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Effective Leadership Communication Lessons from the Movie “Red Dawn.”

RED DAWN: in the 1984 movie, Soviet and Cuban forces invade the United States and a group of high school students led by Jed Eckert, form a guerrilla force called the “Wolverines.” They achieved some early success, but would soon have some professional help.

After being shot down by a Soviet MiG, Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Andrew Tanner joined the team and provided some military expertise. He developed a simple plan to rescue the political prisoners, many of whom were parents of the students/guerrillas. After putting time and energy into the plan, he was ready to brief the team:

“Machine bunkers here, here, here, and here (points to bunkers)… down by the drive in are the political prisoners. Alright, we’ll cause a diversion over here, cut holes in the wire here, fire on all these machine gun positions. The B group comes across this area in a flanking maneuver, and when you reach this bunker, you lay down grazing fire in this defilade.”

Simple, right? Now for me, a former Army officer, yeah, it is a pretty simple plan. But these were high school kids. Suddenly the questions pour in.

“What’s a flank?”

“Yeah, what’s grazing fire?”


Tanner responds with, “I need a drink.” But this humorous scene illustrates a very important point. You need to know your audience. LTC Tanner, a professional military officer, was used to hanging around fellow military personnel. He was used to working with people who have a similar baseline of knowledge. Even his wife, because of her involvement in his professional life probably had some baseline of military knowledge.

Because he was a professional military officer, he most likely not only worked with, but also socialized with, primarily fellow military personnel. He probably had few, if any, social contacts who had no familiarity with basic military terminology.

This is a trap we all run into. We sometimes take for granted that knowledge we have acquired is the same base of knowledge others have, when that is not always the case. We have to make sure we are communicating with people, we have to ensure the audience understands what we are saying.

These kids were quick to admit they had no idea what LTC Tanner was talking about. However, in my experience, adults don’t always want to admit they do not know something, especially in a group setting; they don’t want people to think they are stupid (but don’t realize that most of the audience may not even understand, as well).

So what ends up happening is that as leaders, we fall into the trap of thinking that everybody understands the plan, when in reality, they do not. We only discover the disconnect when something goes wrong. Sometimes it is not only what we say, but how we say it. One great example of this was during day one of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Robert E. Lee had a gentile way of giving guidance. For most of the war, he had Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson as his right hand man, who was able to understand how Lee communicated, and that when he was making suggestions, he was really giving commands.

Jackson translated Lee’s gentile, often unclear guidance into clear commands for his subordinates, particularly Jackson’s right hand man, General Ewell. So when Jackson is killed, Ewell takes on Jackson’s old role and now reports directly to Lee. During the first day of battle, Lee goes over to Ewell and tells him to “take that hill if Practicable,” a fancy way of saying practical. Ewell thinks he has a choice and decides it is not practical as he just fought a heavy battle; he thought it would be better to do so in the morning. Lee was furious. What he wanted was Ewell to take the hill at all cost; Jackson was used to Lee’s style and would have recognized that. Ewell, who was used to clear guidance from Jackson, did not. Ewell did try to attack in the morning, but by that time, the Union had reinforced the position, and Ewell’s attack failed.

Lee should have told Ewell exactly what he wanted. Now, if Lee wanted Ewell to assess the situation and make the call, then he has to let Ewell make that call and live with whatever the call is. But Lee really had a clear, desired outcome; he just did not communicate that effectively, and cost him a clear opportunity that may have been decisive in the Battle of Gettysburg.

This happens with parenting, as well. I tell my at the time 3 year old son I need 10 minutes, and he comes back 30 seconds later, because he does not even understand the concept of time. So to get what I needed — 10 more minutes to finish cooking, I got out the egg timer and said, “when this rings, I am ready to play.”

“Ok, dad.” And he stared at that egg until the timer went off. I was done cooking and ready to play.

We need to recognize that we need to communicate differently to different people in our lives depending on their backgrounds, baseline of knowledge, and perceptions.

Going back to Red Dawn, LTC Tanner asked for questions, and the kids responded by questioning just about every term he used in the briefing. Although not shown in the movie, we can conclude he adjusted his presentation, because the next scene showed a successful attack. Know your people, how they tick, and you can win every time.



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