Federal Coach: Leadership lessons from the US Coast Guard

Admiral Robert J. Papp, Jr., the 24th Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, says he believes we meet challenges by training leaders and giving them the responsibility for making decisions at the operational field level on how they employ their limited resources.

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

Admiral Robert J. Papp, Jr., is the 24th Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, the largest component of the Department of Homeland Security and the nation’s oldest continuous seagoing service. He is responsible for world-wide Coast Guard activities and oversees approximately 42,000 active-duty military, 7,000 reserve military and 8,000 civilian full-time employees. He served previously as operational commander in the Atlantic area for all U.S. Coast Guard missions in the eastern half of the world. This interview was conducted by Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog.

How are you applying the lessons you learned on the front lines to your current role as commandant?

Being a sailor formed my view of the world. There are a lot of lessons that can be learned from going to sea. It’s a unique human experience. That’s really why I joined the Coast Guard, to go to sea and ultimately become the captain of a ship. For most people, when there are storms or other calamities, you are still firmly rooted to the ground and familiar surroundings. Out at sea, you’re disconnected from everything you’re familiar with. You’ve got to rely on the people with you out there.

I’ve found that even in the worst conditions, things get better. I use that as a corollary for life. Even in the worst of circumstances, if you keep on working and surround yourself with good people, eventually conditions will improve. Being a captain of a ship has set how I view the world as well. I can’t get the job done by myself. I have to train other people and rely upon my crew and my officers. Even though my breadth of responsibility is much greater as commandant, the same simple tried-and-true rules still apply to running an organization. You give people authority and responsibilities and hold them accountable for performance and most good people respond.

How do you keep your folks focused on the mission?

The first is that we have great missions. Whether it’s our defense, security, our search-and-rescue or humanitarian missions, the missions provide variety and excitement and inspire people to serve.

Second, I think there is great impact in giving them credit for doing their jobs. The positive benefits of recognizing good behavior and great performance helps keep people motivated. We present medals and awards to people who have made significant achievements. Sometimes it’s just a pat on the back or other small, personal recognition that motivates people. There are times I send emails to individuals who I see or who pop up in news stories.

How do you maintain effective contact given that distance is such a challenge?

In our travels and when we do events, I take the time to meet our crews at the units. Sometimes it’s just a small search-and-rescue station with 30 people. Sometimes it’s an entire Atlantic or Pacific Area staff, where I’m talking to 400 or 500 people. I think I’ve probably stood in front of 30,000 people over the last year and a half and talked to them directly. However, I’ve learned it’s more important to let them ask me questions. You then can address their concerns directly and find out what’s on their minds. But that doesn’t reach everybody. I can do almost the same thing using social media. We have a Coast Guard website where we have senior leadership columns and all my speeches and messages to the troops are carried. And we have a blog. We’re trying to use all methods out there.

What are your biggest day-to-day challenges and how do you overcome them?

We know we’re going to be limited in these years of austerity and we have to make judgment calls. People are our most important resource. If there are fewer resources, the public, the Congress and the administration can expect fewer Coast Guard services. We’ve got to be reasonable. If we’re not reasonable, not only do we wear out our people, we wear out our ships and aircraft as well. My main job is to make sure we don’t overstress the workforce or our equipment, so we’re there when the public expects us, when emergency hits. The largest challenge is trying to do everything that the public, our citizens, the Congress and our allies in other countries expect. There’s never any day where we can do 100 percent of what is expected of us. We have this culture in the Coast Guard of doing more with less. It’s a great strength, but also a weakness. You ultimately end up taking it out on your people.

We meet the challenges by training leaders and giving them the responsibility for making decisions at the operational field level on how they employ their limited resources. Whether it’s the commanding officer or chief petty officer running a search-and-rescue station, they know they can’t do all the missions on any given day. So they make prudent, reasoned, experienced decisions on how they employ their people, their cutters, boats and aircraft.

 

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