Sunday, October 30, 2011

Waiting to Lead

Note: I am repeatedly reminded of how fortunate I am to be surrounded by such great people. The below post (my first guest posting) comes from a Shipmate whom I have yet to meet in person. Though we haven't met, we have created a few side projects and have plans for a few more. He's a guy who cares more about IT getting done than about WHO does it, and as a result, he makes IT happen. LCDR Chuck Hall is not one who waits to lead and I can assure you in time, neither will his son. Thanks for making the time to share your thoughts, Chuck...

My son was assigned a group project at school, to be completed over a three-day weekend. On Monday, I noticed that his group hadn't had any meetings and I was curious how the project was proceeding. Shortly after dinner Monday night I inquired as to his progress. He really wasn't sure who in the group had completed what, or even how the tasks were divided. Obviously, I wasn't happy with the answer. When I asked him who was in charge he told me that no one had been designated the leader. More on that in a minute...

In the Navy we rarely lack designated leadership. We all wear our rank on our sleeves and everyone fits into the chain-of-command in one way or another. Yet situations wanting of leadership happen more often than we think. Peer groups, like my son's class, often lack a designated leader. Working groups and committees may wait for a natural leader to step forward. Even when leadership is designated, that leader may fail to lead, or produce a less than desired result. All of these situations, like that of my son's, represent opportunities to lead.

Leaders aren't always designated by higher-authority, or senior in rank or position. Oftentimes leaders are simply those who don't wait to be led. Given the opportunity they take charge, the outcome often better for their efforts. They don’t wait around to be told what to do. Instead, they understand what needs to be done and they do it. Think back a few days or weeks, or even over the course of your career, and you will probably identify an abundance of these opportunities to lead.

I just completed serving nearly four years in Naval Special Warfare (NSW). I had never before served with this community and found the opportunity and experience to be truly remarkable. Of the many things the NSW community does well, leadership is one. In my experience, rarely was a leader designated. Yet rarely was there a wanting of leadership. As I completed my tour I promised myself to take the things I had learned in NSW and apply them in future tours. Encouraging spontaneous leadership is one of those lessons.

The recently released Cryptologic Community Foundational Principles represents a call to action for those waiting to lead. The document focuses on collective ownership of what is truly our community. In its summary, the guidance challenges the community to, “err on the side of action” and “demonstrate personal initiative.” Ultimately, this document emphasizes one of the key traits I observed in NSW -- fostering spontaneous leadership.

So, back to my son and his school project. After relaying a similar message regarding leadership, I had only one question to ask him -- what are you waiting for?


  1. On the flip side, if you want to see everyone in a team fight to take the lead, comprise it with nothing but Mustangs!

    Seriously though, you bring to light an interesting truism. While I can see it being more predominant in the civilian sector and everyday life, it is surprising how often it occurs in a military environment. I'm curious what you think the cause could be? Are people overworked and just not interested in adding on more responsibilities? Are they just too comfortable with the status quo? While those may sometimes be the case, in my opinion it is a combination of those and the perceived return on investment (ROI). You won't have a hard time finding people to take recognizable leadership positions (CO, XO, CMC, other) because they are career enhancing and have other perceived and real benefits. However, for the everyday opportunities to be a leader, if the perception is that they won't get much out of it, then they may not consider it worth the effort.

  2. To expand a little on NavyCyberPro's comment: Not every experiment is a success, so if an experiment fails there likely is some concern with what the ramifications for one's career might be.

    I think this post would meld nicely into an older post of yours where you discussed the possibility of superiors being willing to underwrite the honest mistakes of their juniors. If such was prevailing practice, I suspect you'd see more competition for chances to lead.

  3. I think there are a few strands here to consider. First - commands have to foster an environment of innovation and spontaneity. They should encourage original thought and give command members latitude to start their own projects, even with the knowledge that some may fail. Second - command members need to learn how to identify problems AND propose solutions. Anyone can identify a problem, but it takes some original thought to identify and propose a solution. Third - and this relates to your final sentence, if the effort improves the command, or its mission, in some way, isn't that enough reward? For some, yes.

  4. I am really impressed with the use of this type of forum to exchange ideas about real issues that many of us think of on a daily bases. Few engage in an open nonthreatening conversation about these subjects that concern us because others might take it personal. This forum is especially important because the participants can relate with our organization/commands’ environment and the things that take place within it.
    It is crucial to foster an on-line and off-line environment that welcomes respectful, honest and open communication. I think that many avoid speaking the truth, or at least sharing how they perceive things to be, for fear of retribution. This should never be the case, but it is real.
    So, I wonder, why is it so difficult to cultivate an environment that is conducive to open and honest dialogue. In my 22 years of service, I have experienced different degrees of communication effectiveness within the organizations I have been a part of. This is not relegated to the Navy because I have had my share of exposure to multi-service environment. I have witnessed bosses who ask their board of directors, departments or divisions… what is your opinion? What is on your minds? Any thoughts? … all you get is silence. Why? Is it because people are scared to speak up? Fear of being ridiculed? Or just feel that they really have nothing of value to share?
    It is truly important to create the ideal environment whereby people feel empowered and encouraged to want to communicate. They should feel that their voices, experience and ideas are valuable. Welcoming this type of behavior helps build a stronger team.
    This forum is a good example of the type of behaviors and environment that must be encouraged in our organizations.