The sign read “Parking Reserved for Commanding Officers Only.”
So, we parked our truck there.
I could sense hesitancy among the crew that had accompanied me to the Naval Base that morning. We were all fully aware of the sentiment expressed within the designation of reserved parking.
Carlos was the first to verbalize a collective trepidation as we pulled into the open space.
“Skipper, are you sure it’s okay for us to park here?”
“Of course,” I responded, motioning to the sign. “I’m a Commanding Officer, right? Let’s go.”
Besides, there were at least eight such spaces available, and only one Skipper in sight: me.
Self-Assurance of Style
It was about nine months into my assignment as Commanding Officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Point Whitehorn, and three months into a resurgence of confidence and self-assurance following a less than impressive beginning to my tour.
The memory now serves as a reminder of how critical it is to not only establish but maintain your identity as a leader.
Positions and assignments come and go, accompanied by varying degrees of success. While each will leave their impression on your growth as a leader, who you are remains constant.
Maintaining connection to a core set of personal values and beliefs provides structure as you learn and grow, guiding development of your potential, and allowing you the freedom to explore new ways of inspiring performance.
Lose that all important connection and you risk having a position define you, instead of defining what you bring to the position.
Some Call It Swag
Swag wasn’t really a trendy term at the time. Doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.
It was boldness and self-confidence that led to my assignment in St. Thomas, a coveted position among peers for its unmatched autonomy amid the pristine beauty of the U. S. Virgin Islands.
While I rode this momentum into the position, I was quickly overwhelmed by a lack of practical experience and an absence of quality guidance and mentorship. The demands of an intense operating schedule consumed every waking thought, suffocating a desire to enjoy the benefits of leadership and pursuit of even the simplest of personal interests.
My identity was evolving into who other people thought I should be, instead of staying true to the person, and officer, I wanted to be.
A change in my command structure and a swift kick in the behind from my newfound mentor brought me back to center.
What re-emerged was my genuine self: someone who likes to work hard and commit to an honest effort, balanced by an opportunity to enjoy the experience, seizing little moments that add levity and somehow make it all seem worthwhile.
Everyone knew I was in charge . . . it said so on my nameplate and I was the only one wearing gold bars.
But I now viewed my role from the perspective of a shared experience. The crew and I were bonding through a never-ending list of professional obligations and service-related commitments.
It was important for them to know who I was, and more importantly, to know they could depend on that person being there through thick and thin.
There was an incredible sense of security in returning to how I originally intended to lead.
Allowing a glimpse into the real you, providing your team a feel for what matters most to you personally, can pay huge dividends.
Stay in the moment to seize the opportunities.
For example: As much as I appreciate the sanctity of military tradition and customs, I’ve been known to push the boundaries at times.
Like our holiday card (pictured above). Even to this day, when I describe being stationed in St. Thomas, people assume it was all sandy beaches and frozen drinks with tiny umbrellas. Well, why burst the bubble?
I can’t remember who had the original idea, but I was all for it. We had planned a mid-patrol break in Cinnamon Bay, a charmingly quiet little inlet along the picturesque north shore of St. John, USVI.
Once ferried to the beach in the ridged hull inflatable (that’s sailor-talk for small rubber boat), we used a tripod and timer to capture the shot.
The crew and their families back home loved it. Needless to say, no one in my chain of command received a copy.
Another example was Kilo, a mangy little puppy found stumbling along the road by the wife of our Chief Engineer.
He was nursed back to health pro bono by a local vet and became our ship’s mascot, accompanying us on day patrols and short trips.
We weren’t the first ship in the history of naval service to adopt a pet as a mascot, but we could boast being the only one among several units in our Section.
Which brings us back to the matter of parking in spaces reserved for Commanding Officers only. I was accustomed to a level of respect reserved for those in command, to being recognized as Point Whitehorn when being piped aboard and departing visiting ships.
My crew wasn’t.
One small gesture demonstrated a level of pride and respect some may take for granted. It inspired a sense of relevance and elevated esteem through a connection to tradition and time-honored customs.
They could share in something larger than self, if for only a moment or two.
Perhaps one occurrence or circumstance won’t make a difference. Collectively, they can speak volumes about who you are as a leader, and why people will turn to you for guidance.
Influencing Team Identity
It’s a popular topic among talking heads and other sports related media channels.
“The team has taken on the identity of their coach” . . . Funny thing is, the statement doesn’t say if that’s a good thing or bad thing.
It does reflect the influence a leader’s identity has over the performance and attitude of their team. These are a few reminders to heed along the journey:
Role Model Behavior
Leadership is the ability to influence the behavior of those looking to you for guidance.
Your crew or team will act like a sponge, just waiting to soak up mannerisms, attitude, habits, and other informal influencers that shape their performance.
It’s not uncommon to find a team that appears separate and aloof, only to discover their muse in the attitude of a coach or leader.
Likewise, a close-knit team that exudes passion and confidence reflects a leader who approaches life in a similar fashion, that extends these like qualities beyond an immediate circle to influence their environment.
Remember: Know who you are and be the leader you would want to follow.
Adjust Your Delivery, Not Your Passion
Communication is an art form most of us will spend a lifetime trying to master.
I would never encourage you to stray too far from center. However, the way you communicate with your team must reflect the way your message will be best received.
Embrace the fact that some people don’t respond to fire and brimstone; others need more than a gentle voice to inspire action.
Read the signals from your team. Measure the quality of your efforts by the resulting influence on behavior.
Stay true to yourself but know that there is more than one way to get the message through.
Have Fun, Be Positive
Your role as a leader will expose you to the harshness of reality.
While accompanied by a commitment to honesty and transparency, you’re also the one being trusted to guide everyone else to the light.
Embrace a genuine sense of positivity; share optimism in the spirit of community.
Skirting dangerously close to paraphrasing Shania, “It’s a leader’s prerogative to have a little fun.” Make the choice to add levity whenever possible.
Out Before The In Crowd
Walking out of the Exchange at the former Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, we noticed many of the reserved parking spaces around us had been filled by Senior Officers, most of whom had served their country for more years than I had walked the earth.
If the spaces were all filled, and we were seen exiting the Exchange, I’d probably have some uncomfortable impromptu questions to answer. We quickly jumped into our truck and headed back to San Juan.
It was totally worth the experience.
My identity was intact, I was proud of my Command, proud of my crew, and confident enough to let others know it.
Now, about leaving the boat to take a group photo . . .
This is Tall Tim, and I am At Your Service!