A Leader’s Journey

I will share my journey from early on to where I sit now. Perhaps others will find my journey to be very divergent from theirs or my journey could be on parallel paths. It is very okay to be far apart on our individual journeys because my journey is not yours and yours is not mine.

In the early days as a wet-behind-the-ears sailor in the U.S. Navy I had very little desire to lead anyone or manage anything. I was a very typical teenager set loose in the world. Thank goodness I had the disciplined structure of the Navy to keep me in check. It took me several years to understand being a follower in the Navy was simply not acceptable by the culture. Leading is not a choice in the military, it is a responsibility each must carry. Everyone in the military must be a leader as ambassadors to the U.S. and representatives of our branch of service, further as a reflection of our diverse culture we must be considerate of our environment especially when interacting with the public either in the U.S. or abroad. I resisted this expectation to my core for several years and only when I was ready did I embrace being a leader every moment of everyday. Believe me, I have failed more days than succeeded.

What I did not realize in those early days was my leadership sponge was soaking up tidbits of wisdom and knowledge from those who were leading everyday. There are several key things I learned early on and I keep them with me everyday.

  1. Never ask another person to do something you yourself are not willing to do.
  2. “I don’t know,” is unacceptable as a an answer.
  3. Admit mistakes.
  4. If another person’s livelihood is in jeopardy, it must be the most important issue to fix.
  5. I am my own worst enemy.
  6. Lead people.
  7. Manage things.
  8. Listen with intent and focus.
  9. Leading is 24/7.
  10. Fairness is a myth, only two things are fair and one is not taxes.
  11. Say what you will do and do what you say you will do.

These eleven points I carry with me. Yours may be completely different and I encourage everyone to discover them and write them down as part of the journey. These ten points are not things I have mastered, but things I continuously must be vigilant of sliding on my backside with because some of these are very tough for me. Let us keep journeying on and I will dissect each point to clarify.

Never ask another person to do something you  yourself are not willing to do. 

I was the Senior Section Leader in my barracks in A-School in the Navy. I had several responsibilities which in turn gave me certain privileges others were not given. I was out with a group of friends and an opportunity came upon us to do the right thing and I made a very poor decision which  the others followed perhaps because of my influence and status as the Senior Section Leader. My decision came back on us all and I did the right thing by taking responsibility for the mishap. The others were given an extra watch detail on their next duty day. I was awarded a weekend Mess Hall detail. I was not going to spend an entire weekend working in the Mess Hall. I chose the newest Section Leader from our barracks and I convinced him to take my Mess Hall punishment. I never bragged about how I dodged the worst detail I could imagine and how I went out partying with my friends while this other person suffered my punishment and that is most likely how I never was discovered.

I was unwilling to do the Mess Hall detail. I used some very slick talking to convince a new person to do for me what I was unwilling to do. This was a complete leadership failure and I will never be able to repair my actions in this situation. I have moved passed my guilt in what I did, but the lesson is still ever-present in my mind. Never ever will I ask another person to do something I am not willing to do myself. I can  honestly and sincerely say, I have not violated this moral value since.

There are always circumstances where leaders may have to ask others to do things which they are not capable of doing themselves. An example is an leader who is trained in management has to ask a skilled laborer to run a complex machine in order to deliver a product to a customer. The leader does not possess the same skills as the laborer and therefore, cannot run the complex machine. This is a real-world example which happens countless times each day across every industry. Managers and leaders are not trained to do certain tasks. So, how does a leader ask someone else to do something which the leader does not possess the same knowledge or ability? The key is being willing to do the task being requested.

I am a curious person. I want to know how things work. As a leader I venture out to see how things are done and this becomes my willingness to do the task. A leader understands the details of a process. This understanding becomes a link between leaders and workers.

Being willing to do what one asks another to do is an opportunity to understand the efforts others exert. A bond is developed and it legitimizes the leader-worker relationship. From the business view understanding the processes means the leader will make responsible decisions in the best interest of the company in regards to labor, equipment, materials, and ancillary costs. One of the most devastating comments I hear is, “My manager doesn’t know what I do, so I can take the whole shift doing something that takes me about 30 minutes to do. What a dumb-ass.” I will never be that leader.

“I don’t know,” is unacceptable as an answer. 

Leaders are paid to have answers. Period. This will be short. There are plenty of other responses to a question which the answer may not be readily available, but I don’t know is not acceptable. Ever. Period.

Say something to the effect, “I need to get more information on that to give you the best answer. Give me 10 minutes and we’ll have a more full picture of the issue.”

Or perhaps say, “That’s a tough question, let me gather a bit more information and I’ll get back to you.”

Just, please, for the love of all good in the Universe, do NOT say, “I don’t know.” Erase the phrase from the vocabulary. Be a leader, earn your salary, and have answers.

Admit mistakes. 

Everyone makes mistakes. Me, you, and even Bill up on the 3rd floor. We all make mistakes.

Admitting a mistake takes humility. Humility takes us to contrition. Contrition is where we learn from our mistakes. Learning is an opportunity. The opportunity is to learn from our mistake so as we do not make the same mistake twice.

There will always be those who cannot admit their mistakes. I am going to go out on a real weak branch here and make a couple statements regarding the inability to admit mistakes. First, some people cannot admit mistakes because they have suffered some traumatic experience in their life which evokes a level of fear which makes admitting mistakes a threat to their core. Second, those who cannot admit mistakes may simply lack the desire and care to admit they have done something not-so-right, this may be a character flaw.

I have told my children for well over 20 years  now and I believe this to be an ultimate truth in this world, there is only one thing which cannot be fixed… death. We have not been able to fix death yet. Every mistake which is not death can be fixed. I certainly am not saying fixing things will be easy, acceptable, or fair. Still everything in the world can be fixed as long as the cost and effort are willing to be expended.

Admitting one’s mistakes shows maturity and understanding of how the world works. Hide things from me and I will be pissed, the effort and cost to correct the situation will be arduous and expensive. Tell me the mistake honestly and I forgive with little recourse for repair. I feel admitting mistakes is a cornerstone to trust.

If another person’s livelihood is in jeopardy, it must be the most important issue to fix.

Joe comes into his manager, Tom’s office and tells Tom his pay is all messed up. Tom has a choice here, the TPS reports can wait or Joseph can wait. What do you think Tom should do? The TPS reports are due by the end of the day and payday is two days away.

“Joe, I’ve got to get these TPS reports finished, they’re do today. Payday is in a couple days. I’ll get to it tomorrow. We have time.”


When someone’s livelihood is threatened and a leader fails to make it the most important issue of the immediate moment the relationship is damaged and trust is lost. Not only is the person who is directly affected upset, but others will soon follow suit and become distrusting of a leader who fails to prioritize people first.

Tom’s first response is catastrophic. Joe’s pay is important to Joe and his family. Tom failed to recognize the importance of the situation.

“Joe, I’ll tell you we have a situation here. James and his Payroll Team are off-site today at a state training. I’m not sure there will be much that we can get done today. Tell me what’s wrong with your pay and I’ll call or text James and we’ll get ready to get it fixed first thing in the morning so it won’t affect your payday. Is that okay with you Joe?”


There were circumstantial issues which Tom needed to communicate to Joe. There was action communicated to Joe and a solution with an implied promise the problem would be adequately solved in a defined time. And then, Tom asked Joe if the course of action was acceptable. Tom just has to follow-through with Payroll and keep Joe in the loop of resolution with good communications.

Leaders cannot solve every issue immediately. Still, issues revolving around one’s livelihood need to be elevated to the highest importance and it needs to be communicated with open and honest transparency. The fallout of not making it an important issue can cause a ton of issues for a leader, mostly the loss of trust throughout the Team or company.

What happens when Joe comes to Tom after not being paid correctly on payday and tells Tom he is three-months behind on his rent and his family is being evicted? Joe did not bring the issue to Tom before the fact and Tom may not be able to do much to help. But, Tom has to exercise empathy and listen to Joe and then jump into action to get Joe’s pay fixed immediately. Tom will refer Joe to EAP (Employee Assistance Program), but because Tom is an exceptional leader he follows through with Joe through open and honest transparent communications.

I know I do not want to be put into Joe’s problems, but Joe is a Team member and deserves to be helped. No one wants to get a notice their pay is somehow incorrect. When one’s pay does get messed up, it is important to take immediate action to repair the problem. Good leaders know this and know TPS reports can wait for the real important things like someone’s pay. It really is simple, do not muck with anyone’s pay.

I am my own worst enemy.

I own this one. I am my enemy. I will destroy myself as long as I do not keep a watchful eye on myself.

Think before opening the mouth and letting sounds out. If sounds come flying out with emotions then I am certainly starting to fall. For me when emotions drive my language I revert to my barbarian habits. F Bombs explode. M Effers get called out. Poo hit the fan. Voice raises. BOOM!!! I have stepped on everyone’s toes and offended with my colorful ordinance.

I work on me each day. I seek counsel from trusted advisers. I remind myself through rigorous vigilance I am my own worst enemy. I identify my behaviors and I work on them with those I trust the most.

My enemy will drag me down by planting seeds of doubt. We all know what this means. We let ourselves talk us out of what we know to be true.

My enemy will find any weakness. Once a weakness is found my enemy will exploit it like no other. Lack of confidence. Lack of ability. Confusion. Embarrassment. Anything which can and will make me less than I am able and capable of doing each day.

My enemy is me. My enemy is the self-talk I let happen in my head. Self-talk is a huge component of being a great leader. It allows us to work out problems in our head. It allows us to be our biggest cheerleader or worst enemy. Self-talk can give and take equally and faster than the blink of an eye. I grab my enemy and bring him close to me so I can understand him better because I keep my friends close and my enemies closer.

Lead people. Manage Things. 

I add these two together because they go hand-in-hand. Lead and manage. Become a leader-manager.

I will keep this short. Leaders lead people and managers manage things. People will quickly detect any micro-management, so beware leaders. Managers are mostly  not invested in what people will do when motivated in whichever direction they go.

A leader-manager understands the roles which need played on a moment-by-moment basis. Leader-managers know they have two hats and knowing which to wear for a situation is crucial to success.

My advice, do not get caught managing people and things do not respond to leadership.

Listen with intent and purpose.

This seems so painfully obvious, but for some reason it is just painful and in no way obvious. People in general fail to listen with intent and purpose. Be aware of the surroundings and listen to what is being said both verbally and non-verbally. Pick-up on what is going on in the room. Shut the mouth and wait. Believe me when I say we have time to see what happens and it does not diminish our role as a leader one iota when we wait. Things have a way of working themselves out when we wait and see.

Still listening is 50% of communication and that is a lot! I encourage everyone, including myself, to listen intently and with purpose. Show interest in what is being said. Engage in the words and respond appropriately.

Listening validates the speaker and conveys respect. I do not have to agree with the speaker, but I do need to validate and respect the speaker. Be the best communicator possible because what is being said is extremely important to the speaker.

I use a little reminder, St. Fu. Shut the F up. I write it at the top of my pad of paper when going into meetings. When I get the urge to defy St. Fu I read my scribbled reminder and take a couple few deep breaths to see if I can wait. And then, I listen.

It takes courage to speak-up and it takes an equal amount to zip-it and listen-up.

Leading is 24/7.

As I go down my list the explanation becomes shorter and shorter, but I think it is okay.

Being a leader is not restricted to 9 to 5 in the office or at the plant. Being a leader means making good decisions in every moment of our lives. Being responsible and accountable in a caring and engaged manner with our family, friends, peers, supervisors, subordinates, acquaintances, and even strangers.

Fairness is a myth, only two things are fair and one is not taxes.

Birth and Death, all else in between is not fair. I will let better minds debate this statement. This is my belief. No one will ever change my mind on this belief.

We are all born and we all will die.

Say what you will do and do what you say you will do. 

A leader must be honorable. A leader must follow through. A leader must not put his tongue-in-cheek and say things which are half-truth or flat out lies.

Say it and then do it. It really is very simple. Still for some reason saying and doing are perceived as threats to some people and they are unreliable. Or maybe we should look at them as anti-reliable, the state of being so unreliable one becomes reliable to not do what they say.

Doing what we say is very difficult and often we all will fail to some degree to do what we said we will do. There are always some circumstances which derail us from doing what we said we would do. I guarantee everyone will fail at this point in some aspect whether professionally or personally.

How do we mitigate the destruction from failing to do what we say we will do? Great question with a myriad of possible answers. Get on your journey and figure this one out for yourself. I know personally, this is my biggest weakness and I fail at this often. It eats away at me and I have to accept I am not a super hero who can do everything.

For leaders this point can destroy careers, relationships, families, basically this can destroy anything. Can it be fixed, well, sure but the price tag might be really too much based on the transgression. This is another cornerstone to trust, and yes, I know my structure has more than four corners!

With all due humbleness, I submit trust as every foundation where the cornerstones are tidbits of wisdom and knowledge we gather through our journeys. I think of these 11 points continuously. These are my guiding morals. They are complex and living. They grow as I grow and are replaced by better versions as I learn more about myself.

Your points may be similar, but they are yours and not mine. I own mine and I have to work on them to be the best leader I can be today, tomorrow, and every other day in every aspect of my life. Journey on!

Author: Gary

I am a Native Oregonian and grew up on the south side of the central coast in the small town of Bandon. After serving in the US Navy for 11 years I returned home to pursue my passion in leadership. I graduated from the University of Oregon with two degrees in Sociology and Planning, Public Policy, & Management. After a few years of working I returned to academic pursuits. I earned my Masters of Business Administration with a heavy emphasis on Servant Leadership from Northwest Christian University. Life took a twist and I left the Eugene, Oregon area and moved to the Portland, Oregon circus! I currently work for a very large company and have enjoyed great benefits which have allowed me to continue my life long pursuit of knowledge. I have completed Six Sigma Master Black Belt coursework with Villanova University as well as a certificate from University of Notre Dame in Executive Management. Recently, I earned my second Master's Degree from Michigan State University in Management, Strategy, & Leadership. I have lived a pretty good life and I keep things honest. No mincing of words from me and sometimes that means I drop a little bomb in my language. Please, forgive me if my language becomes a little brutish. I pride myself on being able to learn from anyone and any circumstance.

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