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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Aug. 31, 2020

3-Minute Interview: Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Jason Vanderhaden

By Christie St. Clair, MyCG Writer

When I met Master Chief Vanderhaden a few years ago, we both wanted to chat about the same things: leadership styles and workforce communications. So it seems fitting to ask him about leadership for MyCG, our brand-new platform for talking with Coast Guard members.

The military branches keep touting “intrusive leadership.” But I’m not sure I’d want to be on the receiving end of “intrusive leadership.” What is this all about?
It’s intrusive in a figurative sense, where you’re asking probing questions. But I like the term engaged leadership better - you’re trying to get to know someone beyond what’s on the surface. As a supervisor, you don’t want to appear to be rude, or make people feel awkward. Sometimes, what someone wants to share with their supervisor isn’t as much as they SHOULD be sharing. So, “How are you doing”? “I’m having trouble making ends meet, but I’m okay.” If you just ask “Why” twice, you may not get to the root of the problem. If you ask “Why” five times, you might get the real answer. 

So it’s about getting to know your people?
It’s knowing your people well enough to know who needs more work, and who needs more mentoring. Some people need a push, and others need a pull. 
When I was an E5, I worked on a river tender. I was lazy. I didn’t try very hard. My senior chief just wanted me to make lunch. So I lived up to that expectation. New master chief comes on, Master Chief Mark Schweiger, a boatswain’s mate. He loaded me up with work. He demanded more than anybody had demanded of me before. Consequently, I felt better about myself. I was excited to come to work. So I wanted to do more.
Fast forward, I make senior chief. I’m at the chief’s academy. I get to work early and I’m studying all the time. But I hadn’t been an instructor, so I didn’t have the skills yet. Mark Thomas, the Chief Petty Officer Academy School Chief says, “Come sit with me. I want you to practice teaching this class to me.” Eventually, my skill ability matched the effort I was putting in. 
So there’s “push” leadership when someone’s effort doesn’t match their skills – “I’m going to push you to be better than you thought you could.” The reverse is when your people are giving it all they’ve got, but they don’t have the knowledge. That’s when you use “pull” leadership – “I’m coaching you, I’m training you.” 
I needed both those leadership styles in my career, and was fortunate to have a leader who was able to give me exactly what I needed at the right time. Some people need a push, and some people need a pull. If you do that well, you maximize your folks’ potential and their productivity.

What sets Coast Guard leadership apart from the other military branches?
Marine Corps leaders know that when an order is given, it will be followed – so you have to be very thoughtful about the order you’re going to give. The Air Force culture has more back and forth, it’s leadership by discussion. The Army is more hierarchical – orders work their way down. The Army invests a lot in leadership training at all levels. An E5, for example, gets months of leadership training. In the Navy, an officer is expected to go through their chief if they need something, so you’ll almost always never see an enlisted person dealing directly with their officer. I kind of stole this phrase from the Navy’s chief’s mess: “The chiefs run the ship, so the officers can fight the ship.” 
The Coast Guard is so small that we operate on an apprentice, journeyman and master level. So you’re watching and learning from the person above you. There’s no other military service in the world that places so much trust and confidence in the enlisted workforce. When the chips are down, an E4 is likely to be the one taking the initial action. And they step up! They do incredible work. That’s our secret sauce for Coast Guard leadership. 

With the Coast Guard’s apprentice approach, there’s a lot riding on every single person’s leadership skills.
Rarely does someone say, I just don’t love the Coast Guard missions anymore, so I’m leaving. Usually it’s a supervisor that drives them out. The Commandant would tell you that recruiting and maintaining the best talent will be the biggest challenge in our future. With the blended retirement system, people will not have the same draw to the 20-year retirement. At the same time, the demographics of the U.S are changing.  We’re going to try a few things that will hopefully improve our diversity, our inclusion, and the sense of purpose that everyone feels in the Coast Guard. We need people to think, “That looks like a neat place to serve. I get a good feeling when I see the people working for the Coast Guard. I want to be a Coastie.” That’s why we’re looking at how we grow our leaders.