Would Your Captain Be Proud?

My favourite scene from Captain America: The Winter Soldier is known as “Captain’s Orders.” I’m not going into all the details here, because I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t seen it. In this scene, Captain America tells a group of people a difficult truth that goes against what they believe. He then asks them to take courageous action based on that truth. And they do it. Why? Because the Cap asked them to.

If I had seen this in any other movie with any other character, I would have rolled my eyes. In today’s environment, where we have lost faith in so many of our leaders, who would act based on one person’s word? But it works. Because this is Captain America as played by the talented Chris Evans. And his character has unquestionable integrity.

Would you follow this man? I know I would. Chris Evans in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Would you follow this man? I know I would.

Anyone who’s worked in the corporate world knows how difficult it is to maintain your integrity, especially when you are in a leadership position. My worst experience as a manager was a time when I disagreed with upper management’s direction but needed to inspire my staff to follow it. I had to separate out the corporate message from my message, and speak to what I believed—because I needed to hold on to my integrity. At the end of the day, I’m the one who has to look at myself in the mirror.

Since that time, I’ve been careful to avoid putting myself in that situation. I try to live one of my favourite sayings from Gandhi: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” This is the best statement on integrity I have ever seen. But it’s difficult to follow. So it’s good that I have many captains to look to for inspiration. Captain America may be the best of the bunch, but he’s not the only captain out there with integrity. What about Captain Picard of Star Trek: TNG or David Weber’s Honor Harrington? Speculative fiction abounds with captains who lead with integrity. And we can learn a lot about leadership and communication from them. Here are three things that I have learned:

Let them see who you are

The more genuine you are in your communications, the more your team will relate to you. Everything you say should come from your heart. This can make you feel vulnerable, but it will support you through difficult times. Don’t try to pretty things up or try on a different personality. People can sense when you are being yourself, and will respect you for it. As Captain Picard tells us, “If we’re going to be damned, let’s be damned for who we really are.”

Communicate with a clear intent

Do you have a purpose for communicating that you believe in? Your agenda in speaking should be clear to you and your team. I’ve written in the past about Captain America’s direct communication style. This goes beyond style and into substance. Having an influential speaking style is not going to get you anywhere if people do not see your belief.  Get out from under the corporate speak and say what you mean.

Tell the truth, but don’t feel like you have to tell everything

There are some things you just have to keep to yourself. If communicating something will make things worse for people, don’t say it. Talk about what will help, not what will hurt. If Honor Harrington always told her crew the truth about upcoming spaceship battles (“We are almost certainly going to die”), they would never triumph against the odds. Holding a harmful truth close to your chest is not a lie—it is an expression of your values.

The most important lessons in life are basic truths that you can post on your office wall. Walk the talk. Think, speak, and act in harmony. Value your people. And make your captain proud.

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Thank you to Andrew Knighton, whose post on self-publishing and integrity inspired me to write this.

How do you maintain your integrity at home or at work? Are there captains in your life or in fiction that inspire you?

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How to Make First Contact

Calling up a stranger on the phone can be intimidating. It’s like you’re on the bridge of a spaceship making first contact with an alien species. If the conversation goes wrong, you may end up causing an interplanetary incident. Or at least get yelled at.

I used to work in a call centre as part of a customer relations team. Our job was to call customers who had complained about our company’s products and resolve the situation. When I first took on that job, I had doubts about my survival. How could I possibly talk to upset people every day? It turned out to be the best learning experience I have ever had. I now feel confident that I could ring up the Grand Poobah of Alpha Centauri and not break into a sweat. Why? Because I’ve learned how to master first contact.

The first thirty seconds of a phone conversation are critical. Here are five things I’ve learned about how to create a good first impression:

1. Watch what you eat before you call.

Never make an important call right after you have eaten a large lunch. Your body is too busy digesting to have any energy for brain work. And stay away from certain types of foods. Dairy foods, for example, can thicken up your throat and make it harder for you to speak clearly. Drink some water before you pick up the phone. And whatever you do, stay away from that spicy alien food!

The incomparable Alan Rickman as Dr. Lazarus in Galaxy Quest

The incomparable Alan Rickman as Dr. Lazarus in Galaxy Quest

 2. Prepare your first sentence ahead of time.

Think about your purpose for calling. After you get through the initial greeting, what is the first thing you are going to say? How will you start the conversation? Everyone is busy, so you need to cover off your key message in the first sentence. You could be selling services, responding to an inquiry, or asking nicely for those energy weapons to be pointed away from your ship. Whatever your purpose, plan it out so you don’t stumble on it during the call.

3. Smile.

A strange but true fact: when you smile while talking over the phone, the tone of your voice automatically changes. Even if you are feeling grumpy, force yourself to smile as you talk. You will sound friendly and approachable. Try it. Right now. See? It works! And because you’re on the phone, it doesn’t matter how fake it looks. (Although those aliens probably wouldn’t be able to tell anyway.)

Those Thermians from Galaxy Quest haven't quite mastered the human smile yet...but they're working on it!

The friendly Thermians from Galaxy Quest haven’t quite mastered the human smile…but they’re working on it!

 4. Start with a greeting.

It’s amazing how often people forget to say a simple “Hello” before launching into a speech. “Hello” is an amazing word. It means “I acknowledge that we are about to have a conversation, and I’m happy to have the chance to speak with you as a fellow traveler through the universe.” Don’t skip this! A greeting ritual is valued by all beings as a sign of respect. (And saying “Hello” is much easier than trying to bend your hand into a Vulcan “live long and prosper” gesture.)

5. Get the name right.

No one wants to listen to their name get mangled. It doesn’t matter that there are no apparent vowel sounds in WxrtHltl-jwlpklz. That is no excuse. Look up the name, and if you can’t find it on the internet, take your best guess and go with it. Then ask, “Have I pronounced your name correctly?” before you speak any further.

Now that I’ve covered off the secrets to a successful first contact, it’s time to go eat lunch. Mr./Ms. Reader, it’s been wonderful speaking with you. Thank you for your time. May you have a fabulous day!