unicorns and fairiesI enjoy many things about being in the Navy. I enjoy the mission, the people, and the opportunity to lead. During the course of my career, I can’t tell you how many times I have been told that my approach to problem-solving, engaging teammates, and leading are ‘different’ from most. Because the word ‘different’ is so non-committal, when I hear it I almost always ask for clarification. And when I do the answers fall into one of three categories:

  • Bad Different: There is no place for my HOW in the military
  • Good Different: My HOW should be more prevalent in any organization, military or otherwise
  • Uncomfortable Different: Teammates are on the fence and wondering if I am ‘for real’

I recently had a conversation with a civilian teammate who shared a quick story with me. He told me that when he heard that I was named as the next Commanding Officer at Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command, he was quick to do some research on me. He talked with people who had served with me in the past and because I have a visible on-line presence, he reviewed my blogs and other publicly shared thoughts long before I arrived. Though he liked much of what he learned, he had thought of me as being Uncomfortable Different. What I mean by that is he thought I would be a Good Different leader but much of my philosophy had little chance of sticking in our military organization and that which did stick would quickly be undone my a more traditional leader who might relieve me. When I formally joined the team and held the first Command Quarters (All Hands Call), that opinion was strengthened in his mind…more Uncomfortable Different. In fact, he told me that he was convinced I believed in ‘unicorns and fairies’ and thought, though he supported my aspiration of creating a culture that combined connection, meaning, experimentation, progress, accountability, and fun through partnership, it would never work.

The conversation to which I am referring took place just after my 100th day on the team. It was on my 100th Day that I shared with the Command, my seniors, my peers, and any other interested party my 100-Day Assessment. This assessment covered key observations and identified critical opportunities while communicating both what we as a team have done and will do as well as where we need help from external teammates. It was very well received, but more than that it communicated a roadmap for how we will deliver even more value to our customers. As the conversation drew to a close, so came the punchline. My teammate told me that 100 Days into our journey he now believes ‘unicorns and fairies’ might be real. Needless to say, I smiled and thanked him.

We have grown conditioned to measuring progress through data and assessing our commitment by a combination of busyness and hours spent at work. More often than not, the focus is on efficiencies (time and cost) and production (numbers of output), while we overlook the things that matter most because we simply can’t measure them. John Quincy Adams is credited with having said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” No matter your personal visualization of ‘unicorns and fairies’, a leader’s mandate is to help others to both understand the vision and see value in the same. I will admit that I have moments of weakness when I start to believe that I spend so much time leading outside of the traditional military box, that it’s time for me to find a new box. Then I spend some time with my teammates dispersed across the Navy who are working hard to disrupt the box in constructive ways, as we help others to see that ‘unicorns and fairies’ are not as far-fetched as others might think.

I hadn’t thought of it in this way until I had the conversation with this teammate. He’s right; I do believe in ‘unicorns and fairies’ and I know I am far from alone. We can’t let those who like life in the box, who accept the “It is what it is” mantra, and who perpetuate the careerist north-south head nod as the standard prevent us from becoming what we must…Our teammates are counting on us.

  • How are you helping others to see what it is you see?
  • Are you letting those who disagree with your HOW slow you and the team down?
  • With whom are you partnering to truly inspire necessary change?