Very few things in life go according to the script we wrote. Sometimes a reality that deviates from a plan is extremely disappointing and sometimes lady luck presents a reality that is far more amazing than any plan we could have imagined. Last summer I joined a team that I never even aspired to join, as I never thought it was a possibility. I had a plan for my next chapter, but this deviation was far better. Fast forward six months and I am now leading this team. Again, something I never even considered an option. When the leader moved on to his next chapter as per the plan, circumstances were such that a new leader from the outside had not been selected to relieve him. The model for our team is for our leader, we use the term “Managing Partner”, to be selected from the outside. Promotion from within is not by design. So it was a surprise to me to be named the Acting Managing Partner.

Being afforded the opportunity to serve as Managing Partner of Defense Innovation Unit Experimental for any period of time is an amazing honor. Although, I must admit that I cringe each time I hear the modifier, acting. There are many definitions of the word, but the first one that comes to my mind, and I know I am far from alone, is pretending to be something you are not. In fact, an actor is “a person who behaves in a way that is not genuine.” The mantle of leadership is shifted from one person to another with great regularity using many different models. Most of these models culminate in one leader passing on the authority and responsibility of their position to another at a singular point in time. In fact, it wasn’t but six months ago when I did just that on a stage as I relinquished Command to another Naval Officer. One moment in time, a seamless and orderly transition.

In the sports world, we see coaches get fired (and my predecessor most certainly was not fired…he took this team to new heights). When they do, a member of the coaching staff is appointed as the Interim Head Coach. He or she leads the team until those who own the selection process can determine the best person to take the reigns on a more permanent basis. We see athletes get hurt and a replacement player runs on to the field immediately. That replacement player is not acting, nor is he the interim. He is the quarterback/goalkeeper/center (pick your sport and position). Those of you who follow the New England Patriots likely remember the game in which Drew Bledsoe got hurt and Tom Brady came in to lead the team. It was the second game of the 2001 season. Drew went down and Tom came off the bench. On that day, Tom became the quarterback. No one knew for how long and many thought he would fill the gap until Drew was healthy again. 17 years and five Super Bowls later, Tom remains the quarterback. He was never acting and he wasn’t introduced as the interim quarterback.

I am by no means equating Tom Brady’s success or ability as a quarterback to mine as a leader, but merely offering it as an example of how we frame transition periods. Though the articles I have read about my new role on this team make it clear to all that I am serving in a temporary capacity, the truth is, we all are. Just about everything is temporary. Most certainly every job we have is. My predecessor led this team temporarily and so will I. My tenure at the helm may not last as long, but calling that out doesn’t help anyone, especially the team. The intended definition of the word acting, in this case, is “temporarily doing the duties of another person.” I would offer that I am not doing the duties of another person, but instead executing the responsibilities of the position I currently hold. At the same time, if we must use an adjective to highlight my temporariness, let’s go with interim. I am not acting: I don’t believe for one minute that I am pretending to be something I am not. I am not an actor: I most certainly will continue to behave in a way that is genuine.

  • Are you acting as a leader or are you leading?
  • Are you relishing your current station in life, recognizing the temporariness of it all?
  • What transitional leadership models have you found to be most effective?