Two companies of Coast Guard recruits begin the first of six laps around a race track at Coast Guard Training Center Cape May on Sept. 12, 2007. (Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher D. McLaughlin)

Leading with Character: Core Values

Today, our society and its many organizations, institutions and businesses are in dire need of exceptional leaders who demonstrate core values-based character-centered leadership.

Most people recognize exceptional leadership when they experience it. Leaders of character are guided by core values, which are shaped over a lifetime of learning and experience. The Coast Guard Academy James M. Loy Institute for Leadership offers a compelling definition of a leader of character that has helped me steer a straight course:

A leader of character is one who embodies the Coast Guard Core Values and influences and inspires others to achieve a goal by seeking to discover the truth, deciding what is right, and demonstrating the courage to act accordingly, always.

Leading with character demands that individuals internalize and live by the personal and organizational core values that govern who they are and what they do.

Personal Core Values
We each have personal core values forged in our early years by our families, coaches, teachers, and other influencers. As a child, I learned to be honest and humble and that the way to succeed was through hard work and perseverance. Honesty, humility, hard work, and perseverance kept me centered throughout my youth.

When I entered high school, I tried out for the track team, but struggled to find my fit. Despite my athleticism, I lacked the speed to sprint and the endurance to run distance. I wasn’t built to run, and no amount of hard work and perseverance was going to turn me into a runner. At 5 feet, 9 inches I was tall, so I turned to the high jump and tried to master the technique. Once again, I didn’t have what it took; I lacked the explosive power needed for vertical lift. I couldn’t figure out why I failed at every aspect of track and field. What was wrong with me?

My coach didn’t give up and continued to encourage me as I participated with the team and tried to find my place. One day, as I walked past the area where the shot put and discus throwers practiced, a senior named Ann called me over.

“Hey, Sandy, you look like you could throw. Come over here and try this.”

She unceremoniously handed me an eight-pound metal shot put. Throwing the shot put requires a certain technique—a hop and turn that I wasn’t familiar with. I stood awkwardly in the throwing circle and chucked that ball of iron as best I could. To everyone’s amazement, especially mine, it arced gracefully through the air and landed with a thud a long way off. The others stared with their mouths open. From thence onward, I became a thrower. The discus throw came even more naturally, and I went on to win the state championship in my junior year.

With the help of my coach and Ann, who saw something in me, I found my true ability and purpose on the track team. Although the constant failure had tested my resolve, it taught me a valuable lesson in humility. Hard work and perseverance helped me develop the confidence, tempered by the humility of prior failure, that I would later need to succeed at the Coast Guard Academy.

Organizational Core Values
Organizations should have formal core values statements to ensure employees align their values with the organization, and the organization aligns with its stakeholders. It’s a virtuous cycle that leads to trust at all levels.

In 1994, then-Commandant Admiral Robert Kramek approved and implemented the Coast Guard’s Core Values:

Honor – Integrity is our standard. We demonstrate uncompromising ethical conduct and moral behavior in all of our personal actions. We are loyal and accountable to the public trust.

Respect – We value our diverse work force. We treat each other with fairness, dignity, and compassion. We encourage creativity through empowerment. We work as a team.

Devotion to Duty – We are professionals, military and civilian, who seek responsibility, accept accountability, and are committed to the successful achievement of our organizational goals. We exist to serve. We serve with pride.

Today, these core values are instilled in all new members from the day they join the Service. Every member of the Coast Guard is expected to internalize and live by these powerful, shared core values. They unite and strengthen us!

For each of the next three weeks, I’ll examine one of the Coast Guard’s core values and how it shapes leaders of character.

Look in the mirror. What are your personal core values and do you live them every day?

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.

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Vice Admiral Stosz, a Homeland Security Today editorial board member, started out in the U.S. Coast Guard as an ensign serving on polar icebreakers, conducting national security missions from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Her 40-year career is filled with leadership lessons gleaned while breaking ice and breaking glass as the first woman to command an icebreaker on the Great Lakes and to lead a U.S. armed forces service academy. She finished her career as the first woman assigned as Deputy Commandant for Mission Support, directing one of the Coast Guard’s largest enterprises. She has lectured widely on leadership, and has been featured on CSPAN and other media outlets. In 2012, Newsweek’s “The Daily Beast” named Vice Admiral Stosz to their list of 150 Women who Shake the World. Proceeds from “Breaking Ice and Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters” will be donated to the US Coast Guard Academy James M. Loy Institute for Leadership.

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