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Leadership at Sea and Seven Habits of Highly Effective Sailors

The irony is unavoidable. I began reading Seven Habits of Highly Effective People when I was feeling at my least effective, personally, as a human being and as a child. I suppose I'm not alone in saying this, though. The fact of a parent's death makes every child feel ineffective, unable to cope with family grief and stress, as well as forced to face one's own mortality and "principles of personal vision." (1) The loss of a father makes it easy to lose one's sense of a future perspective, and the vision one has of one's self in a family and a societal context.

However, I was also, when I began the book, feeling quite ineffective as a leader as well. Because of my father's death in mid-August, I had to leave my ship and came home to tend to family matters. Thus, I began Stephen R. Covey's text, not at sea, but at home, far away from military examples of leadership and much closer to the civilian audience that was the book's original focus. However, much of what I read in Covey's work was later to become quite resonant with what I experienced at sea, when I again returned to my ship.

I was initially quite surprised with my reaction to this seminal text on leadership, because I was only dimly aware of Covey's book on Seven Habits of Highly Effective People before. I tended to assume, erroneously, that it was a kind of self-help, 1970's New Age-y type of book, the sort of book that might be analogous to Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus. My initial presuppositions, however, were quite wrong. Unlike most self-help books that stress airy notions of self-actualization, Covey stresses the need for "interdependence" with others and the need for leaders to mobilize an effective structure of interdependence amongst the individuals he or she is commanding. (2) The need for interdependent leaders, rather than independent or dependent leaders or individuals, is the most hopeful and helpful philosophy that emerges from Covey's text for an individual in service, at sea.

Covey's life and leadership philosophy is, I found, in fact quite commensurate with the military and the experience of military life. First, the author says, an individual begins his or her young life in a state of dependence. Like many young people, before entering service, individuals turn to their parents for guidance. They feel weak, and look to others to define their values, hopefully their mother and father, or, in absence of clear guidance, to the less certain structure of their immediate peer group. But then, life and the demands of their country's service test them and mold them anew, giving them a sense of independence, away from the family and their civilian peers.

But this is only one critical step towards maturity -- lastly, the individual must formulate a sense of interdependence with others in their societal context. The individual must realize, commensurate with these "principles of interdependence" that he or she is responsible for others, and to be truly functional he or she must perform according to the rules, expectations, and demands of a particular world, to do good for others. (3)

After reading the book at home, in the civilian context of my childhood, I understood that I had moved from a state of dependence upon my father because of my work in the service. I had become a more functional adult, and was thereby able to love his memory and still move on, emotionally. I existed in a state, now, of interdependence with my family -- I loved them and had a sense of responsibility toward them, and had leadership responsibilities in the changed family dynamic after my father's death. "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." (4) I sought to understand the needs of others in my family dynamic, rather than simply focus on my own needs. I was no longer a dependent burden, nor did I need to assert myself like an adolescent, holding myself so independent I had nothing to say to others. I was full, not only of sorrow, but also full of a sense of "balanced self-renewal." (5)

In reading the book and feeling its motivational energy, I was also struck with Covey's stress upon the need for "habits" in leadership -- that leadership does not simply happen, it is a willed, learned act, which one must condition one's self for, much like passing a Physical Training test. (6) I took this valorization of protocol, discipline, and interdependence with me as a motivating factor back in my own sense of interdependent service to my fellow sailors and to any leadership I might be called to exercise when I returned to sea.

Now I knew in my family no longer I needed to be standoffish in my grief but needed to "renew" my family relationship. (7) Instead, I was autonomous, but part of an interdependent structure of a family community, in which I had a leadership role as an adult child. After this revelation, I proceeded back into my other life in service, into another community where I was honing skillful habits to take a leadership role, "habits that would take me to "the intersection of knowledge, skill and desire," in other words, the intersection of what I had learned and the discipline I had gained along with my love for my country and my desire to exercise leadership in service. (8)

Time and time again, I reminded myself Covey stresses that it is not beneficial to be in a constant state of flux, fashionable as it might be, in pop psychology. Rather, discipline through habituation is the key, a key that is underlined in the nature of the military and even the structured and even, I learned while at home, reading the text, ultimately cathartic grief of a funeral service.

The fact that Covey's analysis of leadership meets both civilian and service needs was underlined by several core, formative experiences I have since had at sea, in examining my immediate leaders through Covey's sevenfold eyes. Once, I was particularly struck by the leadership behavior of a Captain who always gave public and private recognition for the quality of the labor of others, and complimented the diligence of his subordinates. He never saw losses, his thinking was always "win-win," stressing the positives learned, even when the individual made an accidental error. (9) He was never afraid that making compliments for a job performed correctly and excellently would make him seem weak, according to Covey's "paradigm" of "interdependent" leadership. (10)

This Captain did not strive to seem independent of the need for others to perform their duties, nor was he dependent upon others for their approval. Rather, through respect, he provided those under his command with motivation to show their excellence in all required endeavors. Another officer whom always completed his work to the highest possible standard, I believe, also showed excellence in leadership in a different fashion, not only in his command, but also through his constant, quiet, personal examples of excellence. By never expecting more of others than he gave of himself, he was a true example of interdependent leadership.

Covey's analysis of leadership's components was unfortunately at times also evidenced in some of the negative leadership qualities of others. For instance, the first assistant engineer was apt to hold team meetings after breakfast to assign tasks for the day. This could be an attempt to "put first things first," in Covey's words. (11)

But what was put "first," really, was simply the officer's own personal needs to demonstrate his own leadership position, rather than to demonstrate true leadership. (12) Rather than using these meetings as an attempt to 'check in' with those under his command, and to see how they were proceeding in their duties, the individual appeared more interested in dominating the meeting with his own voice and management. Rather than encouraging others to exercise self-discipline and leadership within their own sense of duty and service, to accomplish their tasks, he was interested only in exercising his own leadership over a collective group of autonomous, in his eyes, faceless individuals.

Furthermore, and perhaps most exasperatingly, he never encouraged others to find leadership qualities in themselves, seeking strategies of creative cooperation. (13)

In Covey's terms, this officer encouraged only dependence in others, never interdependence with other members assigned to the same duties, or even a sense of autonomy and self-fulfillment. He never gave confidence of others, perhaps because he was too afraid to relax in his own role as a leader, because he had no confidence in himself as a leader. The end result, alas, was micromanagement and a poor execution of leadership and a poor execution of the tasks required by all members under his guidance.

Micromanagement hurts not only the individuals under the officer's command. It also hurts the ship as a whole, because a refusal to delegate…[continue]

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