Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Choice of Leadership

Having graduated from the United States Coast Guard Academy (USCGA) in 2005, I am partially favorable toward the idea that leadership can be taught. That does not necessarily mean that leadership can be learned and applied by the same person to whom it is taught. I think a person must make a decision to internalize what leadership means to him or her before being capable of leading others. Although I've probably written and spoken the word 'leadership' more than I've said my own name, I still cannot make a clear decision as to weather leadership can be learned by just anyone.

The USCGA, the smallest of our nation's federal military academies, provides a four-year Bachelor of Science degree program along with specialized education and training to graduate individuals prepared to serve as commissioned officers and serve the public as leaders of character.

When you first arrive at the academy, you begin what is known as swab-summer. This is a time when senior cadets and commissioned officers train and indoctrinate the new "wanna-be" cadets. You actually are not even considered a cadet or member of the CGA until you complete the seven weeks of training. Throughout this program (equivalent to that of boot-camp for enlisted personnel) we are responsible for learning and reciting the cadet mission of the CGA. Every now and then, whenever a swab-summer cadre wants to hear it, he or she will shout, "Zulu three (or whichever platoon you were a member of), what's the mission?" to which we would reply, "Sir/ma'am, the mission of the United States Coast Guard Academy is to graduate young men and women with sound bodies, stout hearts and alert minds, with a liking for the sea and its lore, with that high sense of honor, loyalty and obedience which goes with trained initiative and leadership; well grounded in seamanship, the sciences and amenities, and strong in the resolve to be worthy of the traditions of commissioned officers in the United States Coast Guard in the service of their country and humanity, sir!" Thus, in the very early stages of my adult education, I was learning that leadership is something that I could learn and would learn before I became a commissioned officer, according to the mission at least. I do actually believe that leadership can be learned, but I believe that learning to be a leader is a choice we make and is a never ending journey.

I was sent home during week 5 of my first swab-summer because of a knee injury but was determined to get back to the CGA where I could learn about this extraordinary concept of leadership. I wanted to be a leader, because I wanted to effect others' lives in a positive way, and I still strive toward that goal. Looking back, however, I realize that my first real experience with leadership involved my willingness to obey authority and my "zone of indifference" of unquestionably accepting orders (Chester Barnard, 1938). This is not how I define leadership today, but that summer (and 3/4) of obedience to authority did teach me to be a follower and revealed traits that I do not want to have as a leader. In a sense, during my four years of training, I was learning to be a leader through experiences, relationships, mistakes, and above all, my willingness to learn to lead.

The topic of leadership was common throughout my four years at the CGA and four years as a commissioned officer. It is an institution and service that emphasizes leadership. We are encouraged to discuss positive and negative leadership characteristics with our peers, but I think a large piece is missing; the direct study of the theories on leadership that we've currently been discussing in our class. I still do not have a concrete definition of what leadership means to me, but I'm closer now to that definition than I've ever been. I agree with people like William Pagonis who says that anyone willing to work hard enough and develop the traits can lead (Leadership in a Combat Zone, 2001). Which traits? I think it is dependent on the situation and the vision of the group and the leader, but that is another topic in itself. However, I also believe some people have a natural ability and/or tendency to lead, without having to work so hard and without having to attend a U.S. military academy.

The CGA prepares cadets to take on roles of great responsibility and leadership and it begins with senior cadets leading and training the junior cadets. However, all of this training and experience does not prove to me that just anyone can learn to be a leader. You must have the desire to lead. Though instructors, especially the commissioned officers and chiefs, help teach cadets about leadership through their own experiences, I think the ability to learn from them is a choice we make. Learning to be a leader seems to be a lifelong commitment that we may choose to experience.

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  1. Nice post Alanna. It seems like your view of leadership blends the idea that it is a process as well as a choice. I agree that people still must choose and that they will not necessarily become leaders by having access to the resources. In the fourth paragraph, you mentioned that your first real experience with leadership involved your willingness to obey authority. Even though you may not have felt that it was a true leadership experience, it's an experience you have in common with those you do or will lead, so it's still a critical part of the process.

  2. Alanna, you gave us civilians a good window into the unique world of CGA leadership. Reading about the the cadet recitation to the mission--that business about responding with "stout hearts...honor, loyalty...with trained initiative and leadership"--all pointed to Heifitz for me. Specifically, the Heifitz position that the military may influence people by bringing forth their highest qualities seemed to resonate with this example. Having no living family members in active military duty, I appreciate your unique view of leadership within a branch of service I know little about.

  3. Thanks to both of you for the opinions and insight! I think writings such as these help me realize my view of leadership. You're right that I see it as a process and a choice, but I am still working toward finding a fully encompassing definition of leadership as I see it - since there are many out there, as we know. The reason I believe I need this definition of leadership is the same reason I think the role of follower-ship is important: in order to exercise leadership, we should know what it looks like, acts like, feels like (as the leader and the follower). I also see your point, Sarah, that my stand follows Heifitz's view that leadership is an activity and that it is goal oriented. In my case, I believe the goal of leadership is to positively influence the lives of the others... but there is more and, again, I am looking to finish that sentence... someday!


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