Liaison has many connotations: go-between, intermediary, mediator, connector, communicator, coordinator, facilitator, enabler, representative, buffer, reconciler, pacifier, advocate, trouble-shooter – to name but a few. Personified, someone who undertakes liaison, irrespective of their field, fosters mutually beneficial partnerships.
It would be reasonable to presume broad understanding of the role of the military liaison officer. For my part, it is to identify and pursue opportunities for mutual learning and support between military organisations. It would be equally fair to assume few comprehend how they perform their role. This knowledge gap can prove disquieting – particularly for those so appointed. To many, the practice of military liaison remains an enigma. While blogs and written anecdotes assist awareness, there is scant doctrinal guidance and limited direct experience explaining the subject.
Based on personal experience, this piece seeks to enhance understanding of the practice of a military liaison officer – not an exchange officer, nor a diplomatic representative, such as an Attaché, both of which are quite different. Accepting that military liaison, like broader liaison, comes in many and varied forms and contexts - from short exercises to domestic response to operational deployments to embeds in partner headquarters - it will offer generic, yet practical, principles, rather than a prescriptive, ‘paint by numbers,’ check list.
Firstly, knowledge is power. A liaison officer’s ability to identify and pursue opportunities for mutual learning and support is proportionate to their knowledge of their own military as well as that of their host. (Many liaison officers observe they have never understood their own military as much as when they were in their liaison role.) This knowledge spans objectives to orders, culture to concepts, mission to methodology and program to platform. Building and sustaining knowledge compels inquisitiveness, analysis, research, continual engagement and a willingness to share.
Secondly, focus and simplicity. Borrowing Steve Job’s mantra, a military liaison officer should identify opportunities, or areas, yielding the best partnership return on investment. Once identified, the ‘method’ of pursuit can be devised. ‘A method’ could seek to enhance key people/leader links, encourage benchmarking and, in select areas, undertake combined activities promoting mutual learning, support and interoperability. More often than not, less is more. That is, focus on a few things, intensely and without succumbing to distraction. To cite another maxim, to be everywhere is to be nowhere.
Thirdly, communicative competence. Accomplished communication nourishes the relationships underpinning effective liaison. Meetings, phone calls and visits are important to competent communication, as is presence and presentation. However, for the most part, communicative competence involves labouring over letters, written briefs and reports, ensuring they succinctly communicate (and potentially translate – even when employing the same ‘mother tongue’) the right message, at the right time, to the right audience.
Fourth, patience is a virtue. Enabling perennial and productive partnerships, in all their forms, takes time, patience and deft facilitation. Tactical patience allows the military liaison officer to separate the riveting from the relevant. It accords them the insight and foresight to know if, when and how to interrupt precious host/home-station ‘bandwidth.’ A deft liaison officer knows when it is better to be silent than waste important people’s time with something no better than silence.
Fifth, be self-reliant. Both your home and host will expect you to be self-sufficient. This principle extends beyond personal administration, communication means and funding arrangements. It is assumed that you are a persuasive self-starter who will be comfortable with and readily adapt to the sense of isolation, seemingly slow progress and vague intent/guidance often associated with liaison officer appointments. It is expected that you will find a way to identify and pursue opportunities to promote the partnership – and quite often, on your own. This is not easy – and contrary to popular belief, involves less ‘limelight’ and more ‘midnight oil.’
Finally, as in business, and indeed life, relationships are the key to success. A military liaison officer is the caretaker of the relationship. They provide a modest, yet meaningful, contribution to the social capital underpinning the partnership. It is beyond the remit of this blog to describe techniques for relating and connecting - notwithstanding the above mentioned principles. However, it is worth mentioning several truisms concerning relationships. Firstly, they take time, continuous effort and communication. Secondly, relationships are enhanced by demonstrable commitment. Finally, relationships founded on common goals always produce the most productive partnerships.
The definition of military liaison is well known. For many, through lack of direct experience, its practice can be perplexing. Select doctrine directs the preparation and actions of liaison officers within a tactical context. Written anecdotes enhance understanding through second-hand knowledge. Founded on contemporary experience, this piece has presented practical principles for the current or potential liaison officer to consider.