Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Seven things the Navy taught me about leadership

By SDF Capt. Andrew Creed
Public Affairs Officer, Georgia State Defense Force
February 27, 2012

As a former Naval Officer who was Army trained at the Citadel, I understand the unique aspects of  life at sea and how the experience relates back to life both in the field and at home in the daily civilian world. As a current captain in the Georgia State Defense Force and leader in the corporate world, I know some of the Navy’s lessons are still applicable in how other organizations – military and civilian – do business.

Today, we hear a lot about “management” and not enough about leadership. That worries me. One thing of which I am certain, there is a great difference between managers and leaders. Good managers are plentiful — in fact, our nation graduates over 150,000 MBAs every year. But true leaders are rare. And believe me, there is a difference.

      Leaders inspire people; managers, well, they “manage” people and assets.
      Leaders think about protecting, developing and promoting their people; managers think about protecting their own careers.
      Leaders take charge and accept responsibility; managers often pass the buck to higher authority for fear of making a wrong decision.
      Leaders take risks when necessary and justified by the situation; managers are taught to avoid risks whenever possible.

Aboard ship, the Officer of the Deck (OOD) plays a role that is somewhat unique in the military.  The OOD has a higher range and degree of responsibility to ensure the safe and proper operation of a vessel at sea.  As the captain’s direct representative, the OOD acts with all authority of command.   Preparation to become an OOD requires over two years of learning both in the classroom and underway in various capacities. 

Voluminous tasks are performed and signed off on in areas ranging from engineering, to damage control, to tactics, to navigation, and on and on.  As an OOD, you have wide-ranging responsibilities and make corresponding decisions that involve the welfare and lives of all on board while you are watch. Watches run roughly four hours on, eight hours off, throughout the day and night.  All in addition to your day job. 

Sailors have issues and foibles same as Soldiers and Airmen.  Equipment breaks, missions change, circumstances change, personnel changes, you must adjust, adapt and keep moving forward.

Imagine you haven’t slept more than two or three hours at a time in weeks. You’ve been at sea for seven weeks now without a break and away from home for four months.  You just passed through the wardroom (officer chow hall) for coffee cup number seven of the day (just to keep you moving). It is just another watch, business as usual, just another day among many days at sea before returning home. 

How do you keep it all in balance and remain prepared for that moment when a decision means life or death for everyone aboard?  

That’s the challenge, and here is a guide that offers some answers.

The Navy Watch Officer’s Guide lists seven characteristics that keep you ready and able to meet all challenges, and answerable to all events:

Forehandedness:  This is a Boy Scout staple.  Be Prepared.  Plan ahead.  Take stock in what is going on around you, know what is coming up whether it directly involves you and your unit or not, and question how it may impact you.   Even if you are not impacted immediately, think through the “what if” scenarios as if you were and what would you do about it.  Don’t get caught napping or surprised. 

Vigilance:  This goes beyond what you can see or even sense. As a leader, one must encourage vigilance on the part of everyone on your team.  At sea or in the field your lives depend upon it.  On the home-front, you may not be getting shot at, but with people’s jobs and livelihood on the line, if things go south, you may wish you were.  At least then you can shoot back.  Survival depends on recognition of trends in the events occurring around you and your team.  Lead and train your team to a state of vision and awareness.
Judgment:  This is the ability to take in all the events, apply your knowledge, apply your experience, apply your intelligence, and make a decision.  The key factor here is an informed decision.  Make it and move forward.  There is a maxim in physics: starting  friction is greater than sliding  friction.  You cannot succumb to paralysis by analysis.  Get moving in the right direction and course correction is easier than starting from a dead stop.  Encourage initiative.  Employ command by negation and steer to adjust the course to go where you want to end up and you will succeed. 

Intuition and Experience: Once you master the basics of your job, employ your intelligence, apply what you know, and you can build on that experience to develop a sense of what’s really happening.  Once you KNOW what’s going on, move forward.  You’ll be light-years ahead of your peers taking count of what the statistics tell them to do.  I’ve got news for them.  Statistics can be factored to mean anything you wish them to show.  In the military world, you’ll save LIVES by making well thought-out, yet timely decisions.  In the business world you will save their livelihood.  Achieve success with your team intact. 

Leadership:  The Navy defines leadership as “the sum of those qualities of intellect, of human understanding, and of moral character to enable a person to inspire and to manage a group of people successfully.”  What the heck does that mean?  One word in that definition can lead you into troubled waters.  That word is management.  Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (inventor of COBOL language) said it well, “You don't manage people, you manage things. You lead people.”

Senator John McCain also made the difference clear in his address to the Navy’s Tailhook Association in September 2011:

My father—who was not an aviator but knew something about leadership—used to say that technical experts are a dime a dozen. You can always find a man who can tell you how many foot-pounds of force are in a piston, or what the aerodynamic effects on a plane will be at a certain airspeed and altitude. But, he said, “The business of leadership is another matter entirely. It’s one of the most difficult subjects there is—to inspire in people subordinate to you, the desire to do a better job.” That is where true leadership trumps management, in the art of inspiring others to perform far beyond their self-imposed limits.” 

The last line of the McCain quote embodies the definition of leadership as being the art of inspiring others to perform far beyond their self-imposed limits. That is something every leader should aspire to achieve.

Technical Knowledge:  It is imperative that you have the technical skills needed to do the tasks assigned and to guide others in doing theirs. Technical knowledge builds credibility and trust in your decisions for others to know the foundation for your decisions is a rock solid core of technical expertise.  However, note that while this is the emphasis of all the training and all the formal events you have to get sign-off for and get inspected on over time,  it is number six out of seven on the list of necessary characteristics.  What does this tell you, or should tell you? 

Wisdom comes from accumulated experience.  Maturity trumps technical superiority.  Trust and learn from your NCO’s.  You are not the most important or only cog in the wheel.  While you need to direct your people, you may not have the most critical knowledge. Be smart enough to recognize what is truly important.  Be the helmsman of your team.  Apply corrections to the course to assure your arrival at the desired point.

It is important to know and stay focused on the relative importance between a multitude of tasks and responsibilities.  Become an accomplished juggler and multi-tasker, but be self-aware enough to know your saturation point. Going beyond that point results in diminished returns.

The importance of communication should also be noted.  Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how much you know if you cannot impart that information to others.

Humility and the ability to recognize and acknowledge what it is you don’t know is as important skill as what you do know. Never give a wild guess.  Approximate with confidence, knowledge, and experience.    
Energy:  The Watch Officers Guide points out that maintaining one’s energy as a leader is critical, but what does that mean?  One approach to energy is attitude.  Maintain a positive, upbeat attitude to approach tasks.  Be involved and engaged with your teams.  Let them know you are interested in them.  Know your folks.  Know their capability, their capacity, what makes them tick. Know their hopes, their fears, their family, their desires, and help them realize their goals.  Show them that the process of learning and self-improvement is a never ending pursuit.  Enthusiasm is infectious.  Stay enthusiastic and the energy level will remain high.    

As a leader, you have been trained to make things happen, and it’s within your capacity and capability to do so.  It’s your choice from there. Your people and their families are counting on you, and this is true in both the military and civilian worlds.

It has always been the case that, when the country cries out for leadership, those in the military step forward.  Lesson one as a lowly knob freshman at the Citadel is SUCK IT UP!  

That’s Citadel parlance for you. You don’t have to like it, just get it done. It’s up to you as their leader to guide your subordinates, set their direction and make them successful. You know the way forward, and it’s up to you to guide them there.  

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