Even as racial tensions flare across the United States, I can be present at quarters, lead a preflight brief, pass critical information to the unit, or even hand out awards as the commanding officer. Yet, there is a part of me that is invisible at work—because I wear a mask that hides the part that is hurting, tired, and frustrated. As an African American, I wear this mask because it is at times what I have to do be included and accepted in the workplace. It is what I do in the hope of being treated like my fellow shipmates. I feel that it is expected—if not required—for me to have a chance at achieving my professional goals and safely executing my missions in the Coast Guard. It is what I have to do to continue to provide for my family.
What is my mask hiding? It hides the confident and proud African American side of me from which I draw strength and motivation. However, this side of me needs support at times. Even this source of strength can be depleted. Currently my mask hides the side of me that is struggling to process the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd—in the nation I love and serve in the year 2020. The mask hides the side of me that is hurting as if I had lost a family member. It hides a side of me angered by these injustices. It hides the side of me that is not okay at this moment.
When the Coast Guard faced its lapsed appropriation during the 2019 government shutdown, senior leaders communicated to commanding officers across the service how important intrusive leadership was in that moment. It was understood that the financial strain on our members might have an emotional impact that could not be overlooked. Supervisors were directed to go the extra mile to make sure the members of their commands knew they were valued and that leaders understood the struggle members were going through.
In other difficult times, too, intrusive leadership has been seen as necessary to address increases in suicide, depression, and domestic violence. Commanding officers and supervisors are frequently instructed to look for signs that indicate there might be something going on outside the workplace that is affecting members of their commands deeply. Intrusive leadership currently is being invoked to help servicemembers deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. The fact that members’ families and social lives have been impacted and the norms of life and work have been disrupted, once again, has supervisors asking, “Are you okay?”
The emotional impact, the struggle for social justice, and the disruption to normal life from the tragic events involving African Americans are worthy of that same level of intrusive leadership. The masks that many African American Coast Guard members have been wearing since they first reported to officer training in New London or boot camp at Cape May are not on so tight that emotions are invisible. Some perceptive shipmates are good at seeing those emotions. Others are less perceptive or perhaps choose to ignore the emotions of their African American shipmates because they feel that only other African Americans can share the pain and frustration.
There is a need for intrusive leadership in this moment. Many of us are hurting and finding it difficult to get dressed for upcoming law enforcement boardings or to relieve the watch on the quarterdeck. Some of us cannot escape when liberty is piped because our homes are on cutters or in the barracks. Some of us are feeling a shortness of breath because our masks have started to choke us. On the mess decks or in the coffee mess, when conversations about violence arise only after the looting starts, and not when another innocent heartbeat is stopped, we struggle to carry out our daily military tasks. There is a need for intrusive leaders who see that we are hurting right now. We need caring, empathetic leaders who can look behind our masks and say that even though they don’t walk in the same shoes we do, they know that during these turbulent times the shoes we wear are a little heavier today.
I did not know Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, or George Floyd, but I grieve the loss of their lives. Any time a life is taken, and it is believed that the color of the victim’s skin is part of the reason, it hits deep. People with that same skin color, including me, are affected personally as if the victim were one of our own family members. We might not need to take emergency leave, but we still are working through the stages of grief. Simply being asked if we are okay during times like these can lift us up and help us breath.
As a commanding officer, executive officer, or command master chief, you might learn that some members at your unit do not feel included. You might learn that recreational areas in berthing spaces are not a safe place for some of your crew to decompress. You might learn something about your crewmembers that will allow you to lead and motivate them better. You might even learn something about yourself.
I invite supervisors and senior leaders across the Coast Guard (and the entire military) right now to ask a simple question of the African Americans in your commands: “Are you okay?” You don’t have to understand all the emotions, all the factors, or have similar opinions to show that you care. You did not have all the answers when you asked the same question during the lapse of appropriations last year, but you still asked. Some members were financially stable because they had savings or other sources of income, but you still asked. You asked because you cared enough to make sure that everyone was okay, and you were willing to take the risk of being an intrusive leader with some who did not need it. Not every African American feels the way I do. Some are okay right now; others are struggling deeply, and their masks are hiding a lot. Whether they are feeling okay or struggling, none will mind the question. All will appreciate leaders who care enough to ask. And those caring, intrusive leaders will help make us all better prepared to safely and professionally execute our missions.