How I Acquired My Leadership Skills

With 25 years in the US Navy traveling around the world and 10 years in the electric power generation industry in New York City, I have been responsible for small and large groups, young and old, diverse individuals from the US, Croatia, the Philipines and everywhere in between. (Read more at My Credentials)

It was at the U.S. Naval Academy where I was first formally taught about leadership. We, the future officers, were taught about leaders like John Paul Jones, told numerous stories and studied years of Naval History all to make us strong leaders. Indeed leadership was not taught so much as a science with theory and methods, but as an art form and given great stature because of the considerable accomplishments of famous naval leaders. Those officers who achieved something extra special were simply great leaders.

At the same time, my education provided very specific knowledge of combatant ship systems such as weapons and propulsion, or skills such as navigation and seamanship, complete with theory and methods. By comparison, leadership had no foundation and little to no instruction was given about how to lead.

Practicing the Art of Leadership

I set out for a career in the Navy. For the first 12 years, I was assigned to positions of authority on five different ships. I was very busy, the days were long, lasting 12 to 18 hours, and the responsibilities were great, such as operating a ship at sea and running a 24/7 test program for two nuclear reactors. I was never quite able to do everything I knew was needed. I applied myself to getting things done the best way I could. I was considered to be an outstanding, tough officer, well respected and somewhat feared by those who were poor performers.

During this time, I knew I was supposed to be a leader and had to manage my assigned group. What I did not know was the connection between the two. I did not know that managing people is in fact all about leadership. Not making the connection, I continued to read about leadership in the civilian world, but it remained undefined, still an art form. No matter where I searched, leadership did not have the backing of the reliable theory and methods intrinsic to the other parts of my working life such as navigation, naval gunnery or mechanical and electrical engineering.

When it came to managing people, I was uneasy about many things. I was:

  • Unsure of how exactly I was to manage them.
  • Having people-problems I did not know how to solve.
  • In charge of people who were performing well below an average level.
  • Wanting more commitment and motivation from my subordinates.
  • Hearing that good managers could not be good leaders.
  • Confused by a multitude of new leadership theories being published which contradicted the old and current.

Of particular concern was my inability to improve mediocre to appalling performance by some sailors under my command. I was a great believer in force, the use of power to gain performance. What other tool did I have? This was not, however, working.

Revelations

I managed to learn my way out of the leadership fog and away from anxiety by way of some revelations. From some case studies presented in a large book about organizational behavior, I learned that anyone can change from being the worst manager to the best if they want to do so badly enough. What is more, the studies established that one does not have to be tall, good-looking and well dressed to be an exceptional manager and leader.

From the same book came my other revelation, a sort of Copernican theory. Workers do not rotate around the boss (the sun). No, the boss actually rotates around the workers and without the warming heat of the workers, the boss dies.

I had to admit my ship would never be any better than the sum of all the actions taken by each and every sailor to operate and maintain its equipment, electronics and machinery. I had to admit that what I produced was solely to support their efforts by way of tools, procedures, technical support, rules, discipline, training, direction, and the like. If the sailors did everything well, the ship would be one of the best. I could only make their jobs easier or harder to perform.

Once I assessed my own past performance, I realized how little time I spent listening to the troops. As soon as I started really listening with full concentration and not half-heartedly, asking what they wanted to know, did not like or wanted to suggest, I found they had many questions which should be answered and that they made some good points in their complaints and suggestions.

It was only fair that I try to resolve every issue as best I could and then find out from the originator if my resolution was satisfactory. I made sure that I was good to my word in getting back to them with the answers or resolutions. Often just a little explanation was enough to resolve an issue.

Surprisingly, not only did morale and spirits improve but so did performance. The more problems I resolved, the more their performance improved. As I continued this new approach, I quickly discovered that “leadership” or “leader” is one side of a coin called Core Values. On the flip side is stamped Conformist or Follower. Individuals are one or the other and both share core values, but the standards to which they hold each value are different. Therein lies the rub.

Every person, I found, knows the good core values are those such as honesty, industriousness, fairness and forthrightness. And they also know the opposites of those good values are bad values. Every event, condition and piece of paper in the workplace sends one or more core value standard messages to employees. I saw that most employees derived a set of value standards, some good and some bad, from this and used those standards and not their own to perform their work. They used those standards to determine how to act toward customers and each other – how honestly or dishonestly, how responsibly or irresponsibly, how industriously or lazily, how courteously or discourteously and so on.

Thus, I applied myself to making sure most events, conditions and pieces of paper reflected only the highest standards for every good core value. Employee performance improved as those who were followers (90% plus of all subordinate bosses and juniors) followed the improvements in my leadership. In essence, they had been waiting for better leadership from me.

— Bennet S. Simonton

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About Ben Simonton

Ben Simonton Ben managed diverse groups for 34+ years, including as an executive in charge of a 1,300 person unionized organization. He made all the mistakes one can make, then devised solutions for 99.9% of people management issues. Ben will take you beyond great.