Leadership Lessons from the United States Naval Academy – The Five Basic Responses

As a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy, I learned several powerful leadership tools that convey confidence, competence, and responsiveness; ultimately enhancing my and the organization’s effectiveness at getting things done. One of these tools is the midshipman’s Five Basic Responses:

  1. Yes/No, Sir/Ma’am
  2. I’ll find out, Sir/Ma’am
  3. No excuse, Sir/Ma’am
  4. Aye, aye, Sir/Ma’am
  5. The right answer

Powerful words that while not often used verbatim in the business world, convey a strong desire to maximize ones value to the organization. Examining each more closely reveals how this is accomplished.

  1. Yes/No, Sir/Ma’am: Direct, to the point. Places the answer the questioner seeks at the forefront, immediately satisfying the information need and allowing for additional information to be offered as desired. Like the right answer, assuming the yes or no is correct, the response reflects favorably on the individual. Appropriate response to closed questions.
  2. I’ll find out, Sir/Ma’am: A sign of both responsiveness and initiative. No individual knows everything or is expected to. Individuals who admit when they have a knowledge gap and a willingness to close that gap and report back in a timely manner are greatly respected. Only when an individual does not know information expected of his or her position, or when he or she does not follow through with acquiring and reporting on the unknown information, is the individual thought poorly of. Appropriate response to open questions the answer to which is not known.
  3. No excuse, Sir/Ma’am: Assumption of responsibility for ones actions or inaction that leads to undesired consequences. This response should not be overused particularly in instances where a senior is trying to ascertain the causes of adverse outcomes.
  4. Aye, aye, Sir/Ma’am: Direct, to the point, and responsive so long as the individual follows-up on the request. Appropriate response to action requests.
  5. The right answer: When clear, concise, and to the point, the right answer presented confidently reflects favorably on the individual. Appropriate response to open ended questions.

The principles behind the Five Basic Response should not be dismissed because of the military-style language. Seniors, peers, and subordinates all appreciate direct, concise answers provided confidently and respect those who assume responsibility for their actions. Consider the following business-professional language for the Five Basic Responses:

  1. Yes/No [plus a clear, concise explanation].
  2. I don’t know [paraphrase the question] but I will research the answer and get back to you by [fill in the time and/or date].
  3. I’m responsible for [paraphrase the adverse consequence]. Can we discuss how to resolve the situation and what I might do in the future to avoid [adverse consequence] from occurring again?
  4. I’ll [paraphrase the action to be taken] and report back to you by [time and/or date the action will be completed].
  5. [Clear and concise statement of the right answer.]

I find employing the principles of the Five Basic Responses in my professional life has helped me to earn respect as a leader; in turn enabling me to more effectively work with others to achieve value-adding objectives. I attribute this to the sense of confidence, competence, and responsiveness this approach helps me to exhibit as well as the garnering respect because of an appropriate assumption of responsibility.

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