The question shouldn’t have been a surprise. “So, you just came from command. What did you learn?” Here was my chance to impart all the wisdom I had accumulated over the previous 18 years, culminating in command of a Navy Super Hornet squadron. “So, what did you learn?…”, the inquisitor repeated. “Um…” I sputtered. I had no clue what to say.
I had just concluded my command tour with Strike Fighter Squadron 147 in Lemoore, CA when I began my Navy Federal Executive Fellowship at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts University. With this amazing opportunity to broaden my skillset as an officer, I was excited to share anything I could to help this impressive group of mid-20s civilians. I recognized very early that I could learn a lot from them, as well.
I quickly struck up a friendship with an incoming master’s student named Colin Steele. I was impressed with him as a person, by his depth of knowledge on security issues, and how he carried himself. It was clear that he was eager to learn from anyone who had anything useful to teach, and the military fellows appeared to be pretty high on his list. Little did I know his curiosity would provide me with my first big learning opportunity.
At the end of my “Navy 101” talk, where I covered my career and some general information about the U.S. Navy, Colin asked his question: “So, you just came from command. What did you learn?” It really threw me off. I had no clue what to say. I stammered, “Uh, that would take a long time to cover.” He replied, “Well, we’ve got a year. Give it some thought.”
“EPIC FAIL” flashed through my mind in big, bold letters. How was it possible that I couldn’t articulate all that I had learned in my amazing, challenging, gut wrenching, exhausting, uplifting, and incredibly rewarding command tour?
My problem was reflection. I simply hadn’t done any. Challenge accepted, Colin. Here are six things I learned specifically in command. This list is not all-inclusive and by no means am I claiming that I nailed these all of the time, or even most of the time, but as I reflect on my successes and shortcomings, these are the major takeaways.
Lesson #1: Be yourself.
I’m pretty sure if you asked anyone who worked for me, they would tell you my leadership style was a little unorthodox for the Navy. Perhaps, but my style was perfectly orthodox for me. I enjoyed being loose with my people. I tried to be funny and relished in their comfort using humor with me. I joked with them. I took crap from them. I spoke very casually with them and they returned the favor in spades.
When one of my guys told me I reminded him of Jim Carrey (not normally high praise for an O-5 commander), I took it as a huge compliment. I worked very hard to cultivate an atmosphere where my people felt comfortable being around me. I felt I needed that comfort to be an effective commander and the way they responded made me a better leader.
Can you change your approach? Can you learn leadership from a book? Absolutely, but it must suit you. If you’re not funny, don’t try to be funny. If you’re not comfortable yelling, then don’t yell. As you evolve as a leader, take bits and pieces from books, experiences, and leaders you have observed, good and bad, and integrate what works for you. That said, never try to be someone you’re not. Be yourself. It’s gotten you this far.
Lesson #2: Set some goals for yourself and establish a vision for your command.
Once you’ve reaffirmed what kind of commander you want to be, figure out what you hope to accomplish. I adopted this technique years ago and I’ve tried to revisit it whenever I take on new assignment. I created some goals based on strengths, others on weaknesses, and some were centered on the fact that I was facing a new challenge. I wanted to maintain my strengths, improve where I needed to improve, and be ready for the unknown.
Your goals are for you. Write them down and review them often to see how you’re doing. That said, don’t forget you are leading a command with goals of its own (that you need to set). Clearly spell out your vision for the command. This does not have to be fancy. I had three one-word guiding principles and three one-word priorities. They seemed to resonate.
Lesson #3: Everyone is learning; help them learn.
My squadron had some unique challenges during my time in command. In the face of one such challenge, we decided to shake up the leadership billets in the maintenance department. We inserted several young, less experienced petty officers into the role of Leading Petty Officer (LPO) in their particular shops. It was a risk and several complained to me that they were not ready for the increase in responsibility. “We don’t have any experience as LPOs. You just threw us into this.” Yes, yes I did.
Then I asked them how much experience they thought I had as a commanding officer before I took over as Skipper. The answer was none. I think my honesty took them back a little when I admitted that I was learning, too. I didn’t have all the answers. We were on this adventure together. My job was to help them learn and theirs was to help me learn.
Remember, your superiors are new to their current job, too. Help your boss learn. As the commander, your job is to teach and learn, up and down the chain of command. In the end, my inexperienced personnel excelled and I probably learned more from them than they learned from me. The more power you give away the more you will receive. Trust begets trustworthiness. Take advantage of that.
Lesson #4: It’s all about people (and I don’t mean you).
This was probably the biggest lesson I relearned in command. Your people are your most valuable asset. Period. It does not matter what mission you are assigned or what kind of equipment you have or how much funding and support your command receives. Without good people you can accomplish almost nothing; with good people you can accomplish almost anything.
And when I say you, I really mean them. I was continually astounded by what my squadron achieved. I tried as hard as I could to put them in a position to succeed, made sure they had everything they needed, and then I got out of their way. Watching them answer the bell every time, over and over in the face of the biggest challenges I had encountered in 18 years in naval aviation, was truly amazing. The success was theirs; I was privileged to be a part of the team.
I have often used the analogy that commanding a squadron was like have 200 children. It was every bit as challenging, rewarding, and at times draining. Feeling responsible for every aspect of your peoples’ lives is physically and emotionally exhausting. But it’s the good kind of exhausting. It was my people, not jet maintenance or flight hours, that kept me up at night. Those sleepless nights were well worth it, though. Make an attempt to care for your people. Find value in everyone who works for you. It’s worth it. Leadership is all about people.
Lesson #5: Communication is key.
This was the second biggest lesson. I identified a problem with communication almost immediately after showing up to the squadron as the executive officer. I pushed my senior enlisted leaders to put a concerted effort into improving communication with more junior sailors, who believed they were not getting the full picture. I asked them to explain what we were doing, how we were going to do it, and why.
I cannot overemphasize how important the why was to my sailors. I conceded that there wasn’t always enough time to explain everything, but I asked them try to give the sailors enough context so they understood what needed to be done and why. “I need you to go fix the radar on 207 because that’s the fourth jet for the next event. LT O’Toole needs that jet for his checkride.” Helping your people understand why will generate buy-in like you won’t believe.
Still, effective communication is never easy and never complete. It’s an iterative process so don’t take your eye off the ball. If you find yourself declaring, “I’ve fixed communication in this command,” be ready for a big letdown. After all my efforts with communication, I made this very mistake. We were tasked with a flight deck certification and it was not popular tasking. It was short-notice, very demanding on maintenance, fraught with logistical challenges, it didn’t buy the squadron much, and it came with sub-par quarters aboard the ship.
Amidst the churn in getting the squadron ready to embark, I failed to emphasize how important this was for the ship we were certifying: they were set to deploy within days and we were indispensable in getting them ready to go over the horizon and into harm’s way.
Afterward, my squadron was angry, and rightly so. I realized my mistake and explained how crucial their efforts had been. It was an instant catharsis. “Oh, okay. Thanks, sir, I feel better now.” I wish I’d realized it was that easy and that keeping up communication could have saved my troops a lot of heartache. Never stop communicating. Get as much information to your command as you can. Be as transparent as possible, it’s well worth it.
Lesson #6: Enjoy yourself.
This one is not as easy as you might think. You’ve worked two decades to get to here, but sometimes it starts to feel like just another job. Command is anything but. Whenever someone new checked in, I met with them one on one and left them with two things to keep in mind during their time with the squadron: “why am I here” and, “holy cow, look where I am.”
The first revolved around their reason for joining the Navy and what they hoped to accomplish in life. Whether they wanted to be a 30-year master chief or an officer, to serve their country for a few years and grab the GI Bill, or just get out of small-town Iowa, I told them to remember their goals and why they were there. Second, I wanted them to take time out every so often and reflect positively on where they were. They should think about how far they’d come, realizing that small-town Iowa just spent his day crawling under $60 million jets with bombs hanging on them. Pretty cool.
Make sure you do the same during your command tour. Realize where you are and where you came from. Stop and smell the roses. If the job ever starts beating you down, step back and realize you are in command. It doesn’t get much better than that. Other than “Daddy,” no one has ever called me something as humbling and thrilling as “Skipper.” Enjoy your time in command. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.
Don’t Forget to Learn
So there you have it: be yourself, set goals, teach and learn, put people first, communicate, and have fun. Command is the toughest yet most rewarding time in your career. I would encourage anyone stepping into a leadership or command role to reflect on what you want to accomplish, and if you’re leaving command to think back on how you did and what you learned. This will be time well spent and will be of huge benefit to you, your people, and your command as a whole.
Back to lesson #3, keep in mind that everyone is learning, including you. Life comes at you pretty fast in command, make sure you find some time to reflect on what you’ve seen, done, and learned. Thanks for asking, Colin. If you hadn’t, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have learned anything.
Colin Steele is the former Special Assistant to the Vice President for Global Engagement, Georgetown University, a former editor for War on the Rocks, and currently a MALD candidate at the Fletcher School. I’d like to thank him for his interest, providing the impetus for this article, and his editorial prowess.