Monday, March 27, 2017

Hearts and Minds

I recently went up to the CG Academy for their 28th Annual Ethics Forum. It was such a great experience, starting from Dr Lenny Wong's keynote address about his article on lying in the Army, to the opening remarks by RADM Thomas Wetmore's son about the important contributions his father made to the Service, Academy, and pretty much everyone he came across, to the discussion after the sessions with the other presenters.

My talk's topic was "Difficult Conversations: Why They're Important and How to Have Them." It was maybe a stretch to the overall theme of the Forum which was Core Values and the Chain of Command. I think I made it work though.

After my second of two presentations, a young cadet approached me, asking if he could email me a question once he had an opportunity to formulate it a little better in his own mind. Here's what he sent me a few days later:

"I think it's best to start with a little explanation. There is clearly a need to balance emotion and reason in a professional setting, especially in the military. I've read and heard a lot about not letting emotions control your decisions as a leader, and that you have to lead with your mind. On the flipside, there's not as much talk about using your heart or emotions effectively as a leader, and I think it's something worth exploring. I understand this is all a little vague, but hope I get the gist of my thoughts across!
From your talk and your stories in leadership and followership positions, and from your demeanor and bearing, I got a significant impression that you seem to have that balance between mind and heart figured out well. I'm not sure if that's something that comes naturally to you, or if you had to work on finding a balance. Do you have any advice or words on the matter?"

Here's my response:

I don’t think I’d be comfortable saying I have the balance between heart and mind figured out…but I’m glad to know I come across that way. “Fake it ‘til you make it” works sometimes :) Your question definitely got me thinking about it though… which is always a good thing.
A couple thoughts:

-- Know yourself: I choke up when I talk about anything remotely emotional. It’s taken me *years* to accept that. It helped when my uncle said his dad (my grandfather) was the same way, and most of our family members have the same attribute. It’s like knowing I came by it honestly made it ok for me to be that way, instead of thinking it was a weakness or something to fight. It still can be a little…um, uncomfortable, especially when (for example) telling a heart-wrenching sea story in front of 100 cadets… But I’m human, and it’s part of who I am, so I decided recently to own it. I’m not sure I could have done it before, or without being confident in lots of other ways that I’m good at what I do. Vulnerability is hard.

-- Know yourself, part 2: I don’t have a poker face. Never have; don’t think I’ll get one anytime soon. What I think and feel is almost immediately communicated across my face. So, when I’m pissed, I give an evil eye (ask 1/C Labelle…he probably saw me give the evil eye to a JO at some point during his 1/C summer on DILIGENCE). When I’m excited and happy, I bounce and grin. I’m genuine, and people realize it pretty quickly. I try to use this to my advantage to build trust… which requires me to maintain a positive outlook so I’m contributing positively to a situation instead of negatively raining on everyone’s parade all the time. But the important thing is to be genuine; Coasties are smart enough to have pretty sensitive bullshit detectors.

-- Empathy: Upon reflection, I realized that the most common way I use emotions in a professional setting is to understand where someone else is coming from. If I can put myself in their shoes, think about how I’d feel if I was them, dealing with what they’re living with, it helps me empathize with them and maybe come up with a better solution than if I just looked at the surface of the problem. I took a great class during grad school on Conflict Resolution, and one of the main ideas behind negotiation is looking for common ground. Emotions can offer a path to common ground if you can see a situation from your negotiation partner’s point of view.

-- Know the policy: Go look up and read the governing policy for whatever decision you’re trying to make. Read a couple paragraphs before and after to see if there’s explanatory information that gives background to help understand why the policy is the way it is. Look up any references. This helps build the knowledge base to support the next thought…
-- Pay attention to your instincts: If the hairs are standing up on the back of your neck, there’s probably a reason for it. Trust that. Look into it. Go back and read the policy again to make sure someone isn’t trying to bullshit *you.* It may take you a while to build the knowledge base to have an instinct to trust, but you’ll develop it. Once you do, trust it. Ask questions, dig a little deeper, make your sailors show you the policy they followed with their work, don’t rely on templates or the unavoidable “this is the way we’ve always done it.” I’m not sure this is entirely emotional, but I’m not sure it’s not, so I decided to mention it.

You asked a great question. Thanks very much for the opportunity to think about it as I put together my answer. Also, I hope I actually answered your question! It’s always a little hard to tell with leadership questions like this. Please feel free to ask for clarification if you need it.
During both sessions, I told different stories that caused me to choke up. I questioned myself as I was telling them. I mean, what the hell was I *doing?!?* Voice thick with emotion, deeper and tighter than normal, having to inhale deeply just to take in oxygen just to keep going, and pausing to collect myself so my voice didn't crack and unleash all the tears built up from years of seeming invulnerable... in front of 100 young cadets training to be the next generation of Coast Guard leaders. I definitely questioned what I was thinking. But the stories helped make my point, and apparently my delivery was meaningful also. 

And I really appreciated the thought exercise prompted by the question. It helped me consolidate my thoughts on the place of emotions in leadership.