by how I spend my time. How well I meet your expectations. Whether I can meet you part-way on a contentious topic, or at least tell you why I can’t. What I don’t need to do is search for magic words and force myself to stay on message. That’s politics, not strategy. Thanks for helping me understand that. [APPLAUSE]

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: General, one more question.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Can you give me a quote? Otherwise my editor is going to be pissed.

Editor’s note: Jonathan Swift’s 1729 pamphlet “A Modest Proposal” was a satire intended to challenge contemporary British economic and social philosophies with a mock argument for alleviating the plight of Ireland’s poor by feeding their children to rich landlords. Although W@W tries to avoid provocation for its own sake, we’ll occasionally offer our own modest proposals to suggest the sometimes narrow limits of what defense and communication professionals consider right or possible.