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Do You Need Ice Cream?

It was 3 years after the end of open hostilities of the first Gulf War. The atmosphere was somewhat more relaxed but there was still tension. I was the maintenance officer for a deployed rescue squadron. Coalition aircraft were flying combat missions to enforce the no-fly zone over Iraq and we were on constant alert should a coalition aircraft be lost. We were the closest U.S. military combat unit to the Iraq border and were somewhat isolated. The only connection with the outside world was a C-130 cargo aircraft that arrived 2 or 3 times a week.

At that time in the Middle East, the love of the American military had not yet waned and so we had free reign of the local city, a privilege later units would not have. Small groups were able to go into the nearby city, usually for pizza and ice cream. It’s the ice cream that was important. Most military installations in the region had a soft serve ice cream machine in their chow hall. In the hot desert it was a bit of relief and a minor luxury. We had a machine in our chow hall as well, but it didn’t work because we didn’t have the supplies to fill it.

We were located further north than any other Air Force unit so we often found ourselves hosting senior officers who had been in theater but wanted to be able to say they had been where we were. So, before the end of their tour, they would find some thin excuse to “inspect” our location. On one occasion, one of those senior officers was in our chow hall and saw the ice cream machine. Before anyone could talk him out of it, he was up and headed to the machine. He pushed the handle and nothing happened because we just didn’t have the ingredients to put in it.

“I’ll have some sent up as soon as I get back.”
“No really, that’s not necessary. We’re doing fine and the guys don’t seem to mind.”
“Nonsense, it’s the least I can do for you.”

We could have told him that we had access to plenty of ice cream but that would make it seem like our situation was much better than our visitors thought it was. Also, we had much more freedom to roam than those in other locations. We were afraid if that became known, some jealous person down south might put an end to our freedom. So, we let the senior officer think we were just out of ice cream. After all, he would forget about us as soon as he departed.

We were wrong. He didn’t forget and two days later, the supply aircraft arrived without some critical aircraft parts we needed to maintain our rescue alert. Why? That particular space was taken up by boxes of ice cream ingredients. So we had ice cream for a while, but after a couple of weeks, the machine was unplugged and pushed back in the corner.

It’s easy for leaders to get an idea of what their team might need, want, or appreciate and act on those ideas without consulting with the team. This is even more likely for leaders of large teams or multiple teams. It might seem like the team would benefit from ice cream, but in fact, they really need something else. That’s why open communication is critical to leader – team relations and team success. Although the team might appreciate the gesture, they will also wonder why the leader doesn’t understand their real needs.

This is a theme I find quite common among leaders in my workshops. Senior leadership doesn’t make the effort to really understand what the team needs. On the other hand, team leaders sometimes don’t do a good job of making sure more senior leaders are aware of what they really need. Communication works best when it flows both ways.

Take a look at some of the course offerings from The Daedalus Group.

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