During my first week in command, I hosted a Command Quarters where I had the opportunity to celebrate some of the talent across the team by awarding various forms of recognition. And because it was my first time in front of the Command, I chose to formally introduce myself as a person. Not just me as the Commanding Officer, but me as Sean. I shared personal philosophies, interests, self-acknowledged quirks, and hopes. The intent was plain and simple, to connect on a personal level. Granted, a forum where one person is addressing a large audience makes it challenging to connect with the listeners, so my objective was to allow them the opportunity to connect with me…it was on me to connect with them over time. As I compare notes with teammates that listened that day, it is clear that one topic resonated more than all of the others, “The M Word.” In fact, in the days that have followed, we have made words that start with M more prevalent in our shared vocabulary. That day, when I asked individuals to share a word that started with M, as expected the two most prevalent were meetings and mandatory. Like most, I am not a fan of either of those words and what they have come to represent. The M word that I offered in return was meaningful.

Meetings have become so misused, as they are created without any true concern for the opportunity costs of our time. At the same time, many who call them fail to consider how else we can meet the intent. I told the team that we would not meet merely to share information (that’s what technology is for). We would meet to solve a problem, share a decision, answer questions, or connect as human beings and as a team. Meetings would not disappear, but they would only be called to accomplish those things.

Mandatory has come to be our default means of inspiring others to do something. We don’t even think about it anymore, mandatory training for all! Making things mandatory takes away the opportunity for personal initiative, doesn’t consider opportunity costs associated with the activity, and let’s the “leader” off the hook completely. I don’t know how much of my life has been stolen while attending mandatory functions.

When we call a meeting or make something mandatory, we have a responsibility to make sure that it is MEANINGFUL. And yes, that is the M word of choice and the one that I am so pleased to hear being used across the team. Our mandate is to ensure there is meaning in everything we do.  As our Command Quarters came to a close, I thanked the team for “choosing to participate” (a comment that gave a few reason to chuckle, which my body language was meant to invite) and I reminded them that this session was not mandatory. I communicated my hope that they saw meaning in our engagement and that both celebrating our teammates and connecting as a team on a regular basis was something worthy of our time. I also told them that I did not intend to make our Command Quarters mandatory in the future and was instead committed to making it meaningful, using the number of faces in future audiences as the metric of our progress.

As I hoped, the number of people at each Command Quarters since then has grown; the demand signal to do this with greater frequency has also grown (we now do these twice a month), and the emphasis on meaning across the team is cascading. As pleased as I am with the progress, I will admit that I am not as patient as I once was. That as a leader who prides himself on opening doors for others (figuratively and literally), I sometimes get frustrated with the small percentage of teammates who choose to walk through the threshold. The leadership team continues to make meaningful our mandate and I have come to grips with the fact that a true leader makes that which is meaningful mandatory on occasion, once he is confident there is meaning in the activity. So though I continue to allow others to assess the opportunity costs of their time and make their own value judgments, I may have broken faith when it comes to Command Quarters and other important opportunities that cross the meaningful threshold.

I personally believe we have no business making that which is not meaningful mandatory. I also believe leaders have a responsibility to do our part to expose the target audience to that which is especially meaningful, particularly when others are not accustomed to trying something new until they are directed to do so. Sometimes a little taste* is all it takes to turn a “have to” into a “want to”, and sometimes our Navy resources are not applied to meaningful initiatives until they are made mandatory.

  • What are you doing only because it is mandatory?
  • What are you doing to ensure there is meaning in everything you do and ask others to do?
  • Are you speaking up when the opportunity costs of pursuing the mandatory are growing to unacceptable levels?

*Little Taste – Rather than accept a diet of kid’s meals for my son, my wife has had my son take “No Thank You Bites” over the years. As a result, he has tried many new foods and is amazed by the number of “No Thank You Bites” that have led him to many of his favorite foods.