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Oh, So You Think You Can Lead?

Leadership. Such a simple word, yet most don’t possess the skills to lead their way out of a wet brown bag. Merriam-Webster defines leadership as the “capacity to lead.” It’s possible those who are horrible leaders lack the “capacity” but I’m not so sure about that.

In the military, you come across a wide variety of leaders with varying leadership styles. Why this subject and why now? I’m a member of a veterans Facebook group comprised of those who served on the same ship (from commission to present day). A friend of mine blasted another member who was a Senior Chief and the department’s leading Chief at the time. This clown had drafted a memorandum regarding berthing (living area) restrictions that were asinine and overbearing. The vernacular utilized in this memo not only undermined his influence amongst his Sailors, but highlighted his lack of empathy, capability to communicate, and his inability to implement solutions that made sense. The memo was a hideous, multiple-page document, riddled with outlandish rules and expectations — he could have made his point by putting out information and holding people accountable. But, this “leader” felt the need to belittle people and fill a public document with empty threats and whiny b*tch complaints. That wasn’t the kicker. This “leader” accompanied the memo with an email to the entire department filled with empty threats and ridiculous analogies. He even self-promoted this berthing memo as “pain compliance” in his final paragraph and doted that he was a “Senior Chief and you are not.” This entire document was saved by the member, who later took pictures and posted them to Facebook.

What leadership style was that? Who knows, but it was definitely toxic. The comments thread to this post eludes to the fact the Senior Chief wasn’t well liked and had a history of treating people like sh*t. The best part: both the guy who posted the pictures of the memo AND the Senior Chief he was blasting are members of this group (and the Senior Chief was tagged in the post)! It’s hilarious and disappointing at the same time. This memo was a snapshot of the way this man treated other men (an all-male ship, they still exist). The guy who made the post even admitted that this memo was a contributing factor as to why he got out of the Navy. How daunting is that? It’s not the memo that caused him to jump ship on his military career — it’s the toxic people in positions of power. I feel pity for both parties, yet I side with the kid who was tired of poor leadership.

Don’t be that guy. Yes, the guy in the aforementioned story, but also the guy who lacks awareness. Maybe this dude forgot what it was like to be 18 years old, fresh off your parent’s couch, and new to the military. It’s possible that he didn’t forget and he was jaded or taking out his aggression on the people he outranked. I don’t expect “leaders” to embrace the ranks in hugs and sunshine. That’s just ignorant — the military would never stand for that type of behavior and nobody needs thousands of troops downrange that have been coddled. I’m just suggesting the simple notion of taking care of your people. You know, foster an environment where people flourish, develop, learn and gain memorable experience?

“My job was to create the climate that enabled people to unleash their potential”

CAPT Michael Abrashoff, Author of “It’s Your Ship”

I have witnessed a plethora of leadership styles, both good and bad, throughout my life. The military is no different than a football team, Fortune 500 company, or chess club. Someone has to lead, some people have to follow, and some people chose to do neither of those things. What might the qualities of a “good” or “great” leader be? You don’t need to serve in the military to define the traits of your ideal leader. Think about your favorite coach, teacher, parent, etc. I think it’s easier to describe the negative traits associated with poor leadership. Some of these negative qualities might be:

  • Lack of concern for a person’s troubles, personal or professional. Your disregard for their issues will hinder their ability to play their part, or worse, something horrible might happen to them. That’s on you.
  • Failure to provide a positive example (i.e. “do as I say, not as I do”). Walk the walk and talk the talk — promoting isn’t a free pass to be a P.O.S.
  • Not standing up for your people (“no backbone”). If you don’t have their back, who does?
  • Pawning off your responsibilities on other people. Delegation doesn’t equate to you doing nothing. Laziness fosters hate and discontent.
  • Expecting someone to do something you would never do.
  • Telling someone who works for you that you don’t care about their personal life and their emotional well-being. Telling as in verbally letting them know, but showing that you don’t care is just as pitiful.

Bad leaders think they’re good leaders. Sounds funny, but it’s true. Maybe not all of them are naive to their toxicity, but I’m sure there are a healthy amount of walking trash cans that think they are perfect. Toxic leadership spreads amongst the ranks, spawning more toxicity and physical/emotional issues. Toxicity is contagious and I fear that environment more than the Coronavirus. It’s odd how often the problem in a situation is actually YOU. Let that simmer for a second. The difference between a good and a bad leader is the good leader would take notice and search inward for clarity.

Traits of a good leader? I would never say that I’m perfect, so I’m not describing myself. I’ve had quite a few bad leaders, and a few good leaders, but I’ve observed plenty of positive traits amongst both throughout my career. The following traits/qualities/actions are only a snippet of what it takes to be a good leader:

  • Earn your place. Every. Single. Day. The hardest worker should be the lead sled dog.
  • Lead by example — and expect the same of those around you. You’ll only gain more respect for setting the standard and ensuring your peers doing the same.
  • Stand up for yourself, and your people, at all times. The second you backpedal on your people, you lose their respect forever.
  • Mentor those around you. You won’t be around forever, so provide quality instruction to your replacement(s). Taking the time to help someone grow will benefit you and that person.
  • Communicate — early, often, and effectively. The best leaders always share information, ensure people understand, and solicit feedback.
  • Build up your people’s confidence. Sure, a gut check is required once in a while, but it better be calculated in terms of pushing someone to that next level. Confidence in themselves and their work will translate to increased performance.
  • Take the time to find out the “why” behind someone’s actions. More often than not, poor performance in the workplace is a symptom of something that person is going through. The best leaders care, show they care, prove they care, and make others care.
  • Don’t forget where you came from. Be the leader you wished that you had during your earlier years. The “back in my day” sh*t didn’t work when your Dad said it during your childhood, it’s certainly not going to be effective on adults.
  • Never think you’re “too good” to work side-by-side with your junior guys. The impact you’ll make by simply doing the dirty work with them on occasion will be profound.

I think it’s pretty easy. Similar to a Dad who is devoted to his children, a leader who focuses their efforts and emotions on their people can’t go wrong. If you’re in a leadership position, and you find that you’re driven by your own needs and successes — you’re part of the problem. Put your people first. Their success is your success.


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