Sailors who are interested in applying for the limited duty officer (LDO) program or any commissioning path must contemplate how their leadership style will make them an effective officer. I often ask LDO applicants I have mentored to describe tough leadership decisions they have had to make, strategic mission objectives, and the important organizational relationships they will need to develop. One question that always produces interesting responses is asking them to describe their leadership styles. Most describe themselves as “servant leaders.” So, I ask, “What is servant leadership?” This is where it gets interesting. The answers typically include things such as putting others before yourself, taking care of your people, or making sure your people have what they need to do their jobs.
Me: Where did you get this definition of servant leadership?
Sailor: Uhhh . . .
Me: First lesson as an officer: Do not shoot from the hip or guess. When your sailors, junior or senior, ask you a question you must be able to back up your answer with facts and resources. It is okay to say, “I don’t know.” Otherwise, you lose credibility and trust. Second, servant leadership is more than a buzzword that makes you sound like a quiet, humble leader. It is a leadership theory backed by scientific research. Third, if you are telling me you are a servant leader, that means you are not another kind of leader. So, I challenge you to explore leadership styles and theories and to consider yourself in one of those categories.
Leadership style choices are almost always situational. If a sailor is in crisis or needs career advice, the organization has fiscal concerns, or senior leaders need to be convinced to take a different course of action, servant leadership is my go-to style. Selling a sailor on a tough assignment or an important organizational change often requires transformational leadership. However, before any other style can be effective, a leader needs to establish trust and credibility through authentic leadership.
Authenticity Builds Trust
Many of us have worked for a boss who behaved one way at work and was a different person in his or her personal life. Maybe you have worked for someone who appears to view her or his current position as a stepping-stone and is removed from the day-to-day needs of sailors. Your sailors need you to be yourself and focused on the job at hand. Ambition is not a bad thing unless it is at the expense of the people who will help you reach your goals. Authentic leaders are true to themselves and have a strong moral compass that merits confidence from their sailors, who are transformed into leaders as well.1
Anytime you walk into a new command, whether you are straight from A School or as the commanding officer, sailors are evaluating you from the moment you cross the quarterdeck. You will be adjusting to the new environment, and the environment will be adjusting to you. This is stressful for everyone. With change comes uncertainty, and that causes stress for leaders and those around them. Authentic leaders establish the trust and confidence needed for that sailor, E2, or O10 to execute their jobs with the support of their shipmates. One of the most comforting and humbling phrases I have ever heard came from one of my chiefs, who said, “I’ve got your back, sir.” She did not say this to get a good evaluation. She said it because we had established a relationship based on mutual trust, confidence, and respect.
Trust starts with transparent communication. Trust your sailors. They are smart. Give them as much information as you can. If there are any holes in the information, their imaginations will fill them, and that usually is not good. Let them know your intentions and that you appreciate what they do and why. Most important, let them know when you have made a mistake. Under no circumstances should you pass blame onto your sailors for your mistakes or the mistakes of your department. You may take some flak from above, but you will have the trust of the sailors who work for you and the respect of your seniors for owning your responsibility.
Influence Is Transformative
Shortly after I commissioned, I was assigned to a unit that was about to have its manpower slashed by nearly half. This meant that the scope of the unit’s mission, the makeup of the manpower, budget, and strategic outlook all were going to change dramatically. This uncertainty caused quite a bit of frustration among the sailors and their families. Change is one of the constants in leadership and is challenging to implement, especially a foundational change to the mission and makeup of an organization. It is incumbent on leaders to communicate the desired end-state, and the value that all hands will play in getting there, and then instill the confidence and inspiration they will need to succeed.
These changes called for a heavy dose of transformational leadership. Transformational leaders can affect both the organization and individual followers by appealing to the emotions, values, ethics, standards, and long-term goals.2 It is activated by four elements:
• Idealized influence. This is leading by example.
• Inspirational motivation. Challenge your people to action by clearly communicating expectations and generating commitment to the common goal.
• Intellectual stimulation. Create a safe environment for sailors to question, challenge, and push back on ideas and to explore and experiment with different ways to solve problems.
• Individualized consideration. Create a supportive culture by personally engaging with your sailors.3
Your sailors need you to believe in the mission as much as they do. Reaching back to authentic leadership, they can see through you when you are putting on a front. If you are having trouble getting on board with a change, go to your leaders and ask for clarity. Remember, leadership is not just about leading those who are junior; sometimes you have to lead your leaders. If something does not sit right with you, express your concerns, offer solutions, and ask for help in communicating the new direction. As leaders, we create an environment where every sailor understands the mission objectives, is trained and ready to execute, and has the creativity and freedom to improvise when the unexpected happens.
Serving is Caring
Simon Sinek said that being a leader is not about being “in charge”; it is about taking care of the people in your charge.4 He went on to say that as leaders, we are not responsible for the job, we are responsible for the people who are responsible for the job. We all know that last statement is not entirely true. If there is a catastrophic mission failure, it is not the petty officer who will be relieved of duty; it is the mission commander. Leaders still are responsible for the job. But life happens. Unexpected events will pull your sailors’ time and attention away from the mission. This is where servant leadership comes in.
Servant leadership originated with Robert Greenleaf in 1970 and has since been the subject of much research and application. The foundations of servant leadership are based on ten elements articulated by Larry Spears:5
• Commitment to the growth of people
• Building community
Servant leadership is centered on individuals. Most days, we go to work with a routine or set goals for the day, and we execute. Occasionally, life throws those plans overboard. You will have sailors who break down in your office and tell you that their marriages are in trouble. You may have a shipmate who loses a family member or a child. Your sailors may be dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. You likely are not qualified to help sailors navigate these situations—the Navy employs counselors, chaplains, and mental health professionals for these tasks. In those moments, however, there are no reports, meetings, or emails that are more important than that sailor who needs you to listen. If you have to reschedule a meeting with your commanding officer to get a sailor the help needed, do it.
So, what do listening, empathy, healing, etc., have to do with leadership? As much as we want to focus on the mission and the organization, taking care of those who will accomplish the mission and grow the organization pays the highest dividends. They are the sailors with ailing parents and children who are struggling in school. They are the sailors who have car trouble or a flooded basement. They are sailors who got passed over for promotion or did not get sailor of the quarter. They are sailors who have been sexually assaulted or are suffering from combat-related PTSD.
A sailor whose mind is on something else is not focusing on the task at hand, which can be very dangerous. As a leader, you need to be able recognize when a player needs to come off the field. That might mean other sailors have to carry a little extra weight, but those who pick up the slack will have the assurance that when they are going through something, their shipmates will be there for them as well.
You Must Follow to Lead
While style is ultimately important given the situation you face, all good leaders are good followers first. I remember being told from a very early age, “Be a leader! Don’t be a follower!” But leadership cannot exist without followers. John Maxwell said, “If you think you’re leading but no one is following, then you’re just taking a walk.” If leadership is not about telling people what to do, then following is not about blindly doing what you are told. Followers, then, are “individuals with free will to decide who they wish to follow and which leader they wish to help be successful.”6
Regardless of what job you have, military or civilian, you have obligations. These are conditions of employment or minimum acceptable standards. In the military we have to meet grooming standards, physical readiness, uniform regulations, and minimum professional proficiencies. Someone operating under the “conditions of employment” is waiting to be told what to do. This is not followership. Followership is looking at the overall mission objective or goal and helping your leader find the best way to get there.
My desire to become an officer resulted from the influence of the officers I served with. Some of that influence was positive and some of it was negative. As a follower, I learned it is easier to determine what kind of leader you do not want to be than to understand how to be a leader that others want to follow. Studying leadership styles will not only help you understand yourself, but also shape the way you use your own styles to inspire others to follow, lead, and serve along the way.
1. Raymond T. Sparrowe, “Authentic Leadership and the Narrative Self,” The Leadership Quarterly 16, no. 3 (2005): 419–39.
2. Peter Northouse, Leadership Theory and Practice (Los Angeles: SAGE, 2016), 161.
3. “Transformational Leadership,” Strategic Direction 31, no. 2 (January 2015): 25.
4. Simon Sinek, “Most Leaders Don’t Know the Game They Are In,” 15 August 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=RyTQ5-SQYTo.
5. Northouse, 227–29.
6. Susan Thomas, “Followership: Leadership’s Partner,” Canadian Journal of Medical Laboratory Science 74, no. 4 (2012): 8–10