Written by David M. Santos, Director of Communications, U.S. Coast Guard Academy
During his annual leadership address at the Coast Guard Academy, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft took the Corps of Cadets on a journey in leadership, sharing insights from more than 40 years of service.
He began by asking the crowd, “What does it mean to be a leader, to begin with? The way I would define a leader is, it’s really a mindset. And when you look at our service, that aspires to our core values of Honor, Respect and Devotion to Duty, that is our brand,” he said. “The word out on the street right now,” he added, “is our brand has never been greater.”
Showing a photo of an older cutter on a large screen in Leamy Hall he said, “What you see there is a museum. It’s called the Coast Guard Cutter Taney. It was my first ship when I left the Coast Guard Academy.” Recalling anecdotes from his own leadership journey, he told the cadets that they would encounter many examples of leadership in the fleet. “There will be good examples, and examples you would not want to aspire to. As you see the good examples, seek out a mentor,” he advised. “Don’t go it alone.”
Adm. Zukunft also emphasized the need for young officers to build trust and earn respect. “You’ve got to know your people, on an individual level. You can’t just know what their job is on a watch quarter station bill. Know where they grew up. Know what their background is, before they came in the Coast Guard. Know what their dreams are as well. If you do that, as a leader you’ve already accomplished job one. You have to build trust and earned respect, because these things,” he said, pointing at the rank insignia on his sleeve, “They don’t earn respect. What’s in your heart, that is what will earn respect.”
Having served extensively in the cutter fleet, Zukunft commanded the cutters Cape Upright, Harriet Lane, and Rush. During his address he spoke about the need to take decisive action, and how this would play into their future careers. To describe the challenging operational environment young Coast Guard officers will undoubtedly face, the Commandant used the acronym VUCA, short for Voluntary, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. To illustrate his point he shared an example from the historic Mariel boatlift, the mass emigration of Cubans headed to the U.S. in 1980.
While underway toward Mariel Harbor as the young commanding officer of the Cape Upright, Zukunft recalled spotting out on the horizon, “a 45-foot boat with 200-plus people on it.” Assessing the situation, he decided to lay his ship alongside. “As soon as they saw us,” he said, “everyone went to one side of the ship. I thought for sure this ship is going to capsize.” As the cutter came alongside, his crew saw infants among the huge crowd of Cuban migrants onboard. “And the first thing they did, they started pitching infants at us like hay bales. Now, we don’t have TTP (tactics, techniques, procedures) for that. How do you catch babies as they are thrown from one boat to the other? This was about as ambiguous as it can get. An example of VUCA,” he told the cadets. “Sometimes you must instinctively do what you think is the right thing to do.”
The Commandant also talked about the lasting bonds formed at the Academy, and how they would follow the cadets for many years to come. “I’m hosting a reunion at my quarters. A lot of these people I haven’t seen in 40 years,” he added. “If there is anything that has paid a lifetime of dividends, it’s the relationships I have forged at the Academy.”
In closing, he addressed the future and the service’s need for strong, empathetic leadership. “Your journey is about to begin,” he reminded the cadets. “Thirty-plus years from now, one of you is going to be up on this stage. My crystal ball does not know what the world is going to look like 30-plus years from now. But tranquility is not breaking out among us. We have got to be strategic thinkers,” he said. “But above all, we’ve got to be compassionate leaders.”