“I’m Maverick.” Says Maverick on his initial gambit with the gorgeous Charlie.
“Did your mother not like you?” Says Charlie back to Maverick.
“No, it’s my call sign.” Replies Maverick.
The movie Top Gun forever put the names of Maverick, Goose and Iceman into our lexicon and gave the common person a feel for what a call sign is. Both the Air Force and Navy use call signs in their pilot communities and the practice is common amongst other elite military units. Sports teams use nicknames. It is rumored that President George W. Bush often used nicknames when addressing his team. Apparently to have the president assign someone a nickname meant you were accepted onto the team.
In my day, the Air Force had a ritual behind the “call sign naming ceremony.” The general rules behind call sign selection were:
- One is generally assigned a call sign based on as result of some ill-timed action, physical appearance or mannerism, or general buffoonery
- The call sign must be a name you can tell your mother.
- A really good call sign serves as an icebreaker to help you meet potential dates at the bar.
I have seen this work in the business sector as well as the military environment.
Before you reject the idea as simply juvenile “boys will be boys” egotism, consider this. Within your family did you have nicknames? Did you like it when your parents, siblings and teammates had a good nickname for you? I’m guessing the answer is, “Yes.” Well this can work in almost any civilian organizations.
Here are some of the potential team building benefits to consider:
- Giving some one a nickname creates a sense of belonging. It makes one feel a part of the team. Its like an inside joke you can share with members of your team.
- In a hierarchical organization, it can help break down barriers to communication.
- If the boss will allow herself/himself to be called something other than Ms. X, it may be easier to approach them…boss, skipper, el hefe…it works.
- If you have ever been a part of a large organization, it is very easy to lose your personal identity and simply feel like another number sitting in a cubicle. The smart boss knows that remembering a person’s name makes them feel good about their group, division or company. Calling people by their names increases their sense of self worth. But leaders of large organizations may simply not be able to remember all the names. We have all heard someone say, ”I’m good with faces but I don’t remember names.” A catchy nickname can be easier to remember. On one of my first days on a job as a leader of a group of about 350 airmen, one of my youngest airmen injured himself skate boarding. I visited him right after he got the cast on his broken arm. Years later through the magic of Facebook, he “friended” me. His first comment was, “Sir do you remember me? I said of course I remember you and I gave you the call sign “Crash”. I could tell it really made a difference to him that I remembered him. And that was easy because I gave him the name.
- In multi-culture environments pronunciation of names can be hard. For example in Thai society last names can be lengthy and even first names can be difficult…. almost every Thai person goes by a nickname. Other ethnic sounding names can be butchered so badly as to cause hard feelings. Try a nickname rather than screwing up that name.
As a civilian consultant, I worked on a proposal team, bidding on a large contract. I was embedded in a company I had no experience with, and several of my teammates were hired from outside the company for a particular skill set for this proposal. As the deadline for the bid came due, tensions grew higher, and it appeared that there was a rift developing between the outsiders and those members of the corporation. After a few days I came up with nicknames for all my teammates. With the approval of the corporate capture manager/team leader I had ball caps made for all the team members with their nicknames embroidered next to the company logo. This allowed our little group to form a cohesive team in a high-pressure time sensitive project. As other members of the corporation joined up to be part of the pink and red team for proposal evaluations, they commented on the cohesion of our group of diverse backgrounds. We had become a true team or perhaps should I say we were good wingmen to each other.
If this worked to help Maverick, Goose, Iceman, Hollywood and Slider feel a part of a team, it may work for your small group.
One note of warning…while a very self confident fighter pilot may be able to handle a slightly derogatory name given for a particular mistake, don’t allow nicknames that attack a person’s character. Keep it positive, and politically correct.
Well Goose, its time to buzz the tower.
Coming next, “Gutsiest move I’ve ever seen Mav.” The art of the candid fighter debrief in improving team performance.