May 28, 2010: The day I graduated from the United States Naval Academy. Attending a military academy is not your “typical” college experience, however, one that prepares you for a lifetime of leadership lessons. Every Midshipman is asked to balance their military training with their core engineering academic course load and mandatory physical activity (varsity sport, intramural club team, etc.). This is all in an effort to prepare each and every future commissioned Officer for the rigors of the US military.
Roughly three months later on August 15th 2010, I was assigned to the USS Ponce (LPD-15) as the engineering plant division officer onboard where I stood in front of a division of 26 men and women. Every member of my division was older than me and had a combined 130 years of experience between them. I had significantly less experience – about twenty minutes worth.
I delivered an introductory speech to these sailors to give them some information about me as person, my leadership style, and my expectations for the success of the division. I was as nervous as ever to be their new leader. In short, my speech went about as well as you would expect.
It was a cluttered mess of a personal introduction, rough inspiration, and unfiltered honesty. My troops took turns between being slightly confused and slightly amused. I tried hard, but it was in that moment that I knew that leadership was going to be a tough run.
Flash forward – I have spent 7 years in the US Navy with three successful tours onboard two ships and one shore command. I have led teams as small as two and as large as 110. When I look back, I take so much from every moment in my career and the genuine interactions with others. But it all started with that first address, that first encounter with my followers that reminds me what it takes to be a leader every single day.
Here are the three leadership lessons that I took away from that singular moment that millennials must utilize to build their brand, spread their influence, and lead their teams.
Set the standard early
During that first impression with my sailors, it was important for me to discuss my personal morals and principles that I was committed to maintaining throughout my time as their division officer. I explained to them what they should expect from me and what I expected from them. In short, my personal expectations were the same as what I set for the division and they were simple: Show up on time, appear presentable, and work your tail off.
It was vital to uphold a high expectation and sustain consistency of that expectation. As a leader, it is far easier to slightly ease the standard lower down the road than it is to raise the standard after people have acclimated themselves to a low bar.
Remember, your standards are not what you preach; they are what you tolerate.
Trust over everything
Leaders must carry a lot of positive traits, but few of them are earned from others.
That first speech was nerve-wracking. It was excruciating to look them in the eye and tell them I was their new leader. 21 years old with no professional experience – that’s the unique military experience for most junior officers. Not every junior officer choses, however, to address his or her division in this manner. I found it important to show them that I trust myself to be confident in the moment, even if I was wildly inexperienced, to help gain their trust.
It was imperative that I stated that my job as their leader was to make them successful. And if, and only if, they were successful could I consider myself successful as their leader.
That was the beginning of establishing trust that every leader, influencer, or mentor must have to promote real change.
Fail early, fail often
My introduction to my troops fell short of my personal expectations. But it was okay, it was part of my learning experience. And it’s in the ability to honestly reflect on particular moments in our day do we then understand how to succeed.
Failure is often miscast as a miserable experience. It’s embarrassing, frustrating, and a tough pill to swallow. But the best leaders look forward to getting in the arena and experiencing first hand what works and finding out what does not.
Life is a minefield littered with failure. Do not allow the fear of failure to consume you into not taking steps forward in the journey towards leadership. Walk with confidence and learn gracefully along the way. Get in the arena!
Generation Y – The problem is for us to be led, we must have leaders we want to follow.