Coast Guard Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate Bill James, officer in charge of the USCG Sea Horse, gives Master Chief of the Coast Guard Skip Bowen, left, and Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Rick West a tour of the ship on Jan. 15, 2009. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer Villalovos)

DHS Leadership Year: USCG’s Skip Bowen on What It Takes to Breach the Summit

Charles “Skip” Bowen joined Bollinger Shipyards in April 2011 as program manager for the Fast Response Cutter Program. In August 2012 he was promoted to Bollinger Shipyard’s vice president of government relations. Bowen served in the U.S. Coast Guard for 32 years ashore and afloat. Between 2006 and 2010 he culminated his career by serving as the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard. Bowen also serves on the board or advisory councils of several organizations affiliated with the military, including as president of the Association for Rescue at Sea, Coast Guard Enlisted Memorial Foundation, Veteran’s United Home Loans, First Command Financial Services, Broward Navy Days, and Mission Readiness.

Homeland Security Today caught up with Bowen to discuss the book Breaching the Summit: Inspiring Leadership Lessons from Six Military Journeys to the Top, in which six enlisted leaders — each of whom reached the highest levels of the Pentagon — share their personal stories, experiences, and lessons learned through a lifetime of service. Their mission is to improve workforce leadership ability by using the skills, techniques, and experiences gained from military service, post-military corporate careers, hard work, commitment, integrity, and respect for others.

HSToday: There are a lot of leadership books. Why should we read this one?

Bowen: Unlike most leadership books which focus on the advice from a single individual, Breaching the Summit is the result of a unique collaboration between six former service-level senior enlisted advisors. Together we represent over 190 years of proven leadership experience, and we were eager to pass on the lessons we wish we’d known when we started. Our group of senior enlisted leaders served as the champions for a force of more than 2 million soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, and Coast Guardsmen. The focus of the book is to help aspiring leaders improve their leadership ability by using the skills, techniques, and experiences we gained from military service, post-military corporate careers and, quite frankly, hard work, commitment, integrity, and respect for others. The lessons in leadership compiled within its pages come from a variety of military experiences and perspectives, crossing each of our nation’s armed services. It’s also important to note that Breaching the Summit can be enjoyed and informative for a wide variety of readers. The valuable lessons found in this book aren’t just for members of the military, but can be found useful to leaders and potential leaders from any industry.

HSToday: What was your greatest challenge as an enlisted leader in the USCG?

Bowen: Once I was in a senior leadership environment my greatest challenge was probably learning how to be effective within the confines of a bureaucracy. Key elements for navigating through bureaucratic waters are identifying which individuals in the chain of decision-makers actually have the power to make things happen and learning the best way to socialize your idea or initiative throughout the chain to achieve a positive result. This includes being able to provide quantitative details regarding the impact of any changes you propose and how resources will be affected. Every bureaucracy is home to a phalanx of decision-makers looking for any reason to tell you no — being able to present an initiative with a clear, well-researched plan of action detailing the means by which to achieve it as well as its expected result is paramount to getting your proposal greenlit.

HSToday: What did you find to be common pieces of advice from the leaders who joined in writing Breaching the Summit?

Bowen: Communication. The importance of effective communication is definitely a theme that weaves through everyone’s experiences throughout the book. Leaders that master all forms of communication, including speaking, writing, controlling body language, and knowing when to just be quiet and listen, are well on their way to becoming successful leaders.

Another theme that crops up throughout the book is the importance of maintaining standards at all times. Careful consideration and a critical examination of all options should be used whenever determining the necessity of a departure from established standards, policies, and protocol. When a departure from standards is deemed necessary it should be achieved through the avenue of established waiver procedures, etc.

HSToday: What is your best piece of advice for an upcoming shipmate?

Bowen: Don’t be afraid of hard work, and don’t turn a job down because it’s challenging. Often the most challenging jobs are the ones that actually make a difference. Give your all in every position you find yourself in. If you do that throughout your career you will find that you made a huge and positive impact on the organization itself and its members.

HSToday: What do you believe are the three essential qualities of a good leader?

Bowen: Boldness, tenacity, and the ability to communicate. Good leadership requires boldness. Commit yourself to those you are leading because the moment that you take command or are put in charge you become responsible for your crew and their success. Your duty as their leader is to hold the team together and help everyone thrive. Help them understand that they are now members of a team who will collectively succeed in whatever mission the team undertakes. Empower them to take ownership of the mission. Tenacity is an important key to getting things done as a leader. The best ideas are often abandoned long before reaching fruition simply because someone threw in the towel when they met resistance. It takes time and patience to work through all of the roadblocks but good leaders learn how to do this. And finally, communication. Without effective communication, every other principle of good leadership is useless. Verbal skills, clear orders, and written instructions are all essential to connecting with your team, conveying ideas and getting results.

HSToday: Have you ever come across a terrible leader that you were able to “mentor up”? What’s your advice in those situations?

Bowen: Anyone can learn to lead if they have an honest desire to understand what it takes to motivate a team. Unfortunately, terrible leaders often don’t recognize their own shortcomings. If a person is not committed to understanding the principles of good leadership and looking fairly at their own actions then they will not improve. Regrettably, most of the truly terrible leaders that I have met had no real interest in taking a hard look at themselves. I’ve known folks who could repeat all the right buzz words but when it came to actual application it was obvious that they were not really committed to being a successful leader. Good leadership starts with taking an honest look at yourself in order to understand your own motivations and taking action to improve.

HSToday: Is there something that you do every day — or that you recommend others to do — that helped “breach the summit”?

Bowen: Again, look for opportunities to make a positive impact and once you have that opportunity work as hard as you can to breach whatever the summit is, small or large. You may be dealing with something that will only make a small difference. But every small positive difference adds up incrementally. Most summits are breached by conquering a series of small hills. Larger and larger hills will lead to the mountaintop.

HSToday: What was your favorite part of the job?

Bowen: For me, it was the ability to make a positive difference. For the organization, for the team, and for individual members. There is no better feeling that accomplishing a worthwhile objective through a team of individuals. Motivating, mentoring, and empowering them to succeed. In the end it was the people whose lives I touched that mattered the most to me. I tried to set an example at every command that I had. I tried to be respectful and involved with each member of my crew and I did my best to coach and mentor those crewmembers in their careers and lives. There was never any doubt that they were my priority. I had their backs and to this day I consider them family. I’m proud to say that their lives and service in the Coast Guard are my legacy.

Kristina Tanasichuk is CEO of the Government Technology & Services Coalition and Executive Editor of Homeland Security Today. She founded GTSC to advance communication and collaboration between the public and private sector in defense of our homeland.  A leader in homeland security public private partnership, critical infrastructure protection, cyber security, STEM, innovation, commercialization and much more, she brings to HST decades of experience and expertise in the intersection of the public and private sectors in support of our homeland's security. Tanasichuk worked for Chairman Tom Bliley on electric utility restructuring for the House Commerce Committee, then for municipal electric utilities sorting out deregulation. She also worked for the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.; ran the largest homeland conference and trade show in the country; and represented public works departments In homeland security immediately after 9/11. Tanasichuk brings a new vision and in-depth knowledge of the federal homeland and national security apparatus to the media platform.  She is also the president and founder of Women in Homeland Security. She has attended the FBI and DEA Citizens Academies and the Marine Corps Executive Leadership Program and holds her undergraduate degree from St. Olaf College and an MPA from George Mason University.

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