It’s no secret that we live in a world where immediate gratification is a growing priority. We want to see results now. Whether it is wins on the athletic field, profitability on our bottom line, or the delivery of our pizza, we want it now! Whether we talk about the economy, the climate, or our diet, most pay little consideration to how the decisions made today will affect our future selves, let alone our grandchildrens’ grandchildren. In the big scheme of life, we are not interested in thinking about the long haul: we care about today.

About one month ago, the team presented me with a decision brief. Because the specifics are not particularly relevant, suffice it to say that I had asked the team to explore how we might dramatically shift how we do something today so that we could simultaneously decrease long term-costs, minimize security concerns, and provide better service to our customer base. Unfortunately, they were not conditioned to think as boldly as I have been encouraging them to, so there was no decision for me to make. After expressing my disappointment, I shared some examples of how bold I was ready for us to be. The response from the leader of this effort was, “Sir, those solutions will take a long time to implement and might not be put in place until your relief’s relief is here.”

To which I replied, “And if we aren’t the ones to start the process, when might the change be fully implemented? Should we dismiss the need to change merely because we might not personally benefit?” This is the thinking that continues to leave us ‘admiring the problems’ in favor of taking action. It is this short-term stewardship that makes lasting progress and meaningful evolution such a challenge.

As a leader of an organization with a 2-year term limit, I tell my teammates at Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command (NCDOC) that our success will not be measured during our time together. The chapter we are writing is just that – one chapter in a story that has been evolving over time. And, though the story we write continues to be a meaningful one, we know that if we do our things correctly when read years from now it will ultimately be thought of as little more than the foreshadowing of something much bigger. Though our story is relevant today, we know that the value of our storyline cannot be accurately assessed until years after we pass the pen and paper to our reliefs. This deliberate focus on the future is not a new mindset, but it is one that fewer and fewer people seem to share. So how can a leader with a constrained tenure serve as a long-term steward for the team with whom he is currently leading? I don’t claim to have the answers, but I am more than willing to share how we are going about it.

Focus on the Environment. I firmly believe that a leader’s job is first and foremost to set the stage for others to perform. As Michael Gerber points out in his book ‘The E-Myth Revisited,” there is a difference between working in the business and on the business, and the leader who is working in the business is not doing his job. As I do my part to work on the business, we continue to make culture a priority. We have established what we call ‘The Culture Club’ (given the age of our team, the reference to the 1980s band is lost on many). This team is made up of passionate individuals representing the different departments across the Command from all levels of seniority, military, and civilian.

Whereas Navy Commands are required to have a Command Assessment Team that assesses culture through an annual survey, ‘The Culture Club’ helps to proactively shape culture and is a living focus group that provides a regular feedback mechanism (though we will do the anonymous assessment surveys as well). As the Navy’s Command charged with leading defensive cyberspace operations, we are unique. And given the uniqueness of our mission, we have a responsibility to be different on purpose. As we write this chapter, we are defining ‘The NCDOC Way’. It’s not the Sean way, it’s the environment the team is building organically. Organically inspired evolution is slow and I am not as patient as I once was (especially with a defined timeline with which to work), but if we want the things we write in this chapter to stick, a short-term mindset will not get us there.

Partner with those who will outlast you. As I talk with civilians on our team, they have grown tired of the revolving door of leadership that is the military personnel system. Our Command continues to be the victim of our own good fortune in that too many of our officers have been asked to leave early to take on additional responsibilities elsewhere. Where one Commanding Officer may zig, the next may zag, and the next may do neither. This short-term approach to leadership makes it challenging for civilian teammates to take evolution seriously, to see themselves as a part of the leadership team, and to do little more than outlast the current regime. For this reason, I have made it a point to partner overtly with my civilian teammates. The leader of ‘The Culture Club’ is a civilian, and we recently created a Future Outcomes Cell (FOC) and designated an Incubation Officer. The FOC Director is a civilian, as is our Incubation Officer; both report directly to me. While the Incubation Officer has the license to question how we do anything and everything so that it is reflective of both our culture and optimized for the future, the FOC’s role is a bit different and gets to the heart of long-term stewardship. Below is from the guidance I gave them:

The FOC is a forward-looking, strategically focused, critical-thinking team reporting directly to me. The FOC’s charge is to assist the Command in developing, articulating, and operationalizing an overarching vision and strategy for Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command (NCDOC), while insuring that our progress deliberately converges with Fleet Cyber Command’s strategy. The name is purposefully selected to symbolize our quest to realize the impossible. For in the world of cyber defense, the concept of reaching full operational capability is anchored in the impossible and represents a continual quest for improvement.

  1. The FOC fuses thought with action by translating vision for command elements, and creates opportunities and unrealized synergies to produce outcomes.
  2. The FOC engages internally and externally to share ideas, inspire creativity, experiment with innovative concepts, facilitate understanding, and enlist new partners.
  3. The FOC focuses on strategic trends and developments and is charged with leading our charge into the future, a future that will look very little like our today, a future that will require us to completely rethink everything we think we know. For complacency today is the surest path to irrelevance tomorrow.

Succession Planning. I’ve attempted to influence the selection of my relief in each tour that I have had with varying degrees of success. I’ve always felt that a leader’s job is to be the leader that the team needs him to be and not necessarily the leader he wants to be. Fortunately, the two are aligned for me this time around. Such alignment is not required, but it sure helps. Likewise, not every leader is capable of being the leader the team needs. I talk with my predecessor regularly, and we laugh about how much better suited he was for the chapter he helped the team to write than I would have been. Likewise, he is quick to acknowledge that I am far better equipped to help write this one: the team and the world around us have evolved requiring leadership to help the team do the same. In my perfect world, I could pick my relief, but there is danger in such a model so I completely understand why I cannot. In the absence of such control, I feel it my responsibility to help influence the optimal match between the team and the potential leader. Though I am in no rush to leave (I actually dread that day), I have my eyes on a few leaders who I believe are uniquely equipped to do things ‘The NCDOC Way’ and take the team to new heights. At the same time, there are a few who would not be a good match for various reasons, reasons that the assignment process would not be able to identify without direct input. I have been fortunate to select the next leader of our Operations Department and am finalizing my recruiting efforts for our next Intelligence Department Head. We continue to make succession planning a deliberate priority at all levels so that the evolution continues.

Though our military personnel model is optimized for short-term stewards to flourish, short-term stewardship is the quickest path to irrelevance from an organizational perspective. It’s time our short-term stewards commit to seeing the long view.

  • How often do you think about the long-term impact of the decisions you make today?
  • How are you setting your team up for a future that won’t include you?
  • With whom are you partnering today to maximize your returns?