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First Honorable Mention Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest
The Light of Our Own Reflection
By Lieutenant Herbert A. Black, U.S. Coast Guard
Essays about leadership written by erstwhile junior officers often summon the same reaction as lectures on sexuality delivered by celibate priests: “How can they talk about it if they don’t have any experience with it?” Inexperienced sea puppies discovering the painfully obvious and preaching with the conviction of the newly converted may indeed seem a waste of the reader’s time; perhaps you, like I once did, look first at the years since the author’s commissioning in order to quickly gauge the source and content of a leadership essay;
- 0-2 years: What I Learned from the Chief (Gunny, or whatever); the Don’ts of Leadership.
^ 3-5 years: How My Division Won the War Games; the Dos of Leadership.
- 5-9 years: Why My Boss Loves Me; the Making of a Leader.
- 9-15 years: Why My Boss Doesn’t Appreciate Me; the Problems with Leaders These Days. (The cynic may think that if these guys are writing leadership essays at this point in their careers, they’re probably in some dead-end job about to get passed over, so who cares about what they have to say?)
- 15-20 years: Why My Junior Officers Don’t Appreciate Me; the Problems with Leadership Training
- 20 + years: What We Did in the War; Inspirational Leadership
Senior officers in particular may be Prone to dismiss leadership essays from junior officers as just so much drivel. Indeed, the pages of Proceedings have seen scathing commentaries on the apparent absurdity of young, untested officers expounding on the art of leadership.
But leadership essays are valuable— not only from battle-tested senior leaders who can share their experiences, but also from junior officers who can share their fresher perspectives. A relatively few
junior officers do offer new insights, but for most, the value lies not in what they seek to tell us about leadership, but rather in doing so, what they are telling us about themselves and ourselves.
These essays can serve as mirrors to reflect what is being taught to the next generation. They can provide valuable glimpses of how well young officers are learning the timeless lessons of what it means to lead and inspire men and women in the military.
Written by those who are perhaps the most motivated to put their thoughts about leadership onto paper for public scrutiny, such essays are a window into
the inner thoughts of those who will assume the mantle of military leadership in the future.
Few class instructors truly expect to discover a new genius when they assign term papers and essays to their classes. The main purpose is to force students to
think—to come to grips with new concepts and experience intellectual growth. Imagine a history class in which the professor dismissed term papers with low grades unless they offered new insights into the origins of World War I. That professor would be a failure, of course, because the point of such an assignment is not for a student to shock the world with revelations that the Kaiser had been having an affair or that some other hidden scandal launched German armies into Belgium in 1914. The point is to stimulate thought and measure the student’s ability to understand complex issues.
Perhaps all officers should be required to write essays on leadership every year:
When junior officers expound upon the art of leadership, they may not know what they’re talking about yet, but what they have to say directly reflects how well we’ve taught them.
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maybe we should institute a physical- training-and-thoughtfulness test. Then we could find out how well our officers have learned the hard, invaluable lessons of military leadership.
Although many take leadership for granted and others relegate it to the realm of intellectual abstraction, leadership is the heart, soul, and guts of what it takes to be an officer in the armed forces. It is the discipline of managing, inspiring, and leading men and women to forget them-
selves as individuals and think of themselves as part of a larger whole, with a purpose transcending individual instincts—including survival. A senior officer who doesn’t know how well junior officers have grasped the important concepts—or worse, doesn’t care—may be setting the stage for his own failure.
The ultimate test of an officer’s ability may be killing the enemy and accomplishing the military objective, but the officer is primarily a builder and conservator, charged with building a cohesive team. The best measure of leadership is in how the trainee actually performs under stress, but the sad reality of modern warfare is that the senior officers will seldom be around to see the results of their training. Today, a commander must train his people to the best of his ability and turn them loose to do their jobs, com- mand-and-control nets notwithstanding. The modem battlefield extends for hundreds of miles on the ground. Troops are deployed in small units, and most of their leaders are connected by only by a fragile electromagnetic umbilical cord. Moreover, the battle may be operating well over the horizon, and a battle can begin almost without warning. A junior officer may find himself in a compartment suddenly isolated by a missile hit, with frightened faces looking toward him for leadership. The captain may see more clearly what is going on, but must allow the on-scene officer to do the job as best he can. At such times, knowing one’s officers is crucial. This is possible only through prior exploration of their thoughts on difficult subjects.
The importance of knowing the mindsets and looking to the development of the junior officers is timeless. Sun Tzu admonished his readers on the importance of knowing one’s own army; that simple maxim has shone through in the accomplishments of great military leaders throughout history.
Looking back on his victory at Aboukir Bay in the Battle of the Nile, Lord Viscount Horatio Nelson commented on what he felt to be the secret of his success: “I had the happiness to command a ‘Band of Brothers.’” He cultivated his subordinates carefully, probing their thoughts and sharing his own. He knew what they would do when left to their own devices; they, in turn, knew what was expected of them and were able to meet those expectations while acting independently.
In the naval services, commanding officers used to be able to explore the minds and characters of their junior officers in the sanctity of the wardroom, but as the services have expanded and more senior
officers have migrated ashore, the role of the wardroom has diminished. Leaders have far less time available to get to know their junior officers personally. Now , more than ever, we need to explore the minds of junior officers through venues ) such as leadership essays.
In addition, such essays are one indication of how more senior leaders are doing. Like active amoeba seeking nutrition and avoiding toxins, officers gravitate toward those styles and characters i they admire and respect most; they avoid those they find unproductive, either professionally or personally. When a lieutenant (junior grade) expounds upon the universal truths of leadership, he is telling his supervisors what motivates him and his people—and what does not. In one of the few forums available for honest feedback, the junior officer can tell the senior officers what he truly respects.
This kind of feedback is crucial to any officer, from a junior ensign to a senior admiral. If we consider what an Iraqi private had for lunch to be great tactical in- , telligence, how can we discount informa- ( tion directly concerning our own effectiveness as leaders?
Finally, junior officers do indeed acquire new insights and ideas in the course of writing about leadership. There is much that approaches the level of universal truth in leadership. But motivational techniques that worked 20 years ago may not work with the generation that was ^ raised during the 1970s and 1980s. Despite the fun that more senior officers may have at the expense of young ensigns, those much-maligned junior officers are closer to the pulse of their people and the times. One can, of course, resolve never to buy an M. C. Hammer record and maintain that whatever worked in the last war will work now. But the fact is that our society has changed, our military has evolved, and our people have a fundamentally different outlook than they had 20 years ago. Senior officers who appreciate the difficulties in understanding their own children should listen to those who are likely to understand their junior enlisted people better than they do-
For me, I want to know what the next generation of my fellow officers is thinking about leadership and their own roles as leaders. By peering into the minds of our front-line leaders, looking into the mirror of our own efforts, I might even become a better leader myself.
Lieutenant Black has served as commanding officer on board two U.S. Coast Guard cutters. He recently graduated from William and Mary law school and is now assigned to the Fourteenth Coast Guard District legal staff in Honolulu, Hawaii.