Have you ever needed to win someone over – but you didn’t speak the same language?
What’s something that the Soviet Army and the Taliban have in common? They both fought against Wali Koka in the Musa Q’alah District of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. Commander Koka (as the Marines knew him) was the district police chief during our deployment there from August of 2011 to March of 2012. He was also a significant presence because he was a tribal leader who exceled at playing the intricate Afghan political games at the local, provincial, and sometimes even national level. When we met he had already survived five Taliban assassination attempts. To say he was an important stakeholder for our battalion as we fought to bring security to Musa Q’alah is like saying Michael Jordan was important to the Bulls – it’s an understatement for sure.
I was reminded of Commander Koka the other day as I was reading a couple of recent leadership studies. The first study found that managing stakeholders is one of the six most common challenges for leaders around the world. Another study focused on communication, and it reminded me how much of it is nonverbal. Together, body language, facial expressions, and even just listening well contribute far more to sending a message than the words you speak.
Ours was the fourth Marine infantry battalion in a row that Commander Koka had worked with (he’d also partnered with the Brits before that). Even though he knew our partnership was critical for his success, he remained reserved early in our deployment as he evaluated us. Leading our liaison effort with him was a Marine by the name of Gerald Noe. Gerald was a First Lieutenant when we arrived and Commander Koka wasn’t sure how to interpret this, because he was used to having a Marine Captain (or even Major) as his immediate partner. I kept track of this relationship with a wary eye, a strong partnership with the district police chief was critical if we were going to accomplish our mission.
Gerald quickly won him over, he was the right Marine for the job. Within weeks of our arrival, Commander Koka came to me and asked if we could get Gerald promoted to Captain. Luckily, we had already requested authority to do just that, because we knew that a person’s rank carried a lot of meaning in Afghan society.
As I met with our command team to talk about our relationship with the police chief, someone came up with the idea to involve Commander Koka in Gerald’s promotion ceremony. Marine Corps tradition places a great deal of emphasis on making sure that events like a promotion become a celebration. Even (and maybe especially) in a combat zone, Marines make time to do it right, even if it’s simple due to the circumstances. Having Commander Koka participate in the ceremony was a fantastic idea, that small act sent a far stronger message than anything we could say to him (particularly through an interpreter).
We went on from there to enjoy a great working relationship with Commander Koka and the police he led for the rest of our deployment. I’ve thought about him frequently in the years ever since. He was a critically important stakeholder for us although we didn’t speak a common language, and we were under time pressure to make the relationship work. How he became a true partner with us taught me many lessons. When I reflect on those lessons through the lens of the studies I recently read (about the importance of stakeholders and nonverbal communication), here are some things that I think are useful for other leaders to consider:
1. Commander Koka knew I was listening to him because we acted on his request to promote Gerald to Captain. He expressed his thanks about it more than once. This was a powerful way to teach me that the act of listening is a strong form of communication.
2. Your relationship with important stakeholders is important business for your leadership team. Our brainstorming about how to rapidly build trust in our relationship with Commander Koka paid off.
3. You can change the story being told by using your actions to trigger a new story. Including Commander Koka in the promotion ceremony changed the story from, “We’re evaluating the new Marine battalion” to, “These Marines are our partners.” Sometimes it helps to remember that actions really do speak louder than words.