The U.S. Coast Guard R&D/Innovation Program spoke to the Class of 2021 on March 23, 2021. The Coast Guard Innovation Program supports development and implementation of Coast Guard strategies and coordinates innovation activities across the service. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Bridget Boyle)

Leading with Character: Initiative and Innovation

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we heard and read about innovation and initiative as organizations and their employees searched for ways to address the sudden changes imposed by government-mandated lockdowns and restrictions on doing business. Many businesses adapted almost in stride, while others struggled. What set the successful businesses apart? I believe it was workplace culture.

Changing Workplace Culture

Businesses that empowered their employees to seize the initiative when opportunities arose, and rewarded innovation, were almost certainly better positioned to succeed when COVID struck. But not all businesses were ready. Why? Because initiative and innovation can lead to risk and failure, and what leader wants to deal with that?

People talk up the benefits of initiative and innovation in public, but back in the office they fall short of taking action to reward that behavior. They want to sound like they support new ideas and new ways of doing business, but they don’t want to take the risk that accompanies reaching high and stretching to achieve better outcomes.

Most people and organizations are risk averse. We’re trained, from a young age, not to fail. We’re taught to be safe. We’re taught to avoid risks. We’re taught not to waste time, effort, or money. As adults, we’re more frequently rewarded for our accomplishments than for our imagination. Employees who put their heads down and get the job done are likely to receive a good performance evaluation. Those who imagine new ways of doing things – who initiate and innovate – are likely to experience failures along the way before they achieve success. They risk receiving a lower performance evaluation.

Seizing the Opportunity

The COVID pandemic was an opportunity for businesses to examine their workplace culture. COVID will not be the last challenge we’ll have to face, so now is not the time for leaders to breathe a sigh of relief and tell their employees to return to business as normal. Instead, now is the time to build on the resilience instilled during the pandemic and search for ways to lock in those new habits. Resilience is like high-quality steel: it bends and molds itself to meet resistance, and is flexible enough to bear the burden of the force without breaking. We need workplace cultures that reward the initiative and innovation that will help their organization flex and bend, not break, under the next big challenge we’re sure to face.

Leaders of character foster workplace environments that encourage imagination, and reward initiative and innovation.

Look in the mirror. Do you settle for the status quo from your employees, or do you reward those with the courage to initiate a new way of doing business or innovate a new solution?

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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