This blog post takes flight just before I set off for the distinguished United States Coast Guard Academy.
My initial challenge, as part of the Reserve Officer Candidate Indoctrination course at the Academy, was to sketch out my unique take on leadership. As I see it, the real heart of this task is to pin down the mindset of an officer candidate before they dive headfirst into the course. The expectation is to keep adjusting this document with the insights and experiences picked up during the course. Ultimately, the new officer is expected to let this document live and breathe, reshaping it over time in response to the ups, downs, wins, losses, and lessons learned while serving as an officer in the United States Coast Guard Reserve.
What you’ll read next is my very own leadership philosophy, as it exists before I’ve had the experience of attending ROCI.
The convergence of dates between the due date for the submission of my first assignment—a discourse on leadership—as an Officer Candidate for the United States Coast Guard and the solemn commemoration of Memorial Day on the 29th of May 2023, strikes a deeply reverberating chord within. I am profoundly aware and humbled by the synchronicity of these two meaningful occasions, one highlighting the grave responsibility that comes with leadership, the other a day of solemn respect and remembrance for the courageous men and women who have dedicated, and often given, their lives in service of our nation.
Memorial Day stands as a sobering testament to the weight and responsibility that leadership holds. It is not only a stark reminder for those wearing the uniform, but also for the countless individuals and families living under the shield of liberty and comfort that these stalwart professionals furnish. Memorial Day, perhaps more than any other, crystallizes the inextricable link between the significance of leadership and the far-reaching repercussions of its numerous manifestations. The profound implications of my actions in a leadership role, whether as a police officer, business owner, or as a father and husband, resonate deeply within. Now, as I stand on the precipice of assuming the mantle of an Officer in the United States Coast Guard, I am acutely aware that the ripple effect of my decisions may soon extend far wider and deeper than ever before.
PART 1, DEFINITION
COMDTINST 5351.3A defines leadership as “one who influences and inspires others toward a goal”. John Maxwell simplifies it even further by stating, “Leadership is influence, nothing more and nothing less.”. Retired Navy SEAL Jocko Willink adds that, “the only important measure of leadership is effective or ineffective”. Seth Godin uses a slightly different word, stating that leadership is one’s ability to inspire others to action, placing emphasis on a shared vision and a culture of generosity and respect. Finally, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf says: “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.” If asked for my own personal definition of leadership, it would be the meeting point between these four incredible humans and their professed definitions and literary works on leadership. Therefore, I define leadership as: “the capacity to influence, inspire, and guide others towards a shared goal, underpinned by a fluid blend of strategy, extreme ownership and unimpeachable character that altogether fosters a culture of mutual respect, generosity and effectiveness.”
PART II: PAST REFLECTIONS
A former Army Captain and close friend named Lloyd Briggery, who commanded a tank unit in the Battle for Ramadi, once shared with me a memorable incident about leadership. In Ramadi, an American General was schooling local Iraqi officers in leadership dynamics. The General drew a pyramid on a whiteboard, placing a star at the apex, symbolizing himself. He then populated the levels beneath with progressively more stars, embodying the chain of command, right down to the E1 at the pyramid’s base. Inviting the Iraqi officers to interpret this illustration, they construed it as the customary hierarchy: the top commands, the bottom obeys. The General then grabbed the whiteboard and flipped it upside down. He emphatically declared that true leadership is, in fact, the exact opposite. It’s about the upper echelons ensuring those below succeed, by inspiring them and equipping them with everything they need to achieve their individual missions, thereby fulfilling the collective goal. This paradigm-shifting lesson on servant leadership has been etched into my memory ever since.
As a nascent police officer in Washington DC, my perspective was largely insular, driven by an intense focus on personal ambition and professional advancement. In a few short years, I was selected to attend SWAT school. Upon successfully navigating a grueling five-week academy, emerging as the top graduate, I carried this self-centric attitude into the team dynamics. This ambition propelled me to a leadership position as sergeant, but the same self-centered philosophy proved detrimental. My lack of focus on fostering a culture of respect and generosity, an absence of extreme ownership, and an underdeveloped character prepared an environment not conducive to success but fraught with toxicity and a culture of victimhood. Consequently, I found myself ill-equipped to navigate the difficult circumstances inherent to my role. The laurels I had previously earned did little to foster the humility and patience required for true growth and acceptance of life’s lessons. My past successes, rather than arming me with wisdom, had left me unprepared to understand and navigate the nuances of leadership.
Instead of confronting my challenges head on, I elected to run, embarking on a venture to open a small business, and become my own boss. The flaw in this logic soon became clear: no individual stands wholly unaccountable. Even a business owner must bear responsibility to both employees and clientele. Six years into my entrepreneurial endeavor, staring down the loss of my home to maintain business operations, I was compelled to shed the remnants of my pride and engage the guidance of a professional to illuminate the path of effective business and personal management. What transpired from this point transcended mere operational proficiency; I found myself poised on the precipice of personal growth and learning, my cup finally emptied, ready to be filled.
The next 5 years were the most illuminating, exciting, and fulfilling of my entire life; and they continue through today. I now feel an unquenchable thirst to grow and learn. I have learned to accept my flaws, to learn from my failures, and work hard daily to display patience and humility. Though I know the journey will never end, I am excited at the prospect of what tomorrow may teach me. I still struggle with ego, pride, and insecurity, but my vision, and the support of my peer group, my mentors, and those who inspire me, propel me forward when I feel weak. The power of a book, an online course, a leadership conference, or even a short Instagram reel with a profound statement from a leader I respect, cannot and should not be understated.
Part III: Reflections at ROCI
To be completed post ROCI
Part IV, Envision the Future:
As a junior officer, I recognize that I must apply the distilled wisdom of past lessons with humility, patience, and an openness to listen. Grounded in the foundational principles of servant leadership, extreme ownership, and the power of trust, I aim to foster a culture where influence stems not from authority, but from shared vision and mutual respect. Recognizing my role is not to command, but rather to enable success up and down the chain of command, I commit to listening deeply, prioritizing the needs and growth of my team. This journey of leadership is not one of achieving immediate perfection, but of navigating the dynamic and intricate dance between strategy, character, and the inherent dichotomies of leadership, with the guiding light being the shared mission of the unit and the wellbeing of those I am privileged to serve alongside.