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Leading with Character: The Power of Wandering

At sea, when a storm blows in, or a piece of machinery fails without warning, there’s seldom time for the benefit of analysis.

A while back I came across an interview with Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon. Mr. Bezos offered a lot of wisdom during that one-hour discussion. My biggest takeaway was his statement, “I believe in the power of wandering. All of my best decisions in business – and in life – have been have been made with heart, intuition, guts … not, not analysis.”

Walking the Deckplates

In the Coast Guard, we use the phrase deckplate leadership. That goes back to our roots as a seagoing service. It’s tradition for the captain of a ship to walk about the vessel, wandering from the topside decks to the deckplates in the engineering spaces.

During these walkabouts the captain casually evaluates the materiel condition of the ship, gets to know the crew, and gains a sense for their readiness. Through these frequent interactions with the ship and crew, the captain lays the foundation for making on-the-spot, sound decisions in the face of often uncertain and tumultuous conditions at sea. Likewise, the captain fosters a climate of mutual respect and trust where subordinates feel empowered to take the initiative to improve the ship’s performance and outcomes.

Crisis Situations

At sea, when a storm blows in, or a piece of machinery fails without warning, there’s seldom time for the benefit of analysis. The captain has to make a decision based, like Mr. Bezos says, on “heart, intuition, and guts.” The same applies to any workplace, be it civilian or military. There are times when leaders must act, even if they don’t have all the desired information. That requires trust and confidence in one’s people and, likewise, the people’s trust in their leader. Hence, the value of “walking the deckplates” to build that precious trust.

Imagination and Innovation

Crisis situations are no place for those without the courage to accept the risk and act on the information at hand. The same applies to day-to-day operations in the workplace, wherever it may be. Imagination and innovation can’t be legislated by leadership – they must be cultivated through those frequent personal interactions, aka “walking the deckplates.” Leaders must create a workplace climate that encourages subordinates to imagine new and better ways to meet their mission, and that rewards those who do.

Accepting Risk

That requires leaders to give away some of their power, and accept the potential risks associated with empowering subordinates to devise new ways of doing business. Yes, there will be failures along the way, but creating a culture that accepts those small failures as part of the organization’s growth is vital to success. Managing risk is what good leaders do. It means being bold enough to, as Mr. Bezos says, lead with “heart, intuition, and guts.”

Look in the mirror. Have you “walked the deckplates” and gotten to know your people well enough to trust and empower them to imagine and innovate new ways of doing business?

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

If you enjoyed this post, please visit my website where you can buy my book, Breaking Ice & Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters, and sign up for my mailing list: https://sandrastosz.com/book/breaking-ice-and-breaking-glass/

Sandra L. Stosz
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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