Incoming first-year students, or swabs, arrive for “Reporting-In Day,” or R-Day, at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, New London, Conn., June 27, 2016. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Lisa A. Ferdinando)

Leading with Character: Leadership Philosophy

For those in highly visible leadership positions, a leadership philosophy is a powerful tool. It’s your perspective on what you believe makes a leader of character. Far more than a list of desirable leadership attributes, a leadership philosophy helps subordinates better understand their leader. In short, a leadership philosophy is directed to the workforce and tells people who the leader is as opposed to other guiding documents that set forth what the leader wants. Insightful leaders can use a well-crafted leadership philosophy as a tool to implement and advance their organizational goals and objectives. Most importantly, a leadership philosophy should set expectations for leading with character.

It took me many years to fully mature my thoughts on leadership. Crafting a leadership philosophy is an iterative process. It starts at the entry level when students or new workers are developing as leaders. As superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy, I enjoyed listening to cadets present their nascent leadership philosophies in class. Some sounded off bold and sure, while others wavered with uncertainty. They all shared the same excitement about the prospect of putting their leadership philosophy into practice. As they grow and develop as leaders of character, the cadets’ leadership philosophies evolve to reflect the maturity and wisdom derived from their rich leadership development experiences.

Engaged Leadership

My leadership philosophy is grounded in the principle of engaged leadership. That means connecting with your people by getting out and about to meet them where they are in their workplaces. Engaged leadership means serving your people, ensuring they’re fully capable and motivated to perform their duties. It means understanding your people to help them realize their full potential. I exercised engaged leadership by mentoring subordinates to further their development as leaders of character. To serve as a good mentor to younger people, like cadets, I needed to understand what mattered to them.

Meet Them Where They Are

One day at the Academy while out and about, I met a mother who was visiting. Renee had a child at the Naval Academy preparatory school in Newport, Rhode Island, but was curious about the Coast Guard Academy. We had a lot in common in addition to our shared passion to develop young people. Renee was also a pioneer, a professional woman of color who had worked for years in the information technology sector. I was immediately drawn to her energy, enthusiasm, and confidence. I asked for her thoughts on how the Coast Guard Academy could reach out and attract prospective cadets from a broader segment of society. She sagely advised me, “Sandy, the secret to inspiring young people is to meet them where they are.”

Using situational awareness to discover what young people are interested in, then finding a way to translate their interest to the missions of the Coast Guard, is what it means to meet them where they are. For instance, most young people are constantly connected with their mobile devices and view the world through the lens of that technology. They may be excited to learn about the cockpit of a Coast Guard aircraft, the bridge of a Coast Guard ship or a Coast Guard command center, which are equipped with the most advanced technology. They may be interested to learn that Coast Guard missions are executed in a collaborative environment by cohesive teams.

Showing young people how the Coast Guard offers them a chance to use technology, like their smart phone, in serving a purpose greater than themselves is powerful. They may imagine working as part of a capable team to save lives, clean up the environment, enforce laws and protect critical infrastructure. Helping them visualize the possibilities could motivate them to enlist in the Coast Guard or apply to the Coast Guard Academy.

My new understanding of situational awareness in meeting people where they are served me well in learning to understand and mentor entry-level workers. I knew I couldn’t expect the same behavior and decision-making from a student or entry-level worker as I expected of myself. Rather than expressing disappointment when young people inevitably made mistakes and poor decisions, I reminded myself to reach out and try to understand them better. In so doing, I could guide them in advancing to the next level of their potential.

Engaged leadership – meeting people where they are – consists of these three enduring principles applicable at all levels in an organization. I’ll address each of these principles over the next three weeks:

Engaged Leadership

  • Build trust and earn respect
  • Believe in yourself and others
  • Demonstrate moral courage

Look in the mirror. What’s your leadership philosophy?

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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