A traveler saw two men cutting stone from a mountain and placing the blocks on carts. He asked them, “What are you doing?” One said, “Can’t you see? We’re cutting stones from this mountain.”
The other man gave the traveler an understanding look and said,
….”We’re building a church.”
(for non-USCG readers, sorry for the Coast Guard acronym speak – I’ll explain later)
I am always screwing up; and I mean constantly. Not in big ways anymore, I’ve made all “those” mistakes and survived. But with little things, the things that aren’t so obvious, I miss them all the time. Later, when I look back, I’m amazed at how easy it seems to do things right. Like my first real boss used to say, “I go to bed every night thinking I can’t get any smarter, and wake up every morning wondering how I could have been so stupid yesterday.” That’s just life, I guess. But recently, I came across a goof not so easy to spot and even harder to correct. It’s something we do readily, backed up by years of tradition and practice, yet I believe it is the single biggest mistake that any of us ever make in our work life. It causes us more unnecessary hassle and serves to incite more job dissatisfaction than anything, and until recently, I would never have guessed it was such a big problem, but it is.
We use the chain of command.
I am NOT talking about the chain of command itself being a bad idea, because it isn’t. And I am not talking about jumping the chain – a completely misunderstood idea. I am talking about giving orders. I’m talking about the whole idea that you can tell someone whom you out-rank what to do and they’ll do it. It’s not the chain of command as much as it is what the idea of a “chain” implies to leaders. It’s the whole idea of requiring action. It’s the long ingrained notion that telling someone to do something and then them doing it is any kind of useful leadership. It isn’t.
The Coast Guard is a chain-of-command gig, I get it. And the chief is the chief and someone has got to be in charge. So you would think I would be a big fan of decisive orders from the top, down to the ranks, and they do what you say. I’m not.
Regardless of my old-school chain-of-command upbringing, I knew a long time ago that the top-down management approach was ineffective. I knew it because it was how a lot of leaders tried to managed me and it didn’t work well. To understand just how ineffective it is, you have to compare this kind of leadership to it’s alternative.
The insidious thing is that “Do this because I say so” appears to work. The system is set-up that way. If you tell someone under you what to do (strongly enough), they will do it. What you get then is called required action. They will do what you tell them to, but often nothing more…and often only once. They will do what you required of them. It’s a trap. When attempting to motivate or achieve results, chain-of-command top-down leadership is for combat and dangerous search and rescue cases. It is for situations where the high-risk nature of the mission requires a single-source of ultimate responsibility. You can use the chain of command on the day-to-day operations, and it will work; but it doesn’t work effectively or efficiently because it always requires the constant input from that single-source (the boss).
Inspired action is a totally different thing altogether. Inspiring is hard work. It takes time, and integrity, and effort. It’s harder (way) than giving orders. For old “do it cause I say so” types it requires a sometimes painful change from believing your people work for you, to making them believe that you work for them. You do, you know….you do work for them. That’s was the subtle idea that I had missed. I thought it was my job to tell my guys what to do. But the primary job of a leader is to make them believe they should be doing it.
“You don’t just do a mission, you believe in it.”
The only way to create a truly great place to work is to ensure that each of the team members under you (read: next to you) are raging evangelists for the cause of…whatever your cause is. In my little corner of the Coast Guard, the “cause” is maintaining the survival gear for ourselves, our teammates, and the boating public; and also providing qualified and prepared duty standing helicopter rescue swimmers to help save lives. Yours is something else; but we all (E-5 through O-9 anyway) are responsible for causes. We call them missions or area’s of responsibility, but what they truly are, are causes that are either believed in…or not.
Dr. Musgrave got it right. If you can get your team to believe in the mission, (your cause), then you can change completely the way they see the world and their place in it. If you can do that, you can create inspired action. They will automatically, because they want to, do the things that need to be done to achieve the mission. They will do all that is required, with minimal guidance from you, without being reminded. If inspired, they will do the things that need doing, often before you (the one in charge) even think of them.
The power of knowing (and better still believing) why you were doing something has always produced better results in your life than when you HAD to do something because you were forced without explanation. Think back on your career to any time you were thinking “this sucks” and I guarantee it was preceded by an order or requirement that bore no relation to your perception of the mission. The order came without explanation, without reason, and made no sense. That’s why it didn’t feel right. It may have been the best thing to do and absolutely supportive of the mission, but no one took the time to explain it to you. They failed to inspire. I’ll bet you failed to do the best job you could have, too.
The Power of Why
This is where the harder work starts. This is where you learn why so many people are locked in the chain. Inspiration requires more work than giving orders does. If you have a hard time with that (the hard work part), remember that the reason you get paid more when you advance is because the work is supposed to be harder. They are NOT rewarding you for making it this far and now you deserve to coast. Rank does have it’s privileges, but only because you earn (present tense) rather than earned (past tense) them.
So how do you do it? How do you inspire, instead of require? How do you move from top-down leadership to the lateral inspiration of your team? First, you must make sure that you are inspired.
You have to know why you are here:
Sorry, I hate to get all metaphysical on you, but this one is primary. You cannot inspire anyone else unless you first lock this one down. We all fall into basically one of three categories on the “Why am I here” issue:
1. You know why you’re here and will never forget (some of us)……
2. You’ve been so wrapped up in doing it that you need two weeks on a beach in the Caribbean so you can clear your head enough to remember why you came here (most of us) …or
3. You just needed a job and never knew why you came here in the first place. Or you didn’t care, it was just something to do. ( a rare animal….you I can’t help too much.)
This is the Coast Guard. Why we are here is easy, although surprisingly, easy for some (or most) to forget. There is something about the day-to-day requirements of the over-reaching mission of the Coast Guard: Our primary “cause” requires such preparation and attention to the details of preparation that it becomes easy to forget about the thing that we are preparing for: Why are we here?
We are all here to save lives.
That’s it. That’s all. The primary reason that anyone in the Coast Guard has a job is to save lives. All jobs (ALL OF THEM) are in support of that mission. When I mention this fact to people, I get a lot of complaints. I have heard every logical explanation of missions that don’t save lives or support the saving of lives. They have all been wrong and I can prove it. Take away saving lives as a motivation and watch the missions that disappear. SAR Definitely, but what about the others….Marine Safety? Why do we want it to be safe? To save lives. What about MSRT? Saving lives, no question. How about drug interdiction! Aha! …no…wait….that saves lives too. How about a yeoman at Topeka? Lifesaver: No one gets paid….people quit…people die.
Though we started out as a bunch of tax collectors, the life saving aspect of all Coast Guard missions (and by default then, all Coast Guard jobs) is the primary reason for being. Everything else then, (i.e. stonecutting,) becomes a necessity in building that Church.
SK1 Saves Hundreds
I spent some time in New Orleans during the Katrina rescue operation. I had my hands on victims and put them into the helicopter that flew them out of there. Two days before I arrived, SK1 Roy Tuck put 44 axes in the hands of 44 rescue swimmers so they could cut into rooftops.
All the axes in Alabama had been sold to people preparing for the approaching storm. Our crews were having to leave people in their homes for want of a way to get in. When I told Roy that they were asking for axes in Mobile, and that we had one shot to get them on the next plane, I could see it in his eyes; Roy Tuck believed in his job and he knew what it was. He had an hour to get to town, buy axes, and get them on the C-130. It took him and his team 48 minutes. If it had taken him an hour and 48 minutes, many people would have died in the heat of their attics that night. For all my jokes about putting “the ready paperclip on the line”, SK1 Roy Tuck saved more lives in under an hour than I have in 10 years.
So you think your people are fixing airplanes? Do you think the MK3 is repairing the engine on the 47 footer? Do you honestly think that all that Seaman Apprentice is doing is chipping paint? You’re wrong. What they are doing is saving lives; fixing airplanes, and engines and painting are the ways that they do it. It’s not only the asset that arrives on scene, but everything and everyone that got it there that saves lives. This is why so few of us ever leave this place (the Coast Guard): It is noble work. Every kid leaving Cape May KNOWS that’s what they are here for and I think the difference between those who reenlist and those who don’t is only about how well we support or tear down that belief.
Now do you know why you are here? Do you believe in your job, or do you still need a few weeks on a beach? If you do….go. Stop reading this and fill out a leave chit right now. Get yourself to a place where you can remember that feeling you had on the graduation field at Cape May, or New London, or Yorktown or wherever you first wore your uniform, and dig deep for the belief that brought you here. Don’t like the beach? Then try visiting Cape May, New London, or Yorktown, but do something. Because I can promise you this, if you have lost that belief; that graduates belief; if you don’t remember why you are here, then there is no way you are doing a good job anymore. You are just going through the motions. Your actions are no longer inspired, you are simply doing what is required, and that is no way to live. Not for you, and not for your people.
Write It Down:
Your first job in the inspiration of your team is to define for them what their part is. You have to spend some time thinking about it and then, most importantly, you must WRITE IT DOWN. Put it to paper! It is not enough to just “think about it”. Writing it down is powerful and necessary. First of all, It forces you to really come up with the thing. If you don’t write it down, it isn’t real; it’s just some stuff stuck in your head. The act of writing it down defines it clearly for you and makes the next step possible.
Share the mission and your belief in it.
Put aside that feeling that you are going to look silly. You’re not. The people under you want to be inspired and they want that inspiration to come from you. The “pre-inspired” guys are tired of inspiring themselves and feeling alone in it. So suck-up the risk of embarrassment, sit your people down, and show them what you came up with. If you can do this away from the work place itself that’s even better, but you at least have to make time to share your belief in the base mission and your supportive missions with the people on your team. Involve them in deciding the mission, trim the mission…decide what is NOT your mission….if they can convince you that what you wrote down isn’t exactly right…..change it. Be flexible in the creation of the mission. This solidifies everyone’s belief (theirs and yours) in the thing. Then you can be clear with its implementation.
Continuing and Constant Reminders
All that is left for you now is to “be inspiring”.
Alright…time-out… “being inspirational” is not something that can be possibly contained in an article of this size. It’s hard to contain in a library if you ask me, so before you read my humble list of idea’s…realize that I know this is just me talking and your list (and you should come up with one) is just as good as mine and probably better. But, I had to include it. I didn’t feel right saying “be inspiring” without some explanation of what I meant. So here goes:
- Work harder on the mission than your people do. They are watching you and assigning levels of commitment, (theirs, in relation to yours) to the cause constantly.
- Know more than they do, or at least try. If you get this inspire thing right, the only time your people are going to bring you a problem is when they are solving another one and need your help with a detail…. knowing the answer, is inspiring in and of itself.
- Catch them getting it right: When the miracle happens and most of your people do what is required before you know about it, make sure they know you notice.
- Be dedicated to the success of your evangelists: Those dedicated to the cause. Don’t let their dedication to the mission cloud their attention to themselves and their advancement. Be the watchdog of their best interests.
- Get VERY familiar with the 1650.25C and the CG-1650. (If you don’t know what those are and you’ve been a Chief for over a year…shame on you.)
- Talk Up The Mission. Post it. Remind them of it. Remind yourself of it.
- When assigning tasks or truly delegating authority, always clearly explain why it is important. Better yet, start telling them the “why” first and they’ll often tell you the “what” before you finish.
- Read about, watch shows about, and notice the people who inspire you…then act like they do or do what they did.
- Write good things about the people on the team. If you notice someone on the team doing something great, write her/his boss and tell them about it (and a copy to the subject of the letter). This ALWAYS motivates.
- Make your own list of ways to be inspiring.
I don’t know what else to tell you. I’m not simply suggesting that a mission statement is something new and will solve all your problems: It’s not and it won’t. I guess what I am trying to convince you of (and I am) is that people want to feel part of something bigger than themselves. You’d think that it would be easy given that almost everything is (bigger); but if you make their work about completing required actions…because you’re in charge…you rob them of that feeling. You are not the “something bigger” they had in mind. But, if you use your position and authority and privilege to inspire them instead, they will do what is required, even the mundane, with pride and commitment…and so will you.
If you stayed with me this far, I hope you can look past the part where I have no business telling you how to lead, and notice that I’m not trying to…I’m just trying to inspire.
disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of the Department of Homeland Security or the USCG.