“Where do I start?” That’s a key question when confronting the U.S. Coast Guard’s ambitious Leadership Development Framework (COMDTINST 5351-3A). As someone who’s developed leaders in the Coast Guard since 1994, I have some thoughts to offer.
- Start with yourself.
Leadership begins with you. Knowing yourself – your values, personality, and experiences - can reveal your strengths, weaknesses and blind spots as a leader. Build from there.
- Reflect on your experiences.
The great American educator John Dewey said, “We don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” With this in mind, think of important experiences in your personal and professional life. As you do so, consider this simple format:
- What? – What happened? Run the film of the experience, as if a vid-eo camera recorded it. What role did you play? What triggered the ex-perience? How did it end?
- So what? – What stands out as significant? What was out of the ordi-nary? What elements of this experience relate to other experiences you’ve had?
- Now what? – What did you learn from this? How can this experience inform your future actions? What would you do differently next time? What would you do the same way?
- Strive to get better - not to be perfect.
We have a saying in the Leader Development arena: “There’s no growth in the comfort zone, and no comfort in the growth zone.” While perfection is a worthy goal some of the time, it often gets in the way of learning and growth - or even starting. There’s often inertia when launching projects when we feel we lack competence and experience. Yet there’s often genius when we start to tackle challenges with a focus on incremental improvements, collaboration, and humility.
- Seek balance.
Another popular saying in the Leader Development arena is: “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
A struggle all leaders face is how to balance mission and people. The Coast Guard has a lot of systems and reminders in place to ensure you meet your mission requirements. Unfortunately, the systems to ensure you meet your people and relationship requirements are often less available. So as you try to strike a balance between mission and people, remember to put the people first, since that priority is often less prominent.
- Enjoy the journey.
Leadership is a journey, and every journey is unique. The Leadership Development Framework is a useful guide on your journey to becoming a more effective leader. It points out what to look for along the way and provides five key destinations to visit as you venture forward.
- The first destination of your journey is you. Be increasingly aware of your health (mental and physical), values, responsibilities, relationships, personality, competencies, experiences, strengths and growth areas.
- The second station on your journey should focus on how you impact others – direct reports, peers, bosses, teammates, customers and partners.
- Your third destination involves improving performance in the work-place through problem solving, process improvement, conflict management, collaborating and partnering.
- Your fourth destination focuses on thinking strategically, making the best use of our human and physical resources, and leading within larger systems and coalitions.
- For our most seasoned travelers, the fifth and final destination is leading the Coast Guard. If you aspire to reach this destination, you should appreciate the competing demands of our internal and external partners, the complexities of our systems, and the challenges and benefits of creating a more inclusive culture.
As your leadership journey progresses, loop back to every station. A common framework and shared core values help to ensure we’re all using the same chart, even though our individual tracklines will differ.
Interested in diving deeper? Read Kouzes and Posner, 2017. The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations (6th Edition), Wiley & Sons.