Exemplary Practices of Leadership: A view from within the Coast Guard

April 10, 2005

A paper written for “Leadership to Shape the Future: Theory, Research, and Practice” (Leadership 8510).

Organizations succeed or fail based in large measure on the abilities of senior leaders. Senior leaders provide the vision for the organization and create the environment for success. Senior leaders do not work alone, however. It takes leaders at every level of the organization to ensure organizational excellence. While a senior leader sets the tone for the overall organization and can have a huge impact on the organization, the greatest impact on employees is on direct supervisors (Buckingham & Coffman, 1999) Creating a holistic approach to leadership, one that grooms leadership at all levels of the organization is vitally important for all organizations. The U. S. Coast Guard is no different. Tracing its roots back to 1790, the U. S. Coast Guard, now one of the foundational members of the recently formed Department of Homeland Security, prides itself on being a multi-mission, maritime, military service. As a service, the Coast Guard prides itself on developing leaders; leadership, or so the indoctrination goes, is a fundamental part of the culture. At the very least, the organization does put a focus on leadership, having created and nurtured a Leadership Development Center as a part of the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. In addition, the service’s immediate past Commandant, the senior leader of the service, partnered with author Donald Phillips to write a volume about leadership and the Coast Guard; the book is filled with anecdotes of strong leadership in the service. (Phillips, 2003)

Philips suggests the Coast Guard’s leadership success is based on four major actions: (a) set the foundation, (b) focus on people, (c) instill a bias for action, and (d) ensure the future. He breaks each of these actions into subordinate parts; for instance to focus on people is to eliminate the frozen middle, cultivate caring relationships, build strong alliances, and create an effective communication system. In many respects, Phillips outline of leadership practices as demonstrated by the people of the Coast Guard is not so very different from Kouzes & Posner (2002) and their five practices of exemplary leadership.

Kouzes & Posner (2002) postulate there are five practices of exemplary leadership. For them, those practices are (a) model the way, (b) inspire a shared vision, (c) challenge the process, (d) enable others to act, and (e) encourage the heart. Like Phillips, Kouzes & Posner suggest each practice is made up of smaller parts. For them, these smaller parts are “commitments,” and each practice is embedded with two commitments of leadership; the practice is made whole by these leader-made commitments which serve to guide how successful leaders get great things to happen in effective organizations.

From my vantage point in the organization as a consultant to Coast Guard leaders, I have a unique perch from which to view the organization. Sometimes that perch settles into cynicism, a strong cultural bias for long-time members of the Coast Guard organization. As such, my focus for examination will not be the entire Coast Guard, nor one of the two primary, “flag-level” (or headed by an admiral, a military of “flag rank”) commands I serve. Instead, my focus here will be on the performance consultant community and our “right coast” program manager – and my direct supervisor – Dr. George Yacus.

Dr. Yacus – or George, as I usually refer to him – is the direct supervisor of three internal performance consultants assigned the Atlantic Area staff in Portsmouth, Virginia. He is also programmatically responsible for, although provides not supervisory oversight, for eight other consultants working at District offices in Boston, Miami, New Orleans, and Cleveland. While George is a civilian employee, he has both military members (both enlisted members, warrant officers, and commissioned officers) and civilians under his purview. As a retired Naval aviator, he has experience with the military and understands the military mindset. Having worked with the Coast Guard for more than five years now, he understands the Coast Guard culture.

In his work within the Performance Excellence program, George must lead rather than direct or manage. Only three consultants actually work “for” him; the remainder work “for” their own supervisors at their respective flag-level district offices. In order to create an environment of effectiveness, George must lead. As Kouzes & Posner (2002) suggest, “Leadership is a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow.” (p. 20) George has neither a carrot or a stick to encourage the bulk of consultants to join him on the journey; rather, he must use exemplary leadership practices to gain their participation.

Model the Way
Each consultant brings a unique set of skills and perspectives to the job of helping create excellent performance through organizational leadership and management. Kouzes & Posner (2002) suggest that two commitments are required for leaders to “model the way.” Leaders must find their own voice by clarifying their personal values and then must set the example by aligning actions with shared values. While I’ve never asked George about the values which drive him, I have a sense – through watching him work – as to what the values might be. He values community; he values making contributions; he values people and their individual and organizational success; and, he values ideas and their practical application. As an organization, the Coast Guard has a set of defined values – honor, respect, and devotion to duty – that also rank high in George’s pantheon of guiding values. Some of what we do as consultants involves helping people – leaders and followers, alike – develop their own list of personal values and clarifying what those look like not just in theory but also in action. I suspect George has done this.

Why do I suspect George has done this? In large measure it has to do with his alignment of actions with what I see as the shared values of our consulting community. Our work revolves around implementing systems and practices which are in alignment with the Commandant’s Performance Excellence Criteria, the Coast Guard’s – nearly word-for-word – adaptation of the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence published by the National Institute of Science and Technology, a veritable blueprint for organizational effectiveness and efficiency through appropriate organizational leadership and management practices and systems. We are, perhaps, “Baldrige Geeks,” working to align systems and processes to create high performance within the organization and segments we work. In large measure, this is one of our key, shared values: implementing Baldrige-based systems and processes.

Leading by example, George has done his share of hands-on consulting with senior leaders and has had success with implementing Baldrige-based systems and practices. And, he has gently suggested, tugged, cajoled, and prodded the eleven consultants within the Atlantic Area to follow.

Inspire a Shared Vision
A key to organizational success is that a single person cannot “do it” alone. Indeed it takes all the members of the organization, working in concert with each other, to bring about organizational success. To create that “working in concert,” leaders must, as Kouzes & Posner (2002) suggest, inspire a shared vision. Each member of the organization must share the vision.

There’s an old consulting tale about organizational vision. I am not sure if it is based in fact or if, as I suspect, it is apocryphal, but it is, nonetheless, worthy of repeating. Before his death, President Kennedy propelled our nation on to the moon: to conquer that journey by the “end of the decade.” The story goes that several years later, and well before Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon in 1969, a business consultant asked a janitor who was sweeping up at the Kennedy Space Center what he was doing. Without missing a motion, the old man answered, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” The message here is that it takes that sort of commitment, by all members of the organization, to make great things happen. And it takes that sort of unified dedication, too. The story shows an organization aligned to a single outcome: putting a man on the moon and bringing him home safely.

Kouzes & Posner (2002) provide us with two commitments for leaders, two commitments which are embedded with the practice of “inspiring a shared vision.” For Kouzes & Posner, leaders must be committed to “envisioning the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities” and to “enlisting others in a common vision by appealing to shared aspirations.” George has made both of these commitments, at least in practice. Whenever George talks with any of us consultants, he talks about the journey and where we are leading Coast Guard leaders through the implementation of Criteria-based leadership and management practices and systems. For George, who can paint a word picture of what success looks like, our efforts will help the Coast Guard be an excellent organization, meeting the Commandant’s goal of the Coast Guard being the best managed organization in the federal government. Whether the conversation takes place in George’s windowless office, or during an all-consultant phone conference, or during one of our thrice-yearly face-to-face gatherings, George’s message is consistent. And, he appeals to our shared aspirations of wanting organizational success. To a one, each consultant sought out the job, a non-traditional billet by Coast Guard standards and not always career enhancing, at least for commissioned officers who serve. And, to a one, each of us wants to see organizational success first and foremost, even beyond our own individual success.

It is, perhaps, because George has to compete with five different “chains of command” and seven flag officers and their individual priorities – which are sometimes based on geographic or operational necessity and other times based on some idiosyncratic bit of organizational or personal bias – that resorting to a shared vision has been so successful. George has given us the end-in-mind, but not the actual steps to get there. We learn what works for us by trying out different tactics and strategies, and sharing successes and failures with each other.

Challenge the Process
As Phillips tells us, a key Coast Guard cultural bias is to “instill a bias for action.” For many of us long-time “Coasties” – and for the newer Coasties who are a quick study – this often means challenging the norm. “Act, and seek forgiveness later” is a strong cultural norm. Granted, sometimes forgiveness does not come so easily, but true Coasties learn and move on. Kouzes & Posner (2002) tell us that leaders practice “challenging the process.” For them, leaders “venture out” and “seek and accept challenges.” (p. 16) Kouzes & Posner claim that of every successful leader they met during their research, none claimed to achieve their “personal best by keeping things the same. All leaders challenge the process.” (p. 17)

George has committed to “searching for opportunities by seeking innovative ways to change, grow, and improve.” But, more importantly, he challenges each consultant to do the same. The Coast Guard recently instituted an optional “individual development plan” process which allows members and employees to list their goals, the steps needed to attain the goal, and the organizational support needed. These individual development plans are reviewed by the individual’s supervisor and, after negotiating the specifics, endorsed by the supervisor. While George is not he supervisor for eight of the eleven consultants in his “area of responsibility,” he, nonetheless, has gotten each consultant to annually complete an individual development plan, and, in certain cases, he has intervened as both an advocate and mediator between the consultant and the consultant’s supervisor, even though he has no positional power over the supervisor. He challenges each of us to seek innovative ways to change, grow, and improve.

And, like the Coastie who acts first and seeks forgiveness later, and then finds things didn’t work out all that well, George experiments and takes risks. Small wins might very well be a motto for him. Within the Criteria for Performance Excellence, strategic planning plays a fundamental role, as does fact-based decision making. Historically, neither of these has been culturally significant. We plan for action, not for the long term; we make decisions based on gut, intuition, and past experience, not based on facts and data. Getting senior leaders, particularly senior leaders, to escape the grips of our culture and move toward strategic planning with respect to organizational leadership and management and toward fact-based decision making is a long road. George has been working diligently and slowly, accruing small successes wherever possible. When he finds success, or hears of success by one of us consultants, he publicizes the news through formal (a monthly consultant newsletter) and informal (scuttlebutt) means. And, he encourages the other consultant supervisors to not take a “zero defect” mentality and punishing honest mistakes.

Enable Others to Act
Kouzes & Posner (2002) provide a key to the success of strong leaders: they don’t “do it” alone; strong leaders “enable others to act.” They suggest that “leadership is a team effort” and that a test of leadership is the frequency a person uses the word “we” as compared to “I.” (p. 18) Successful leaders say “we” because they know that organizational success happens through the efforts of “us,” not “me.” The leader commitments in enabling others to act are clear: collaboration and power-sharing.

Kouzes & Posner (2002, p. 242) tell us that “collaboration is the critical competency for achieving and sustaining high performance” especially in these times of increasing technology, increasing connectedness, and increasing speed in the spread and accessibility of information. George has worked to encourage collaboration amongst us consultants, even to the point of dedicating some of our budget to paying for travel to allow for collaborative events. He has made it possible for he and the eleven consultants to meet annually together as a team and share successes and collaborate on new initiatives.

George frequently shares power and discretion, encouraging consultants to enter into conversations he is involved in with senior leaders. For our annual “right coast” consultant conference, George usually delegates not just the logistics – such as choosing a location and making arrangements with the hotel and meeting location – but the agenda also. He wants the experience to be collaborative in nature, encouraging us to work together for the common good.

Encourage the Heart
The last practice of exemplary leadership is to encourage the heart. Recognition of good work and sustained effort is a cultural weakness for the Coast Guard. As a consultant going into a Coast Guard unit or organization, I can bet that communication and recognition will rank in the top three or four issues for members and employees. George has taken a proactive approach to this, recognizing good work done by each consultant. He does this recognition in a variety of ways and using a variety of tools, and tailoring the recognition for the individual. He’s been known to give trinkets – such as embroidered shirts or engraved desk clocks – as recognition of good work. Monthly, he publishes a newsletter which summarizes consultant work and successes. Originally conceived as an Atlantic Area only tool, the monthly newsletter has taken on a Coast Guard wide perspective, including the work of our Pacific Area shipmates (nine consultants and one area program manager) and our Headquarters counterparts (three consultants and two program managers). His work in recognition has helped add to our spirit of community.Conclusion and Possible Improvements
Within the greater Coast Guard community, there are a number of possible improvements which could be made to enhance the practices of exemplary leadership throughout the service. Indeed, a current initiative announced recently by the Commandant is the “unit leadership development program” which is designed to help unit leaders increase leadership competency through a variety of possible interventions. (U.S. Coast Guard, 2005)

For our purposes, however, the question is how can we increase the exemplary leadership practices within the Atlantic Area performance consulting corps. Perhaps the first method of increasing leadership practices would be for us to actually talk about them, as they relate to ourselves. The organization expects us to provide leadership and management counsel to leaders at all levels of the organization, including flag officers and civilians of equivalent rank. To speak with authority, perhaps we also need to “talk amongst ourselves” and examine how we, individually and corporately, are doing.

A second possible method of improving might be for George to be more proactive in providing his own guidance. George’s manner is very laissez faire, and perhaps that is the right approach for people with our experience and education. But, George brings much to the table and could, perhaps, be stronger in guiding us, particularly as we “seek innovative ways to change, grow, and improve.”

A third method for improving leadership practices would be to increase the collaboration amongst consultants, almost demanding that we work together on projects. Washington, DC, and Alameda, CA, and here in Portsmouth find a concentration of three internal performance consultants; each other location has only two (and in Alaska, the two consultants are not in the same city). There is no critical mass, truly, at any location. Creating scenarios where the consultants can work together would allow for collaboration and growth.

We seek excellence in leadership in our selves and in our organization. Through proven practices, and a diligent and continuous focus on those practices, we will create an effective, high performing, excellent organization.

Buckingham M. & Coffman C. (1999). First, Break All the Rules: What the world’s greatest managers do differently. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kouzes, J. M. & Posner, B. Z. (2002). The Leadership Challenge (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Phillips, D. T. (with Loy, J. M.). (2003). Character in Action: The U.S. Coast Guard on leadership. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.

U.S. Coast Guard (2005). Commandant’s Priorities – People – Unit leadership Development Program Implementation. Retrieved April 9, 2005, from here