I made the decision to join the military because of an idealized notion of what life in the military would be like. Before I shipped off to Navy Officer Candidate’s School, I’d thought a career as a Naval Officer would be like something from Crimson Tide or Top Gun. The reality of life on a ship and at sea turned out to be far more pedestrian.
One bright spot was what I learned from my Captain by observing how he dealt with his crew and, more specifically, how he dealt with me. Looking back at my previous life before I’d joined the service, I realize I would have been a much more effective leader if I’d learned these lessons of exercising empathy and care then.
Among the many lessons he taught me, here are three:
1. “Touch Every Plate to Keep It Spinning”
My job is similar to that of a plate spinner. My goal is to touch every plate to keep it spinning.
Soon after I moved onboard the ship, I found that I’d been placed squarely behind the eight ball. I was having a difficult time at the outset — I had lost the senior enlisted person in one of my two divisions and less than a week later, her replacement was transferred off the ship as a result of personnel issues. I was a junior officer with no previous experience at the job that I had been assigned. Furthermore, I was on a newly built ship, which meant that the division would need to be established from scratch.
Occasionally, my Captain would stop by my office to ask how things were going, and I could tell he was genuinely concerned about both my welfare and the state of the operation I had been put in charge of. When I had to see him on official business, he always made a point of asking how I was doing and managing despite the personnel shortfall. He told me that he understood I was in a difficult situation and that he appreciated my efforts to succeed despite the challenges I was facing.
Your reports may face difficult situations — and sometimes there’s precious little you can do to help them. Often in these situations, the people in charge remain silent, not because they don’t care but because they feel like they can’t contribute directly to helping solve the problem. Maybe it’s a grueling work schedule spurred by a hot deadline, dealing with a difficult client, or trying to complete a project understaffed and underfunded.
You might not always be able to alleviate the pain of those under you but you should always try to let them know you care. At times, those brief interactions with my Captain were the only things that kept my plate spinning.
2. “Where’d you get the bottled water?”
It was hot. We were transitioning through the Panama Canal. I had been on the bridge since 2:30 AM, it was now roughly noon, and I knew that my day was still far from over. One of my collateral duties on the ship was to serve as “Pilot Escort” meaning that it was my job to meet the harbor pilots at the side-port door, walk them up to the bridge (where the Captain/Officer of the Deck drives the ship), and see to it that they had whatever they needed.
The harbor pilot, who helps guide the ship through sometimes unfamiliar territory, is a pretty powerful person. In the Panama Canal, he can determine whether or not a vessel is fit to transit the channel, so when this particular pilot turned to me and said, “I’d like a bottled water,” I dutifully (and wearily) trudged back down 8 or so ladder wells (think flights of stairs), put a dollar in the vending machine, and plodded back up the same eight decks to give it to him.
About a half hour later, my Captain came up to me and asked, “Where’d you get the bottled water?”
“From the vending machine,” I responded. He then offered reimbursement but I declined. It was only a dollar, I figured. Besides, the fact that the Captain who had so many things to worry about on the bridge while the ship was making its way to the other side of the canal even noticed what I’d done was really all the repayment I needed.
It might be the guy from IT that comes into the conference room to set things up 30 minutes before a key presentation, an office assistant to brings in a birthday card for everyone to sign, or maybe an employee who doesn’t have an expense account but still takes a client out to lunch on her own dime. Every organization has people who, in seemingly insignificant ways, do things to make your business succeed. Sometimes, a little bit of recognition can go a very long way.
3. “In some ways, you and I are similar.”
I was in the hot seat. I let stress get to me and I yelled at a subordinate in a profanity-laden tirade. I wasn’t a happy camper and I made sure to let him know it. It was a very unprofessional way for an officer to deal with a junior Sailor. When word of my actions made their way to my Captain, I expected, at the very least, a stern lecture. Instead, what I got was more of a conversation.
“I’m disappointed that this happened, and I think you are too,” he said to me.
He went on to explain that he himself had a temper that he had learned to control. The message I got was that I, too, could become a better person and a better leader by being mindful of how I treated others and by nipping my rage in the bud before it got out of hand. If he could do it and be the type of leader that I respected — maybe so could I.
Far too often people in charge feel as though they have to project an image of infallibility, that they have to be a shining example of perfection. As my Captain demonstrated to me, sometimes revealing your weaknesses can be a way of motivating those under you to overcome theirs.
The way my Captain treated his crew of about 400 people spoke volumes about how much he genuinely cared about the Sailors in his charge. While I’m happy to have moved on in my career, I will always be grateful for the opportunity I was given to serve under a Captain I consider to be a good man and a great leader who taught me that there’s more to leadership than command-and-control.
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