Five lessons from the Coast Guard

The Coast Guard teaches various leadership lessons throughout one’s career. Charged with designing a leadership development program for his civilian career, Brendan Rogers, a reservist with ten years of active duty experience, wrote the below article after reflecting on his Coast Guard career.

U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

Written by Ens. Brendan Rogers

I joined the Coast Guard when I was 19 years old. In my 16 years of experience, I learned five major lessons that have shaped my life.

1. Prepare for storms when the sun is shining.

“Semper Paratus”, (Always Ready) is the Coast Guard motto. Very early in my career, someone told me that the only difference between the rescuer and a ship in distress is the readiness of the crew and the physical condition of the vessels. Coast Guard training is continuous. Crews train daily in the core skills they need to perform their difficult missions. These skills often seem routine, drilling over and over the things they already know. This is done not for lack of imagination, but to ensure that crews can react to emergencies automatically. Automatic reaction keeps minds free to make critical decisions. The concept is rooted in risk management. Seek to control what you can control so that exposure to risk is limited only to the uncontrollable forces that impact your work. Preparing for the unexpected when you have the capacity to do so saves lives in emergencies when time is the most precious commodity.

Ens. Brendan Rogers is currently a Coast Guard reservist with ten years active duty experience. Photo courtesy of Brendan Rogers.

Ens. Brendan Rogers is currently a Coast Guard reservist with ten years active duty experience. Photo courtesy of Brendan Rogers.

In my civilian career, I continuously seek to re-enforce and expand the capacity of my baseline skill set. Even while developing new areas of proficiency, I reenforce my core skills. This disposition impacts my free time significantly. Public speaking, instructional design and technological literacy may seem rudimentary to many of you. My peers often challenge me for not dedicating my free time to learning new skills. From my perspective, making my core strengths intuitive allows me the real time capacity to employ recently acquired skills in difficult situations.

2. Your team is only as strong as it’s weakest link.

For Coast Guard crews the saying, “We are all in the same boat” is literal. Everyone has their own special skill set. The navigator is an expert at his or her trade, the engineer knows every inch of the boat, and the crewman is an expert in seamanship. Teams of experts are by design high performance crews. They complete the missions that no one else can do. There is however, a hidden message to this concept. “Your team is only as strong as it’s weakest link”, means that not only is the chain strong because it works together, but that every link of the chain must strive to not become the weakest link. The lesson is that whatever it is you do, you must be the very best. The greatest shame of all is to be the weakest link in the chain.

3. Assess the difference between ability and desire.

Everyone in the service is a leader. Leadership can be found in the most menial task. How that task is executed is a demonstration of individual leadership. As Managers, your role is to inspire the people in your charge to execute their tasking in a way that demonstrates how the job should be done. If someone fails to meet your expectations, it is your job to help them complete tasking in a way that sets the standard for those that follow them.

In your career as a leader, there will be times when others will fail you. How you handle that failure will be your greatest test. The key question is, is it you or is it them? If your people have the ability but not the willingness, they need motivation. If they simply do not have the ability, it is your job to train them. Ability is not inherent. Ability must be taught.

4. Assess risk constantly.

The world is an uncertain place. The sea is the most uncertain place in the world. The condition of the sea changes by the minute. The sea can be flat and calm like glass. It can swiftly transform to a fury; unforgiving and dangerous. It is your primary function to asses the external environment and to determine if your team can survive the conditions. In every stage of an operation, the primary concern of a leader is the safety and sustainability of his or her crew. What good is it to complete a mission to save a single life at the expense of an entire crew and vessel? Risk versus reward is central to the thinking of a leader. Sacrificing an entire crew may save a single life. But what about the lives of the people in distress that come after your sacrifice? You must ensure that you have the capacity to complete your objectives continuously. The sea is forever. Your ability to respond must be the same.

5. Sleep while you can. Wake up and do your best.

The call to action may come anytime day or night. The public expects that you will give 100 percent in the performance of your duties. The reality is that your duties often require you to give 120 percent to get the job done. This is not a sustainable level of output. In order to have the capacity to perform at this level, you must capitalize on opportunities to recover. Sleep, recreation, wellness, family and exposure to your support systems are integral parts of preparing to respond. If you have the opportunity to rest, take it. There are only a few times when peak performance is important. Ignore the pressure to perform at 100 percent all the time. Downtime is the preparation to perform at 120 percent. Rest while you can. Get up in times of need and give it everything you have.

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