Written by Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft .
Ringing in the New Year, I encouraged you to reflect on leadership. We rely on cutters, boats and aircraft to operate offshore and abroad, but it is you, the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard, who deliver the true value to the Nation. Our Duty to People requires a continued demonstration of moral courage and a commitment to a safe, inclusive and respectful workplace. You lead by living the Core Values of Honor, Respect and Devotion to Duty. But, as a member of this organization, you must not only become a leader, you must grow the next generation of leaders as well.
As part of your continued reflection on leadership in 2015 and beyond, I am sharing with you a few fundamentals I have adopted over the years that enable me to lead through challenges and identify opportunities as your Commandant. As you consider these and your role as a leader, I hope you are inspired to draft a leadership philosophy of your own.
Know your purpose.
To lead, you must know who you are. What gives you purpose, energy and passion? My purpose is Service to Nation. It is the common thread that binds me to the country I serve and the communities in which I have lived. Purpose is the force that aligns your personal honor and integrity to the vision and Core Values of your organization. Take time every day to refocus your energy. Consider how you are contributing to something greater than yourself. Become the kind of authentic leader who inspires others to find their calling – to become great leaders in their own right.
There is a distinction between honor and loyalty that we must all recognize. They can be complimentary; however honor must come first. When faced with a dilemma, ask yourself if your decision is consistent with your values and the values of your organization. If it isn’t – don’t go there. Upholding standards is a hallmark of military service – they transcend rank or position. The standards you walk past are the standards you accept, on or off duty. As a leader, my greatest concern is being surrounded by a team of “yes” people who lack the courage to act.
Most mistakes are recoverable and leaders have a responsibility to use teachable moments to develop their people. However, departures from core values cannot be tolerated; this is an important distinction leaders at all levels must understand. The interwoven and enduring strands of Honor, Respect and Devotion to Duty remain paramount for service in the Coast Guard; that is my “bright line” that shall not be crossed. Your decisions and behavior create the culture in which those you lead will live and work. You are the critical link.
Trust and empower your people.
You may find yourself in a situation where you don’t have all the answers or the right information. As a leader, you can’t place all decisions squarely on your shoulders; this weight will drag you to your knees. Good ideas, the right solution and the way forward come from all levels of the organization; actively seek out these ideas and empower people to come forward. Enable diverse teams to connect and challenge them to exceed your expectations. Communicate your vision clearly and promote accountability that teaches and inspires. Open, honest communication is central to empowerment which in turn helps teams reach their potential. I am continuously humbled by the talent of the people around me. It is imperative you know what drives and motivates your people; integrate the natural skills and hidden talents of your people to drive mission success.
Take decisive action.
A bias for action is one of the foundational attributes I learned at the most junior level of command. In taking action, embrace the three knows: know your mission, know your people and know when to say “no.” Knowing your mission won’t happen over night; it requires a bit of homework and dedication to the task at hand. Knowing your people takes time and personal commitment. Knowing when to say “no” can be the hardest of all. Situations evolve and we must adapt swiftly; as a leader your decision-making will be tested. Be bold and take appropriate risks; there is room for honest mistakes. You may have a great plan, but it’s okay if your plan doesn’t survive the day. Learn, adapt and execute your mission.