Leadership: It Will End Your Career – Opinion

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October 20, 2020

Photo courtesy Michael Carr

LTC Colonel Alexander Vindman has demonstrated exemplary leadership, as have Navy Captains Brett Crozier and Charles McVay, but all three were fired. Summarily removed from their positions of responsibility despite decades of unwavering and unblemished service, and despite the Soldiers and Sailors they commanded holding each in high esteem, devotion, and support. These three courageous officers demonstrated what we have been instructed, throughout our military careers, to be “leadership”.

During my 32 years of combined military and merchant marine service; as a Coast Guard commissioned officer, licensed merchant captain, and Army Marine Warrant Officer, I have attended a multitude of leadership training courses, seminars, and programs. Each portended to teach “Leadership” and sometimes both “Leadership & Management”. My most recent experience was a Coast Guard mandated course in “Leadership & Management” necessary to renew my Coast Guard Masters license. In years before that training, there were courses in leadership during my four years as a cadet at the USCGC Academy, several courses while an officer in the Coast Guard, many more during my time in the Merchant Marine, and finally a plethora of Leadership courses while a Warrant Officer in the Army.

Some of these courses were taught by “contractors” who professed to have some secret sauce or unique acronym to describe and codify leadership. Many courses had scenarios in which we discussed how to be a leader in an office environment. These scenarios contained opening sentences such as “Bill, Mary and Fred are assigned a project, but Fred is new to the office and unfamiliar with the project parameters. How would you lead the team?” Never did we have a scenario which started with “You are extremely fatigued, having stood deck watches of 6 hours on and 6 off for the past week, you are doing a tandem tow in the Gulf of Mexico when you receive a storm warning from NOAA, your starboard engine is overheating, the 3rd mate is sick…how do you provide Leadership…..?” There were never real-world scenarios. I always wondered: why does the military use civilian corporate office scenarios to teach us leadership? And why are contractors paid so much?

Leadership, whether being taught or executed in the real world, is not easy. No acronym memorializes what actions are necessary, there is no secret sauce.

In truth, the military often rejects and dislikes dynamic leadership. True leadership is often only recognized when it is undertaken in times of war or impending disaster, and even then if you fail you will surely be reprimanded or fired.

Why? Because the military thrives on conformity, to adherence to culture, to maintaining the status quo above all else. Examine LTC Colonel Vindman’s actions; he maintained his oath to “Protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic”.

When he was subsequently fired by the President of the United States, did anyone in the military chain of command come to his defense? No. LTC Colonel Vindman deserved and had earned a promotion to full Colonel, was he promoted? No. He was forced to retire. What better example of leadership can you find? I would follow LTC Vindman into combat in a heartbeat.

Do we want our officers and leaders to be most concerned with the promotion, and adherence to the consensus, even when we know that “group thinks” is wrong? Do we want officers who easily justify unethical actions, and easily violate their solemn oath to duty, honor, country?

Captain Crozier demonstrated leadership when he took full responsibility for his crew and his ship’s operational capability. He followed the chain of command and identified in factual and precise detail of what actions should be taken. Was he thanked or rewarded for being proactive, insightful, and correct? No. He was fired by a political appointee who was ill-informed and personally embarrassed. And finally, we all know the fate of USS Indianapolis’s Captain Charles McVay, he was the scapegoat for serious errors and mistakes by the US Navy bureaucracy.

If we expect officers and senior enlisted to step up and demonstrate leadership, to take responsibility and initiative, to look out for the welfare of their Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coasties, then let’s stop equating civilian “Leadership” to military leadership. Let’s accept that demonstrating leadership is difficult, often very difficult, and potentially will end your career. I recently read an article titled Warren Buffett Says Success Will Come After You Learn This 1 Rare Leadership Trait. Wow, I thought, as I scanned the article, what could be this magic one leadership trait? In the words of the article, it is “the rare trait of patience…” Say what?

I thought back on my combat deployment to Iraq as an electronic warfare officer, working 18-hour days coordinating Navy jets to jam IED detonations, striving to protect unrelenting military missions. What does “patience” have to do with that I thought? The answer, nothing, because being a military officer has nothing to do with patience or being a civilian financial investor. Most often being an officer requires no patience, but a commitment to solving problems now, and achieving flawless mission execution.

We need military officers who are smart, intelligent, people-oriented, curious, focused on leading warriors toward flawlessly accomplishing stressful missions under ambiguous, doctrine deficient, and contradictory environments. We need men and women willing to step up and put their character on the line. Who is empowered to speak up, analyze facts, take action and always push forward?

We should recognize and reward these individuals and embrace their actions. That is Leadership. It’s tough, it hurts, it’s not easy, it is what separates success from failure, and it will sometimes end your career.

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