Thursday, April 21, 2005

What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Synthesis and self-evaluation of leadership learnings

A paper written for “Leadership to Shape the Future: Theory, Research, and Practice” (Leadership 8510)

Quite frankly, this has not been my finest time, academic or personal or professional. As a matter of fact, in many respects it reminds me of freshman year in college, some 25 years ago and a string of months I’d sometimes rather forget. All is not lost, however, in that as I reflect back on the last 15 weeks, I see that I did learn something, albeit not perhaps what I set out to learn. Certainly, I have a firmer understanding of leadership from an intellectual perspective, and I have a greater realization of my personal relationship with leadership. As the fog of the weeks lifts, even so slightly, I see four keys. First, leadership is built on systems thinking. Second, relationships are pivotal in any leadership discussion or experience. Third, communication is fundamental in terms of effective leadership. Fourth, character and competence form a solid foundation for effective leaders.

Systems Thinking

Leadership is multi-faceted and related to nearly almost every discipline of the study of human behavior. Yukl notes, “Systems thinking involves the use of mental models that acknowledge complex inter-relationships and cyclical causality.” (2002, p. 296) As Yukl suggests, systems thinking acknowledges that everything is connected to everything and that mucking about in one area has an impact on another area. Leadership – human behavior and organizational behavior – is so complex that without systems thinking and the mental models that systems thinking forces us to create, the study of leadership would be nothing more than a morass from which no explorer would ever escape.

This learning is important for me for several reasons. First, in my work as a performance consultant, I am reminded that while I might intervene in one particular area of the organization, the ramifications can be felt a great distance away. Second, my life – like everyone’s, I suppose – is a system with inter-related roles and responsibilities. Mucking about in one role – such as adjusting to newly married life or feeling like a social service organization for extended family – impacts other roles – such as work completion or timeliness and quality of academic study. Compartmentalizing, while it may work in the short-term, is not a long-term answer. Third is the realization that if, indeed, all is a system, than I can develop a mental model to help me analyze the system. I can, in a sense, conquer it still; I’ll add the development of the mental models to my ever-lengthening to-do list.

Relationships

Following directly on systems thinking, the notion that relationship are key seems over-simplistic: of course relationships are key. Is not that the whole point of systems thinking? Yes. And more specifically here I am talking about relationships between people. Relationships between suppliers and customers; relationships between stakeholders. I’m talking about the human side of relationships. When interviewing my key customer, Rear Admiral Pearson (C. I. Pearson, personal interview, April 1, 2005), I was struck by his passion for relationships, a passion for the connections between people. I suspect his passion is more than just culture speaking (see Phillips, 2002, 45-72), and more than some model of leadership practice (see Kouzes & Posner, 2002), but rather some innate acknowledgement that it is the relationships between people that makes organizations work.

These last many weeks, I have not cultivated relationships to ensure effectiveness from a personal, professional, or academic perspective. Without cultivating relationships – as we might cultivate a garden – relationships will whither and die. Like a garden left to nature’s own devices, relationships between people, will become choked with weeds and bear no fruit. I am dangerously close to bearing no fruit, my entire life overgrown with weeds.

Communication

What is it that helps build relationships? Communication. Communication is fundamental. In the space of the last ten days, I have taken a 20-hour seminar about mediation, taught a two-day course about crisis intervention, and facilitated a four-day seminar based on Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Last week, I had a sudden realization: each of these courses put communication skills – and specifically listening skills – as fundamental to the success of the human interaction within the discipline. The material is, I realized, all the same. And why? It is the same because communication – understanding the other person’s words and meanings – is at the basis to each discipline, be it mediation or crisis intervention or human effectiveness. And the fruit of that basis is relationships. Through relationships, things happen and work gets done.

Character and Competence

Of course, each of us must know our job in order for things to get done. That is competence, the technical knowledge and understanding and skills necessary to perform the required task. Without competence, a person cannot fully contribute. More than competence is needed, however, to be effective in leadership and life. Character is based on integrity. I have, these last many weeks, demonstrated competence. I can string words together, and I can write coherent essays. I can facilitate a group or a meeting. I can coach and mentor fellow consultants. My character, however, has been less fulfilled. Undone work assignments, chores at home not completed, assignments for school and work turned in late or at the very last moment before the deadline have all filled my months. I have said I am a certain type of person, but I my actions have not followed through.

When critiquing those who lead me, I often compare their words to their actions. Did the leader say what he was going to do? And, did the leader do what she said she would do? These past weeks have found my words not matching my actions.

Next Steps

What are the next steps for me? The next steps seem clear, at least in the light of day. I need to re-examine my mission and purpose and, then, align my actions to that mission and purpose. In support of this action, I will also develop – or find – a mental model to help me step out, to help define the place I find myself as well as show the route to where I want to go. And, I will focus on enhancing relationships, truly communicating, and exhibiting not just competence but character in what I do.


References


Kouzes, J. M. & Posner, B. Z. (2002). The Leadership Challenge (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Phillips, D. T. (with Loy, J. M.). (2003). Character in Action: The U.S. Coast Guard on leadership. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.

Yukl, G. (2002). Leadership in Organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

A View from the Eighth Floor: An interview with Rear Admiral Clifford Pearson

A paper written for “Leadership to Shape the Future: Theory, Research, and Practice” (Leadership 8510).

We settled into the leather chairs of Rear Admiral Pearson’s well-appointed office on the eighth floor of an office building in downtown Norfolk, Virginia. Nautical knick-knacks are discretely in place around the room; his massive wooden desk would serve as a focal point of the room were it not for the wall of windows looking outward, windows framed by four flags: the Flag of the United States, the Coast Guard flag, the Department of Homeland Security Flag, and Pearson’s personal flag, a deep blue emblazoned with a single white star and the Coast Guard insignia and trimmed in gold fringe. Between the two neighboring towers, one can see a slice of the working harbor, the skyline doted with cranes, the far shore crowded with dry docks, and the placid water stirred up by an occasional tug and barge or naval security boat. This is a maritime-influenced town and home to the world’s largest naval fleet. The Coast Guard is well-represented here, too; from Pearson’s office one can see the federal building housing the offices of the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area Commander, the fourth ranking officer in the service.

Pearson serves as the Commander, Maintenance and Logistics Command Atlantic, and is ultimately responsible for all maintenance and logistics support to Coast Guard units east of the Rockies. A staff of nearly 500 military personnel, civilian employees, and contract employees conduct the work of the Command in Norfolk; more than 2,700 other personnel are spread across 40 states, providing direct services to Coast Guard customers. Pearson sits at the helm of a fairly large organization, and as he settled into the leather covered chair in his crisp and neat blue uniform, he looked quite at home.

Living by Example

Having served on active duty for more than 30-years, Pearson has seen his share of leadership examples, both of the positive sort and the negative sort. He cited as one of his examples of learning the “proverbial screamer,” a leader who screams and yells and raises his voice in order to be heard and followed (C. I. Pearson, personal interview, April 1, 2005). Two key, personal leadership competencies he identified were to “not be the proverbial screamer” and to “not squash others’ input.” Interestingly, Pearson seems to have drawn the greatest learning from examples of negative behavior. He cited a desire to “treat people fairly” and to “seek ideas and participation” in his role as a leader. At the most basic level, he is building a personal how to for, as Kouzes & Posner (2002) would say, “modeling the way.”

Executive Competencies

Yukl (2002) identifies strategic leadership by executives as a key competency for leaders of large, complex organizations. Pearson mirrors this notion; he offered three key, important competencies for senior leaders: systems thinking, personal relationships, and understanding people. Pearson noted that a leader in a complex organization must “see the big picture” and understand the relationships between organizational elements; a leader must “understand the full nature of what they have responsibility for and must understand the broader goals and environment.” Leaders must see linkages and understand systems. Yukl identifies systems thinking as key when leading change within organizations; systems thinking, “acknowledging complex inter-relationships and cyclical causality” are necessary in order to bring about positive organizational change. (p. 296) Pearson’s second, noted competency was personal relationships; he cited customers and stakeholders – both internal and external – as key constituents with whom a senior leader must develop relationships. Stakeholders will often have conflicting interests, and it is the senior leader who must sort through those interests to determine the organization’s route. (Yukl, p. 407) And finally, Pearson noted that “understanding the people component of the organization, and of stakeholder organizations, is key… a leader must have more than just a technical understanding or component, but also understand the needs of the crew and people.” For him, leaders must have more than technical competence, but a character which shows an understanding, and a sense of caring, for people. As Covey would say, they must show “trustworthiness.” (Covey, 2004, p. 146) Altogether, these three competencies come down to one thing: “The truth is that everything in leadership comes back to relationships.” (Phillips, 2003, p 55) Relationships with respect to leadership are multi-faceted; they are the relationships between people, between organizations, between systems, between processes, between cultures, and between stakeholders.

Pearson indicated demonstrating leadership competencies are not a “one-time” thing. Indeed, for Pearson, demonstrating positive leadership competencies – such as “coaching, setting standards, defining expectations” – is a constant in both action and word. For Pearson, setting standards and defining expectations is something he does on a daily basis. His interactions with subordinates routinely set out expectations for organizational behavior and organizational outcomes.

Interestingly, Pearson’s interest in relationships and the “people side” of things appeared strong during the interview, but his professional background is in the technical realm of the Coast Guard as an electronics systems engineer. His earlier flag assignments were as the Coast Guard’s Chief Information Officer and as the Assistant Commandant for Command, Control, Communications, Computers & Information Technology. Perhaps he has succeeded in these senior positions because of, and not in spite of, his understanding of the importance of the “people side.”

Conflict and Leadership

When asked what role conflict has played in his experiences as a leader, Pearson did not provide specific examples, but he did provide some clear-cut ways to deal with conflict within an over-riding caveat: “Conflict is counter-productive. Focus on mission.” The Coast Guard has a bias for action which comes out even when putting conflict into perspective. (Phillips, 2003, p. 73) Pearson’s rules for conflict are fairly clear: don’t let it get personal; address issues, not personalities; and, seek positive resolutions. He also noted that, if the result is not illegal or immoral, “let the leader make the call.” In a sense, even this response is shaped by culture, a culture steeped in chains-of-command and military structure. His rules, however, are not so steeped; addressing “issues” and not “personalities” is similar to mediation’s call to look to “interests” instead of “positions.” To successfully resolve conflict, we must pull away from that which we are bound and focus on true needs, or interests, or issues.

Pearson noted that people in conflict often find themselves in an emotional state. Conflict leads to stress which often increases the conflict; this cycle leads to a spinning-up that is often difficult to stop. Breaking the cycle can reduce both conflict and stress. Reducing conflict lowers stress; reducing stress lowers the conflict level. At smaller organizations than the Maintenance & Logistics Command, morale events – such as picnics or softball games or community service projects – can involve the entire crew and help relieve stress. Stress reduction is a “responsibility of the commanding officer.” Sometimes, however, the leader adds to the stress; a good leader understand himself and sees when he is adding to the organizational stress.

Pearson also noted that a leader must have skills to not only “identify early signs of conflict” but have skills to “keep the conflict from escalating.” Interestingly, in his current role, the conflicts Pearson comes into contact with are generally either stakeholder oriented, or are people issues on his own staff which have bubbled too long and too hard. These are few and far between. Resolving stakeholder conflicts are much more the natural visitor to his subdued, formal office. A former occupant of this office was once presented with a difficult stakeholder conflict. The then Atlantic Area Commander asked the Maintenance & Logistics Commander to have several million dollars – which had been earmarked for maintenance of cutters – transferred to the Area’s account to help fund a new and ongoing counter-drug operation in the Caribbean. For the then occupant of the eighth floor office, the question was one of conflict: obey an order from a superior and support an important Coast Guard – and national – initiative, or follow the desires of Congress – which specifically appropriates maintenance money – and support the engineering concepts of preventative and curative maintenance. In many respects, the decision was a no-win decision for the Maintenance & Logistics Commander. No matter which way he leaned, he would be ignoring a key stakeholder’s interests and position.

Decisions in 2005 are no less critical and, perhaps, even longer reaching in terms of impact on the organization. The Maintenance & Logistics organization is undergoing a major reorganization and support functions are being scrutinized as possible venues of outsourcing to government contractors. Conflicting stakeholder desires abound in these decisions which will have an impact long after Pearson moves on following his tour. He will likely move on in the summer of 2006, after just two years leading the organization. Strategic leadership and decision making by executives is influenced by tenure in the position; Pearson is nearly on the downhill turn for his tenure and may become more inflexible in looking at alternatives that do not match decisions made in the first year. (Yukl, 2002, p. 352) However, Pearson has shown an acceptance of ambiguity – in his systems thinking and in his understanding of multi-faceted relationship – so “refuge in a single-minded theme” is less likely.

Creating Leaders through Mentoring and Education

Growing leaders is important, particularly in an organization like the Coast Guard that moves members nearly every two or three years. Military members do not get a chance to spend 5 or 7 years in a single job; the culture demands movement and growth. Looking over his career, Pearson indicated that mentoring was the key activity he has taken on to grow leaders. What was evident in his explanation, however, was that he sees that responsibility as current, also. “It is important to provide teaching moments – as available – making bigger picture linkages, leading a person through the thought process” in decision making and in reconciling diverse stakeholder needs. Not only is this something he has done, but it is something he continues to do, and not just with junior members of the service. He indicated a mentoring role with the Deputy Commander, a subordinate, but a senior officer with nearly as much time in the service. Pearson sees himself as a mentor to his senior staff, his senior advisors, as well as those military members and employees who work on his personal staff. Mentoring is a “continuing issue” that helps ensure all in the service learn from many people over the years and are not just locked in to one role model.

This notion of continuous learning is one that played clear as Pearson talked about his dream for formal education for mid-level and senior military members and civilian employees. He noted the Coast Guard does a “pretty good job with on-the-job-training and leadership training” but, with a leader’s primary responsibility being “succession planning,” formal education is the service’s biggest deficiency. While the other military branches require officers to attend staff and war colleges, the Coast Guard does not require any graduate education for officers. “We don’t put enough energy and attention to this valuable opportunity.” As he talked, Pearson’s vision became clearer: a Coast Guard sponsored graduate College of Homeland Security or a Security & Staff College, or perhaps an increase in the work of the Coast Guard’s Leadership Development Center to include education, not just training. In a sense, Pearson is asking for a re-rack of our culture: make education important and put resources – including billets for students – in an enhanced education system. And, he noted that college education is “not just the purview of the commissioned officer corps.” The Coast Guard’s enlisted members are completing undergraduate and graduate degrees in record numbers; the service must encourage and nurture this learning through enhanced support. The service’s “structure requires” this support so that we do not lose our intellectual capital.

These shared notions of mentorship and education fit well within Kouzes & Posner’s “practices of leadership.” (2002, p. 22) The very notion of creating a graduate school within the service, or even within the Department of Homeland Security, challenges the process and the status quo. Mentoring subordinates, even those with years and years of experience, both models the way and inspires a vision. Seeing education as key to life-long personal success, as well as organizational success, encourages the hearts of employees.

The Changing Role of Leadership in the Coast Guard

According to Pearson, leadership has changed in his time in the Coast Guard. There is a “growing recognition that through readings, education, and training, a person can improve leadership skills.” As a service, the Coast Guard is more proactive and sees value in the research and literature of leadership, and the service attempts to use this new knowledge in various, fairly new, programs such as the Chief Petty Officer Academy, Leadership & Management course, and the Leadership Development Center. Over the years, according to Pearson, “contemporary leaders have become more astute at leadership and conflict resolution…. Whereas years ago, most of it was rank-based, now people at all levels have skills to lead and to help reduce conflict.”

The View from the Eighth Floor Front Office

As our interview wound down, Pearson defined what he saw as the outcomes to good leadership: mission accomplishment, better products quicker, a more satisfied workforce, better organizational performance, and increased retention. In his five outcomes, Pearson basically nails the four strategic cornerstones of planning: customers, stakeholders, process management, and employees. (Kaplan & Norton, 1996) Afterward, I wonder if he sees these as strategic goals for the Maintenance & Logistics community. On the one hand, they are more general than the goals in the strategic plan signed by his predecessor just barely a year ago; they are also more understandable, providing a clearer vision than the program-focused document which hangs down the hall from the flag office. (U.S. Coast Guard, 2004)

Pearson sees leadership as “cascading down” and including everyone in the organization. From the polished office on the eighth floor, it is a long way to the electronics shop in San Juan or the industrial facility in New Orleans or the administrative support spaces in Boston, but that is where his leadership must reach. If he is lucky, Pearson will make it to each of these spots twice during his tour; for the other nearly 800 days, it is the responsibility of those in the chain-of-command to carry his message and provide the appropriate coaching, standards, and expectations. He can make rudder commands and he can make power commands, but it is the helmsman, the throttleman, and the engineers who actually turn the ship and bring up the speed. It is, indeed, Pearson’s three senior leader competencies – systems thinking, personal relationships, and understanding people – all delivered from the plush confines of the eighth floor office or wherever his flag flies, which will ensure success.

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Appendix – Interview Questions

1. What does it mean to be a "leader"?

2. What the key leadership competencies you've used during your time in the Coast Guard? How have you put those to use?

3. What would you consider to be the most important competencies (or traits) of a leader in a complex organization such as the Coast Guard?

4. What are some key instances when you have used leadership competencies?

5. How has conflict played a role in your experience as a leader?

6. What leadership competencies have you used to resolve conflict?

7. What steps can leaders take to reduce conflict within an organization?

8. What linkages do you see between leadership development and conflict?

9. What are some ways you've helped grow leaders?

10. If you could make significant structural or organizational changes in the Coast Guard, what would you do to enhance leadership development?

11. How do you see the Coast Guard's new Unit Leadership Development Program impacting Coast Guard people and units?

12. In what ways do you think leadership development is lacking in today's Coast Guard?

13. How has leadership -- and leadership development -- changed in your time as a member of the Coast Guard?

14. How has conflict -- and conflict resolution -- changed in your time as a member of the Coast Guard? What types of conflict do your recollect from your early days in the Coast Guard?

15. For you, what are the keys to conflict resolution?

16. What do you see as the value to good leadership?

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References

Covey, S. R. (2004) The Eighth Habit: From effectiveness to greatness. New York: Free Press.

Kaplan, R. S. & Norton, D. P. (1996). The Balanced Scorecard: Translating Strategy into Action. Boston: Harvard Business School Press

Kouzes, J. M. & Posner, B. Z. (2002). The Leadership Challenge (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Phillips, D. T. (with Loy, J. M.). (2003). Character in Action: The U.S. Coast Guard on leadership. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.

U.S. Coast Guard. (2004). Maintenance and Logistics Command Atlantic Strategic Plan 2004-2008. (MLCLANTINST 16000.1H, February 26, 2004) Norfolk: Author.

Yukl, G. (2002). Leadership in Organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Exemplary Practices of Leadership: A view from within the Coast Guard

A paper written for “Leadership to Shape the Future: Theory, Research, and Practice” (Leadership 8510).

Organizations succeed or fail based in large measure on the abilities of senior leaders. Senior leaders provide the vision for the organization and create the environment for success. Senior leaders do not work alone, however. It takes leaders at every level of the organization to ensure organizational excellence. While a senior leader sets the tone for the overall organization and can have a huge impact on the organization, the greatest impact on employees is on direct supervisors (Buckingham & Coffman, 1999) Creating a holistic approach to leadership, one that grooms leadership at all levels of the organization is vitally important for all organizations. The U. S. Coast Guard is no different. Tracing its roots back to 1790, the U. S. Coast Guard, now one of the foundational members of the recently formed Department of Homeland Security, prides itself on being a multi-mission, maritime, military service. As a service, the Coast Guard prides itself on developing leaders; leadership, or so the indoctrination goes, is a fundamental part of the culture. At the very least, the organization does put a focus on leadership, having created and nurtured a Leadership Development Center as a part of the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. In addition, the service’s immediate past Commandant, the senior leader of the service, partnered with author Donald Phillips to write a volume about leadership and the Coast Guard; the book is filled with anecdotes of strong leadership in the service. (Phillips, 2003)

Philips suggests the Coast Guard’s leadership success is based on four major actions: (a) set the foundation, (b) focus on people, (c) instill a bias for action, and (d) ensure the future. He breaks each of these actions into subordinate parts; for instance to focus on people is to eliminate the frozen middle, cultivate caring relationships, build strong alliances, and create an effective communication system. In many respects, Phillips outline of leadership practices as demonstrated by the people of the Coast Guard is not so very different from Kouzes & Posner (2002) and their five practices of exemplary leadership.

Kouzes & Posner (2002) postulate there are five practices of exemplary leadership. For them, those practices are (a) model the way, (b) inspire a shared vision, (c) challenge the process, (d) enable others to act, and (e) encourage the heart. Like Phillips, Kouzes & Posner suggest each practice is made up of smaller parts. For them, these smaller parts are “commitments,” and each practice is embedded with two commitments of leadership; the practice is made whole by these leader-made commitments which serve to guide how successful leaders get great things to happen in effective organizations.

From my vantage point in the organization as a consultant to Coast Guard leaders, I have a unique perch from which to view the organization. Sometimes that perch settles into cynicism, a strong cultural bias for long-time members of the Coast Guard organization. As such, my focus for examination will not be the entire Coast Guard, nor one of the two primary, “flag-level” (or headed by an admiral, a military of “flag rank”) commands I serve. Instead, my focus here will be on the performance consultant community and our “right coast” program manager – and my direct supervisor – Dr. George Yacus.

Dr. Yacus – or George, as I usually refer to him – is the direct supervisor of three internal performance consultants assigned the Atlantic Area staff in Portsmouth, Virginia. He is also programmatically responsible for, although provides not supervisory oversight, for eight other consultants working at District offices in Boston, Miami, New Orleans, and Cleveland. While George is a civilian employee, he has both military members (both enlisted members, warrant officers, and commissioned officers) and civilians under his purview. As a retired Naval aviator, he has experience with the military and understands the military mindset. Having worked with the Coast Guard for more than five years now, he understands the Coast Guard culture.

In his work within the Performance Excellence program, George must lead rather than direct or manage. Only three consultants actually work “for” him; the remainder work “for” their own supervisors at their respective flag-level district offices. In order to create an environment of effectiveness, George must lead. As Kouzes & Posner (2002) suggest, “Leadership is a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow.” (p. 20) George has neither a carrot or a stick to encourage the bulk of consultants to join him on the journey; rather, he must use exemplary leadership practices to gain their participation.

Model the Way

Each consultant brings a unique set of skills and perspectives to the job of helping create excellent performance through organizational leadership and management. Kouzes & Posner (2002) suggest that two commitments are required for leaders to “model the way.” Leaders must find their own voice by clarifying their personal values and then must set the example by aligning actions with shared values. While I’ve never asked George about the values which drive him, I have a sense – through watching him work – as to what the values might be. He values community; he values making contributions; he values people and their individual and organizational success; and, he values ideas and their practical application. As an organization, the Coast Guard has a set of defined values – honor, respect, and devotion to duty – that also rank high in George’s pantheon of guiding values. Some of what we do as consultants involves helping people – leaders and followers, alike – develop their own list of personal values and clarifying what those look like not just in theory but also in action. I suspect George has done this.

Why do I suspect George has done this? In large measure it has to do with his alignment of actions with what I see as the shared values of our consulting community. Our work revolves around implementing systems and practices which are in alignment with the Commandant’s Performance Excellence Criteria, the Coast Guard’s – nearly word-for-word – adaptation of the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence published by the National Institute of Science and Technology, a veritable blueprint for organizational effectiveness and efficiency through appropriate organizational leadership and management practices and systems. We are, perhaps, “Baldrige Geeks,” working to align systems and processes to create high performance within the organization and segments we work. In large measure, this is one of our key, shared values: implementing Baldrige-based systems and processes.

Leading by example, George has done his share of hands-on consulting with senior leaders and has had success with implementing Baldrige-based systems and practices. And, he has gently suggested, tugged, cajoled, and prodded the eleven consultants within the Atlantic Area to follow.

Inspire a Shared Vision

A key to organizational success is that a single person cannot “do it” alone. Indeed it takes all the members of the organization, working in concert with each other, to bring about organizational success. To create that “working in concert,” leaders must, as Kouzes & Posner (2002) suggest, inspire a shared vision. Each member of the organization must share the vision.

There’s an old consulting tale about organizational vision. I am not sure if it is based in fact or if, as I suspect, it is apocryphal, but it is, nonetheless, worthy of repeating. Before his death, President Kennedy propelled our nation on to the moon: to conquer that journey by the “end of the decade.” The story goes that several years later, and well before Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon in 1969, a business consultant asked a janitor who was sweeping up at the Kennedy Space Center what he was doing. Without missing a motion, the old man answered, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” The message here is that it takes that sort of commitment, by all members of the organization, to make great things happen. And it takes that sort of unified dedication, too. The story shows an organization aligned to a single outcome: putting a man on the moon and bringing him home safely.

Kouzes & Posner (2002) provide us with two commitments for leaders, two commitments which are embedded with the practice of “inspiring a shared vision.” For Kouzes & Posner, leaders must be committed to “envisioning the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities” and to “enlisting others in a common vision by appealing to shared aspirations.” George has made both of these commitments, at least in practice. Whenever George talks with any of us consultants, he talks about the journey and where we are leading Coast Guard leaders through the implementation of Criteria-based leadership and management practices and systems. For George, who can paint a word picture of what success looks like, our efforts will help the Coast Guard be an excellent organization, meeting the Commandant’s goal of the Coast Guard being the best managed organization in the federal government. Whether the conversation takes place in George’s windowless office, or during an all-consultant phone conference, or during one of our thrice-yearly face-to-face gatherings, George’s message is consistent. And, he appeals to our shared aspirations of wanting organizational success. To a one, each consultant sought out the job, a non-traditional billet by Coast Guard standards and not always career enhancing, at least for commissioned officers who serve. And, to a one, each of us wants to see organizational success first and foremost, even beyond our own individual success.

It is, perhaps, because George has to compete with five different “chains of command” and seven flag officers and their individual priorities – which are sometimes based on geographic or operational necessity and other times based on some idiosyncratic bit of organizational or personal bias – that resorting to a shared vision has been so successful. George has given us the end-in-mind, but not the actual steps to get there. We learn what works for us by trying out different tactics and strategies, and sharing successes and failures with each other.

Challenge the Process

As Phillips tells us, a key Coast Guard cultural bias is to “instill a bias for action.” For many of us long-time “Coasties” – and for the newer Coasties who are a quick study – this often means challenging the norm. “Act, and seek forgiveness later” is a strong cultural norm. Granted, sometimes forgiveness does not come so easily, but true Coasties learn and move on. Kouzes & Posner (2002) tell us that leaders practice “challenging the process.” For them, leaders “venture out” and “seek and accept challenges.” (p. 16) Kouzes & Posner claim that of every successful leader they met during their research, none claimed to achieve their “personal best by keeping things the same. All leaders challenge the process.” (p. 17)

George has committed to “searching for opportunities by seeking innovative ways to change, grow, and improve.” But, more importantly, he challenges each consultant to do the same. The Coast Guard recently instituted an optional “individual development plan” process which allows members and employees to list their goals, the steps needed to attain the goal, and the organizational support needed. These individual development plans are reviewed by the individual’s supervisor and, after negotiating the specifics, endorsed by the supervisor. While George is not he supervisor for eight of the eleven consultants in his “area of responsibility,” he, nonetheless, has gotten each consultant to annually complete an individual development plan, and, in certain cases, he has intervened as both an advocate and mediator between the consultant and the consultant’s supervisor, even though he has no positional power over the supervisor. He challenges each of us to seek innovative ways to change, grow, and improve.

And, like the Coastie who acts first and seeks forgiveness later, and then finds things didn’t work out all that well, George experiments and takes risks. Small wins might very well be a motto for him. Within the Criteria for Performance Excellence, strategic planning plays a fundamental role, as does fact-based decision making. Historically, neither of these has been culturally significant. We plan for action, not for the long term; we make decisions based on gut, intuition, and past experience, not based on facts and data. Getting senior leaders, particularly senior leaders, to escape the grips of our culture and move toward strategic planning with respect to organizational leadership and management and toward fact-based decision making is a long road. George has been working diligently and slowly, accruing small successes wherever possible. When he finds success, or hears of success by one of us consultants, he publicizes the news through formal (a monthly consultant newsletter) and informal (scuttlebutt) means. And, he encourages the other consultant supervisors to not take a “zero defect” mentality and punishing honest mistakes.

Enable Others to Act

Kouzes & Posner (2002) provide a key to the success of strong leaders: they don’t “do it” alone; strong leaders “enable others to act.” They suggest that “leadership is a team effort” and that a test of leadership is the frequency a person uses the word “we” as compared to “I.” (p. 18) Successful leaders say “we” because they know that organizational success happens through the efforts of “us,” not “me.” The leader commitments in enabling others to act are clear: collaboration and power-sharing.

Kouzes & Posner (2002, p. 242) tell us that “collaboration is the critical competency for achieving and sustaining high performance” especially in these times of increasing technology, increasing connectedness, and increasing speed in the spread and accessibility of information. George has worked to encourage collaboration amongst us consultants, even to the point of dedicating some of our budget to paying for travel to allow for collaborative events. He has made it possible for he and the eleven consultants to meet annually together as a team and share successes and collaborate on new initiatives.

George frequently shares power and discretion, encouraging consultants to enter into conversations he is involved in with senior leaders. For our annual “right coast” consultant conference, George usually delegates not just the logistics – such as choosing a location and making arrangements with the hotel and meeting location – but the agenda also. He wants the experience to be collaborative in nature, encouraging us to work together for the common good.

Encourage the Heart

The last practice of exemplary leadership is to encourage the heart. Recognition of good work and sustained effort is a cultural weakness for the Coast Guard. As a consultant going into a Coast Guard unit or organization, I can bet that communication and recognition will rank in the top three or four issues for members and employees. George has taken a proactive approach to this, recognizing good work done by each consultant. He does this recognition in a variety of ways and using a variety of tools, and tailoring the recognition for the individual. He’s been known to give trinkets – such as embroidered shirts or engraved desk clocks – as recognition of good work. Monthly, he publishes a newsletter which summarizes consultant work and successes. Originally conceived as an Atlantic Area only tool, the monthly newsletter has taken on a Coast Guard wide perspective, including the work of our Pacific Area shipmates (nine consultants and one area program manager) and our Headquarters counterparts (three consultants and two program managers). His work in recognition has helped add to our spirit of community.

Conclusion and Possible Improvements

Within the greater Coast Guard community, there are a number of possible improvements which could be made to enhance the practices of exemplary leadership throughout the service. Indeed, a current initiative announced recently by the Commandant is the “unit leadership development program” which is designed to help unit leaders increase leadership competency through a variety of possible interventions. (U.S. Coast Guard, 2005)

For our purposes, however, the question is how can we increase the exemplary leadership practices within the Atlantic Area performance consulting corps. Perhaps the first method of increasing leadership practices would be for us to actually talk about them, as they relate to ourselves. The organization expects us to provide leadership and management counsel to leaders at all levels of the organization, including flag officers and civilians of equivalent rank. To speak with authority, perhaps we also need to “talk amongst ourselves” and examine how we, individually and corporately, are doing.

A second possible method of improving might be for George to be more proactive in providing his own guidance. George’s manner is very laissez faire, and perhaps that is the right approach for people with our experience and education. But, George brings much to the table and could, perhaps, be stronger in guiding us, particularly as we “seek innovative ways to change, grow, and improve.”

A third method for improving leadership practices would be to increase the collaboration amongst consultants, almost demanding that we work together on projects. Washington, DC, and Alameda, CA, and here in Portsmouth find a concentration of three internal performance consultants; each other location has only two (and in Alaska, the two consultants are not in the same city). There is no critical mass, truly, at any location. Creating scenarios where the consultants can work together would allow for collaboration and growth.

We seek excellence in leadership in our selves and in our organization. Through proven practices, and a diligent and continuous focus on those practices, we will create an effective, high performing, excellent organization.

References

Buckingham M. & Coffman C. (1999). First, Break All the Rules: What the world’s greatest managers do differently. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kouzes, J. M. & Posner, B. Z. (2002). The Leadership Challenge (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Phillips, D. T. (with Loy, J. M.). (2003). Character in Action: The U.S. Coast Guard on leadership. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.

U.S. Coast Guard (2005). Commandant’s Priorities – People – Unit leadership Development Program Implementation. Retrieved April 9, 2005, from here.