A View from the Eighth Floor: An interview with Rear Admiral Clifford Pearson

April 19, 2005

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

We settled into the leather chairs of Rear Admiral Pearson’s well-appointed office on the eighth floor of an office building in downtown Norfolk, Virginia. Nautical knick-knacks are discretely in place around the room; his massive wooden desk would serve as a focal point of the room were it not for the wall of windows looking outward, windows framed by four flags: the Flag of the United States, the Coast Guard flag, the Department of Homeland Security Flag, and Pearson’s personal flag, a deep blue emblazoned with a single white star and the Coast Guard insignia and trimmed in gold fringe. Between the two neighboring towers, one can see a slice of the working harbor, the skyline doted with cranes, the far shore crowded with dry docks, and the placid water stirred up by an occasional tug and barge or naval security boat. This is a maritime-influenced town and home to the world’s largest naval fleet. The Coast Guard is well-represented here, too; from Pearson’s office one can see the federal building housing the offices of the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area Commander, the fourth ranking officer in the service.

Pearson serves as the Commander, Maintenance and Logistics Command Atlantic, and is ultimately responsible for all maintenance and logistics support to Coast Guard units east of the Rockies. A staff of nearly 500 military personnel, civilian employees, and contract employees conduct the work of the Command in Norfolk; more than 2,700 other personnel are spread across 40 states, providing direct services to Coast Guard customers. Pearson sits at the helm of a fairly large organization, and as he settled into the leather covered chair in his crisp and neat blue uniform, he looked quite at home.

Living by Example
Having served on active duty for more than 30-years, Pearson has seen his share of leadership examples, both of the positive sort and the negative sort. He cited as one of his examples of learning the “proverbial screamer,” a leader who screams and yells and raises his voice in order to be heard and followed (C. I. Pearson, personal interview, April 1, 2005). Two key, personal leadership competencies he identified were to “not be the proverbial screamer” and to “not squash others’ input.” Interestingly, Pearson seems to have drawn the greatest learning from examples of negative behavior. He cited a desire to “treat people fairly” and to “seek ideas and participation” in his role as a leader. At the most basic level, he is building a personal how to for, as Kouzes & Posner (2002) would say, “modeling the way.”Executive Competencies
Yukl (2002) identifies strategic leadership by executives as a key competency for leaders of large, complex organizations. Pearson mirrors this notion; he offered three key, important competencies for senior leaders: systems thinking, personal relationships, and understanding people. Pearson noted that a leader in a complex organization must “see the big picture” and understand the relationships between organizational elements; a leader must “understand the full nature of what they have responsibility for and must understand the broader goals and environment.” Leaders must see linkages and understand systems. Yukl identifies systems thinking as key when leading change within organizations; systems thinking, “acknowledging complex inter-relationships and cyclical causality” are necessary in order to bring about positive organizational change. (p. 296) Pearson’s second, noted competency was personal relationships; he cited customers and stakeholders – both internal and external – as key constituents with whom a senior leader must develop relationships. Stakeholders will often have conflicting interests, and it is the senior leader who must sort through those interests to determine the organization’s route. (Yukl, p. 407) And finally, Pearson noted that “understanding the people component of the organization, and of stakeholder organizations, is key… a leader must have more than just a technical understanding or component, but also understand the needs of the crew and people.” For him, leaders must have more than technical competence, but a character which shows an understanding, and a sense of caring, for people. As Covey would say, they must show “trustworthiness.” (Covey, 2004, p. 146) Altogether, these three competencies come down to one thing: “The truth is that everything in leadership comes back to relationships.” (Phillips, 2003, p 55) Relationships with respect to leadership are multi-faceted; they are the relationships between people, between organizations, between systems, between processes, between cultures, and between stakeholders.

Pearson indicated demonstrating leadership competencies are not a “one-time” thing. Indeed, for Pearson, demonstrating positive leadership competencies – such as “coaching, setting standards, defining expectations” – is a constant in both action and word. For Pearson, setting standards and defining expectations is something he does on a daily basis. His interactions with subordinates routinely set out expectations for organizational behavior and organizational outcomes.

Interestingly, Pearson’s interest in relationships and the “people side” of things appeared strong during the interview, but his professional background is in the technical realm of the Coast Guard as an electronics systems engineer. His earlier flag assignments were as the Coast Guard’s Chief Information Officer and as the Assistant Commandant for Command, Control, Communications, Computers & Information Technology. Perhaps he has succeeded in these senior positions because of, and not in spite of, his understanding of the importance of the “people side.”

Conflict and Leadership
When asked what role conflict has played in his experiences as a leader, Pearson did not provide specific examples, but he did provide some clear-cut ways to deal with conflict within an over-riding caveat: “Conflict is counter-productive. Focus on mission.” The Coast Guard has a bias for action which comes out even when putting conflict into perspective. (Phillips, 2003, p. 73) Pearson’s rules for conflict are fairly clear: don’t let it get personal; address issues, not personalities; and, seek positive resolutions. He also noted that, if the result is not illegal or immoral, “let the leader make the call.” In a sense, even this response is shaped by culture, a culture steeped in chains-of-command and military structure. His rules, however, are not so steeped; addressing “issues” and not “personalities” is similar to mediation’s call to look to “interests” instead of “positions.” To successfully resolve conflict, we must pull away from that which we are bound and focus on true needs, or interests, or issues.

Pearson noted that people in conflict often find themselves in an emotional state. Conflict leads to stress which often increases the conflict; this cycle leads to a spinning-up that is often difficult to stop. Breaking the cycle can reduce both conflict and stress. Reducing conflict lowers stress; reducing stress lowers the conflict level. At smaller organizations than the Maintenance & Logistics Command, morale events – such as picnics or softball games or community service projects – can involve the entire crew and help relieve stress. Stress reduction is a “responsibility of the commanding officer.” Sometimes, however, the leader adds to the stress; a good leader understand himself and sees when he is adding to the organizational stress.

Pearson also noted that a leader must have skills to not only “identify early signs of conflict” but have skills to “keep the conflict from escalating.” Interestingly, in his current role, the conflicts Pearson comes into contact with are generally either stakeholder oriented, or are people issues on his own staff which have bubbled too long and too hard. These are few and far between. Resolving stakeholder conflicts are much more the natural visitor to his subdued, formal office. A former occupant of this office was once presented with a difficult stakeholder conflict. The then Atlantic Area Commander asked the Maintenance & Logistics Commander to have several million dollars – which had been earmarked for maintenance of cutters – transferred to the Area’s account to help fund a new and ongoing counter-drug operation in the Caribbean. For the then occupant of the eighth floor office, the question was one of conflict: obey an order from a superior and support an important Coast Guard – and national – initiative, or follow the desires of Congress – which specifically appropriates maintenance money – and support the engineering concepts of preventative and curative maintenance. In many respects, the decision was a no-win decision for the Maintenance & Logistics Commander. No matter which way he leaned, he would be ignoring a key stakeholder’s interests and position.

Decisions in 2005 are no less critical and, perhaps, even longer reaching in terms of impact on the organization. The Maintenance & Logistics organization is undergoing a major reorganization and support functions are being scrutinized as possible venues of outsourcing to government contractors. Conflicting stakeholder desires abound in these decisions which will have an impact long after Pearson moves on following his tour. He will likely move on in the summer of 2006, after just two years leading the organization. Strategic leadership and decision making by executives is influenced by tenure in the position; Pearson is nearly on the downhill turn for his tenure and may become more inflexible in looking at alternatives that do not match decisions made in the first year. (Yukl, 2002, p. 352) However, Pearson has shown an acceptance of ambiguity – in his systems thinking and in his understanding of multi-faceted relationship – so “refuge in a single-minded theme” is less likely.

Creating Leaders through Mentoring and Education
Growing leaders is important, particularly in an organization like the Coast Guard that moves members nearly every two or three years. Military members do not get a chance to spend 5 or 7 years in a single job; the culture demands movement and growth. Looking over his career, Pearson indicated that mentoring was the key activity he has taken on to grow leaders. What was evident in his explanation, however, was that he sees that responsibility as current, also. “It is important to provide teaching moments – as available – making bigger picture linkages, leading a person through the thought process” in decision making and in reconciling diverse stakeholder needs. Not only is this something he has done, but it is something he continues to do, and not just with junior members of the service. He indicated a mentoring role with the Deputy Commander, a subordinate, but a senior officer with nearly as much time in the service. Pearson sees himself as a mentor to his senior staff, his senior advisors, as well as those military members and employees who work on his personal staff. Mentoring is a “continuing issue” that helps ensure all in the service learn from many people over the years and are not just locked in to one role model.

This notion of continuous learning is one that played clear as Pearson talked about his dream for formal education for mid-level and senior military members and civilian employees. He noted the Coast Guard does a “pretty good job with on-the-job-training and leadership training” but, with a leader’s primary responsibility being “succession planning,” formal education is the service’s biggest deficiency. While the other military branches require officers to attend staff and war colleges, the Coast Guard does not require any graduate education for officers. “We don’t put enough energy and attention to this valuable opportunity.” As he talked, Pearson’s vision became clearer: a Coast Guard sponsored graduate College of Homeland Security or a Security & Staff College, or perhaps an increase in the work of the Coast Guard’s Leadership Development Center to include education, not just training. In a sense, Pearson is asking for a re-rack of our culture: make education important and put resources – including billets for students – in an enhanced education system. And, he noted that college education is “not just the purview of the commissioned officer corps.” The Coast Guard’s enlisted members are completing undergraduate and graduate degrees in record numbers; the service must encourage and nurture this learning through enhanced support. The service’s “structure requires” this support so that we do not lose our intellectual capital.

These shared notions of mentorship and education fit well within Kouzes & Posner’s “practices of leadership.” (2002, p. 22) The very notion of creating a graduate school within the service, or even within the Department of Homeland Security, challenges the process and the status quo. Mentoring subordinates, even those with years and years of experience, both models the way and inspires a vision. Seeing education as key to life-long personal success, as well as organizational success, encourages the hearts of employees.

The Changing Role of Leadership in the Coast Guard
According to Pearson, leadership has changed in his time in the Coast Guard. There is a “growing recognition that through readings, education, and training, a person can improve leadership skills.” As a service, the Coast Guard is more proactive and sees value in the research and literature of leadership, and the service attempts to use this new knowledge in various, fairly new, programs such as the Chief Petty Officer Academy, Leadership & Management course, and the Leadership Development Center. Over the years, according to Pearson, “contemporary leaders have become more astute at leadership and conflict resolution…. Whereas years ago, most of it was rank-based, now people at all levels have skills to lead and to help reduce conflict.”The View from the Eighth Floor Front Office
As our interview wound down, Pearson defined what he saw as the outcomes to good leadership: mission accomplishment, better products quicker, a more satisfied workforce, better organizational performance, and increased retention. In his five outcomes, Pearson basically nails the four strategic cornerstones of planning: customers, stakeholders, process management, and employees. (Kaplan & Norton, 1996) Afterward, I wonder if he sees these as strategic goals for the Maintenance & Logistics community. On the one hand, they are more general than the goals in the strategic plan signed by his predecessor just barely a year ago; they are also more understandable, providing a clearer vision than the program-focused document which hangs down the hall from the flag office. (U.S. Coast Guard, 2004)

Pearson sees leadership as “cascading down” and including everyone in the organization. From the polished office on the eighth floor, it is a long way to the electronics shop in San Juan or the industrial facility in New Orleans or the administrative support spaces in Boston, but that is where his leadership must reach. If he is lucky, Pearson will make it to each of these spots twice during his tour; for the other nearly 800 days, it is the responsibility of those in the chain-of-command to carry his message and provide the appropriate coaching, standards, and expectations. He can make rudder commands and he can make power commands, but it is the helmsman, the throttleman, and the engineers who actually turn the ship and bring up the speed. It is, indeed, Pearson’s three senior leader competencies – systems thinking, personal relationships, and understanding people – all delivered from the plush confines of the eighth floor office or wherever his flag flies, which will ensure success.

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Appendix – Interview Questions
1. What does it mean to be a “leader”?

2. What the key leadership competencies you’ve used during your time in the Coast Guard? How have you put those to use?

3. What would you consider to be the most important competencies (or traits) of a leader in a complex organization such as the Coast Guard?

4. What are some key instances when you have used leadership competencies?

5. How has conflict played a role in your experience as a leader?

6. What leadership competencies have you used to resolve conflict?

7. What steps can leaders take to reduce conflict within an organization?

8. What linkages do you see between leadership development and conflict?

9. What are some ways you’ve helped grow leaders?

10. If you could make significant structural or organizational changes in the Coast Guard, what would you do to enhance leadership development?

11. How do you see the Coast Guard’s new Unit Leadership Development Program impacting Coast Guard people and units?

12. In what ways do you think leadership development is lacking in today’s Coast Guard?

13. How has leadership — and leadership development — changed in your time as a member of the Coast Guard?

14. How has conflict — and conflict resolution — changed in your time as a member of the Coast Guard? What types of conflict do your recollect from your early days in the Coast Guard?

15. For you, what are the keys to conflict resolution?

16. What do you see as the value to good leadership?

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Covey, S. R. (2004) The Eighth Habit: From effectiveness to greatness. New York: Free Press.

Kaplan, R. S. & Norton, D. P. (1996). The Balanced Scorecard: Translating Strategy into Action. Boston: Harvard Business School Press

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. (2004). Maintenance and Logistics Command Atlantic Strategic Plan 2004-2008. (MLCLANTINST 16000.1H, February 26, 2004) Norfolk: Author.

Yukl, G. (2002). Leadership in Organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.