Navigating Through the Fog: A Naval Officer’s Lessons on Leading Teams

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A ship is partially obscured by a fog bank off the coast of Naval Amphibious Base Coronado. U.S. Navy photo

A ship is partially obscured by a fog bank off the coast of Naval Amphibious Base Coronado. U.S. Navy photo

 

A viscous fog engulfed us as the ship slowly settled on its course into San Diego Harbor. As the Navigator, it was my duty to ensure the safe navigation of our ship by giving the Officer of the Deck (OOD) course and speed recommendations.  The visual landmarks on which we usually depended were completely obscured so we were reliant on our GPS, radar system, and sound signals from the buoys as we continued. I could not have done this without my highly capable five-person navigation team.

As leaders we will face unexpected circumstances.  How does your team respond in a challenging situation? How do you respond? A mentor of mine once said, “There is no secret sauce to leadership,” and he is right. It is your job to learn from leaders, good and bad, to determine your own authentic style of leadership. When the fog rolled in and the front of the ship was not visible, an understanding of the following concepts helped me immensely.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] You cannot appreciate the work your staff does without knowing what they do, nor can you wait until a crisis emerges to show respect for your people. [/pullquote]

Respect

I was the officer in charge of the navigation detail. I had less experience and knowledge than several of my team members, yet I was expected to motivate, lead and train the team. This was only possible because I learned what they did and had a deep respect for the work each individual performed. I watched and participated when they took bearings and visual fixes, performed maintenance and even trained. When we faced a challenge, I knew exactly what to expect from my team and they knew what to expect from me.

If you are managing a group that performs work in a field in which you are not an expert or even familiar, you must witness the work. This will show your new team that their efforts are meaningful to you and you will learn the challenges they face every day. You cannot appreciate the work your staff does without knowing what they do, nor can you wait until a crisis emerges to show respect for your people. Your people are your team; taking some time to learn their personal stories, check in on them, or discuss mutual interests is an investment that will pay off. It also is part of being a manager for whom you would want to work.

The author, second from right, part of a team navigating the Columbia River enroute to Portland, Oregon

The author, second from right, part of a team navigating the Columbia River enroute to Portland, Oregon

Listen

My team had been together for far longer than I had been their Navigator. I knew that each member had the required skills to do his or her job with the utmost professionalism. I was nervous, but a negative reaction from me in any way would only have added tension and anxiety to the situation. My first reaction was to listen, assess the issue and avoid interfering with their work.

When someone brings you bad news, every part of your first reaction to should lead to a solution. Assigning blame or becoming visibly frustrated undermines your control of the situation and your standing as a leader. A first reaction that shows irritation or annoyance sets a negative tone for the response of the entire team. A time for accountability will come, but let that time occur after the crisis has passed. Your team will be watching you closely; your first step should be to calmly hear the problem in its entirety. If you have cultivated a culture of competence and mutual respect, there is a good chance that your team has already identified a solution.

Accountability

As we shifted entirely to electronic fixes, I walked from side to side of the pilothouse listening for the sounds of the buoys. I checked on my people to make sure they had what they needed and that they were making regular reports. I called course and speed recommendations with more frequency and made sure to engage the OOD in conversation as to the next leg of the journey. I did not wait to be asked for updates.

When a challenge emerges, gather as much information as you can and take ownership where possible. If you work for a city and are dealing with a constituent issue, the citizen is unlikely to care if the Public Works or Transportation Department is responsible; the city is responsible. Follow up to ensure the issue is on track to be resolved. You are a leader. Fix or enable your team to fix the problem.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] If you work for a city and are dealing with a constituent issue, the citizen is unlikely to care if the Public Works or Transportation Department is responsible; the city is responsible.[/pullquote]

Trust

As I listened to the buoy signals it became clear that we were still in the middle of the channel. I cannot take credit for the competence of this team; they were trained before I ever reported to the ship. I did get to know the team and learn that they were competent (see respect section above). By getting to know my people, I was able to comfortably trust their skills.

Do not automatically and unhesitatingly trust your team, but take the steps to get there. You can only gain this level of trust through knowledge of your group’s mission, what each member contributes to that mission, and how each member of your team works. This investment of time will pay for itself when you are able to trust your team completely. A team of empowered and competent people can accomplish remarkable feats, especially when allowed autonomy.

 

Composure

I have been on more demanding transits on several different ships, and each was stressful in a distinct way, but I would go through the same mental exercise almost every time. In my mind, I used to see walls closing in on me at stressful times on the bridge. As the walls closed, I visualized myself holding, and then pushing them away. Part of being a leader is maintaining your composure -so find a way to do this at all costs. This gives your people faith in you, and themselves.

This is closely related to the listen item above. Without composure, you are much less likely to listen and process the information presented to you. This compromises not only your ability to make decisions but more critically the initiative and motivation of your team; the very people you on whom you must rely. Stay calm for yourself and for your team.

Endurance

As a Surface Warfare Officer, one is always lacking sleep. Between standing watch on the bridge, managing a work group, earning qualifications and leaving some time for personal maintenance like exercise, eating or sleeping, every hour is accounted for. Do your best to take care of your own needs but sometimes you just need to push through and endure. Some will say that as a leader, you must have a smile on your face and convey a positive attitude at all times. Your demeanor will certainly set the tone for your team, but in my experience I have found success in a more authentic approach. After a third consecutive 90-hour workweek, I think my people would have distrusted me if I appeared too cheery. They would have wondered, “Is he suffering?” or “Does he even know what’s going on?”

Endurance means explaining, as honestly as you can, the circumstances of the difficulty. Embracing the fact that the team is in a difficult situation and facing it together also requires endurance. Endurance means you retain your faculties and think through solutions, and it may mean you allow your people to vent as you move forward. Most importantly, endurance means that although the situation is difficult and the solution may be concealed, you know that you and your team cannot be beaten.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]As a leader you must make every effort to keep your composure as you process difficult news and push your team forward. [/pullquote]

Handling the Unexpected

The fog dissipated as suddenly as it appeared. The Executive Officer looked at where we were in the channel and said, “Right down the middle, outstanding job Nav.” This was not a display of skill on the part of any individual; each component was vital to the whole of our team.

In the myriad experiences one may have in the United States Navy, a brief episode involving thick fog is mundane. However, this example illustrates that first and foremost you must respect your people and what they contribute to your team. As a leader you must make every effort to keep your composure as you process difficult news and push your team forward. If you have done your job, the answer will come from your team and you will recognize its value. Furthermore, it is your duty to determine if your team is trained to handle the unexpected, and if not, lead them there. Take intentional action to make both your team and your organization more exceptional. As the Latin writer Publius Syrus once said, “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm”.

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