Recent events provided the opportunity to congratulate a respected shipmate on a major career milestone. But, regrettably, I had to decline the invitation to attend the ceremony that marked his achievement. Instead of a typically short “regrets” note, I felt the occasion merited a more thoughtful statement. So rather than sending a standard response like “Congratulations; unfortunately, I can’t make it,” I wrote a few paragraphs explaining the reasons for which I was applauding him and why missing the ceremony was personally disappointing. His response, which surprised me, was a gratifying confirmation of that decision.
He was thankful that I had understood the way in which he had achieved this particular career milestone. Because his style is unconventional in much of what he does, he was especially grateful to learn how others had perceived his performance. As he put it, knowing that I appreciated his “how [was] really validating.” These words inspired me to think a bit more deeply about this otherwise simple exchange. How many times had I failed to adequately express my approval of someone else’s “how”?
This shipmate was pleased that I celebrated his achievement, but he was happier about the fact that I had grasped how he had done it. This is an important distinction. We are often tempted to believe there is only one way to attain professional success, and those who take a different tack are second-guessed. We congratulate them when they are successful nevertheless, but how frequently do we reflect on how it happened? Even then, how often do we share those thoughts with them?
In this case, the how is quite different. He is, as I said to him, a different kind of leader than many people have experienced. To the traditional leadership skills, the basics we learn in the classroom and on the deckplates, he adds unconventional methods that are seen more often in civilian organizations. Invariably he succeeds because he understands when to use each technique, and he does this despite naysayers and their head-shaking disbelief. For example, he took the unusual step of introducing junior petty officers as members of an interview panel, granting them the opportunity to participate in choosing their civilian supervisor.
In retrospect, his reaction to my congratulations should not have surprised me, given that one of the reasons he succeeds is his commitment to “why.” Going far beyond the typical commander’s intent, he fully explains why an action is needed, describing his how but letting followers decide their own. This behavior results from confidence gained from thoughtful decision-making and a willingness to lead as well as the humility to follow, regardless of relative positions or titles. His example and support inspire his sailors to do the same.
When complimenting positive behavior, it is important to give reasons why the how matters. This is just as critical when correcting poor conduct: As you counsel subordinates, let them know why your observation of their actions (the how) is significant, then lead them to change their approach to particular situations. Seek to alter their how with an understanding of why it matters—to you, to them, and to the organization. The same applies to simply discussing issues with peers or seniors.
The importance of recognizing the how in all situations cannot be overlooked; failing to do so can have debilitating effects. Too often we focus only on results—sorties flown, days deployed, or sailors retained—with too little attention on how goals were achieved. Later we may find units in which numerical objectives were attained outside the rules or without regard to safety or morale. How really does matter, and ignoring it can lead to negative headlines that too frequently cast a cloud over the entire organization.
The leader who inspired this article gets results ethically and morally while instilling confidence and high morale in others. Except when it is not practical due to the situation, we should never take the easy road and choose short, unexplained words of congratulations or correction. Fully detailing why we are happy for someone else’s achievement will make that person happier than we can know. Similarly, when people fall short of expectations, they will later appreciate the correction.
Understanding and valuing how someone succeeds or fails is important. Explaining it to that person goes a long way toward encouraging or correcting certain behaviors. In dealing with others, let them know that why and how matter.