Leadership is a Journey, not a Destination

Navy SEAL photo downloadsMany of us of all heard the statement that life is a journey is not a destination, but author Jason Redman shows in his book, The Trident: The Forging and Reforging of a Navy SEAL Leader that leadership is also a journey, not a destination.

If you count the number of leadership books on the market over the course of the past three decades you can probably fill the Barnes & Noble bookstore on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan five times over. It seems everybody has an opinion on what makes a good leader. I think trying to define what makes a good leader is one of the more difficult things the human race has ever endeavored to do.

We can identify the characteristics of a good leader, so we understand the skill set, but it is often hard to master the art of leadership. I think its hard because it’s one thing to know what to do, but its another to do what you know.

Redman is a “mustang” officer in the Navy as he started his military service in the enlisted ranks and then became an officer. Mustangs are amongst the most respected officers in any military service because they have worked their way up the ranks. They know what it’s like to swab the deck, so to speak. But Mustangs also have their own challenge to overcome – as an officer, they can no longer be “one of the guys.” This also happens when an individual is promoted above their peers in the workplace into a management or supervisory position.

Redman calls leadership the “fence analogy,” (72):

“Imagine a chain-link fence with a small board that runs the length of its top. On one side of the fence, you’ve got all those who fall underneath your leadership. On the other side of the fence are the people you report to and your own chain of command. Most men stand on one side of the fence or the other.” Redman (72). Effective leaders are able to stand on the small platform in between the two sides.

If you stand on one side of the fence and identify too closely with your subordinates you lose connection to those in your chain of command, which can degrade your effectiveness and the effectiveness of your team (Redman 72). If you stand too far on the other side of the fence, telling your chain of command anything they want to hear and stepping on the back of every person underneath you to make it to the next rank or promotion, you will fail to connect with the people you need to lead (Redman 72). In either case, you fail.

The best leaders are those who are aware of what is going on with both those that they lead and those that they follow: they have the unique ability to jump to whichever side is necessary, connecting with those they need to connect with and then climbing back up to their perch to survey for the next moment of crisis (Redman 73).

When Redman was in the hospital after being severely injured in Iraq, he notes that many members of the special operations community including several Green Berets showed up to spend some time with him (Redman 74). There is an amazing camaraderie in the special operations community. In fact, this is reflected in the civilian world as well. Peak performers like to hang out with other peak performers. But being a leader or a peak performer is something that must be earned and re-earned all the time. It is not something you do once and call it good. You earn that bond and respect every day with everything that you do. Again, it’s a journey, not a destination. Screw up and let your team down and that connection fails (Redman 74).

Before being severely wounded in Iraq, Redman had at one point lost the respect of his brotherhood:

“I had severed the bond once. Few men get a shot at redemption after losing their brothers’ trust. Not so long ago, through my own mistakes I’d become a pariah. But I’d earned my way back,” Redman (76).

When Redman went to college it was before 9/11. He was already a Navy SEAL and was being sent through the Seaman to Admiral commissioning program. When he came out as an officer three years later 9/11 had happened and the world of the SEALs and the way they operated had completely changed. Redman’s rank had changed, but his operational knowledge had not. This was a problem. Combat had taught the SEALs that many of their previous tactics and procedures were not as effective in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan or the urban fighting environments of Iraq. The experience of the operational SEALs in those environments had completely rewritten how they did business.

Redman however held firmly to the old ways of doing things, which made matters even worse (Redman 91). This is a problem in both the military and in civilian sectors. In the information age, the knowledgebase is constantly changing. It can be frustrating to take an incredible amount of time to gain mastery over something only to find out you have to learn it all over again.

And its even more frustrating to realize that others, often times your junior, have already surpassed you in their knowledge and their operational capability. Frankly, it makes you feel like an ass. But you have two choices. You can hold onto the past and continue to feel like an ass, just getting more bitter and pissed off as you fall farther behind. Or you can jump back on the learning process and keep moving forward – you may still be behind the group for awhile, but at least you’ll be making up ground.

As a leader of men now, in combat, lives depended on Redman’s attitude and his decisions. He is very honest in his self-appraisal of the mistakes he made including:

  • Getting into conflicts with his Senior Chief, whose job it is to make sure the team functions effectively and help train-up the officers using their own tactical experience (Redman 92). This served only to reduce the effectiveness of the team and prevented Redman from learning what he needed to learn to be an effective leader. A little humility can go a long way.
  • The conflicts started resulting in inattention to detail, which is the kiss of death in the military. When I joined the Coast Guard I thought all this “attention to detail,” nonsense was just that. I knew that I was supposed to have my gear squared away and secured when I was in Officer Candidate School in the Coast Guard, but I never really got the lesson until I was underway on the Coast Guard Cutter Eagle. One of the Chiefs explained to me that it is important not to have “loose gear,” because if the boat started taking on water all of my contraband could get stuck in a dewatering pump and the ship would sink. This is generally considered to be a bad thing when you’re at sea. Sometimes you just have to shut the hell up and listen to the voice of experience. If you think “attention to detail,” is only important in the military ask yourself how many times you have inadvertently hit ‘reply all’ on an email or accidentally sent an email with a mistake and it cost you a client or a business relationship, or maybe a promotion or a raise.
  • Eventually, one of Redman’s men dared him to publicly challenge a General on his decision making (Redman 110). What he saw as a chance to prove his leadership abilities to his men turned around to just be a really dumb thing to do.

“In time, I learned there is nothing more dangerous on the battlefield then an immature and arrogant officer who feels he needs to prove himself. It can lead men to their death,” (Redman 110). Sometimes a challenge by a subordinate is just to see what kind of a decision you will make. People want to be led by people who they feel are intelligent and will make the good decisions. Sometimes it’s just a test and sometimes you fail. Redman’s reputation as a leader was on the line now.

In tomorrow’s entry, Redman slaps the dragon and his reputation continues to take a hit.

Redman, Jason, and John R. Bruning. The Trident: The Forging and Reforging of a Navy SEAL Leader. New York: HarperCollins, 2013. Print.

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