LTJG Kelly Ryan commissioned in the Navy in 2010 through Officer Candidate School in Newport, RI after a successful career as an equestrian dressage coach and trainer.  After she commissioned, she underwent training at the Navy and Marine Corps Intelligence Training Center in Virginia Beach, VA and subsequently reported to U.S. Pacific Command where she has served as the Northeast Asia Division (NEA-D) Watch Officer.  Currently, she is the Deputy Branch Chief for the NEA-D Forces Branch.  Kelly has one daughter, Alison (5), who she loves to run and ride horses with and she will be competing in her first full Ironman triathlon in December 2013.   

The other day, I was sitting in yet another general military training brief and the question was posed, “Who here is a leader?”  As always, everyone in the room raised their hand to indicate the appropriate conditioned response… as Sailors, we are all leaders.  That is the most important part of our job.  No matter where we happen to sit in the Chain of Command, we are leaders of our subordinates, peers, families, and to the greater community of whom we have been entrusted to protect.

However, for the first time ever, I found myself raising my hand with a lack of conviction.  This is despite being in charge of a division of sailors, soldiers and marines and despite being a mother to a beautiful little five-year-old girl, not to mention having a background in coaching and training.  I know I am a leader… technically.  In reality, however, I often feel pretty lacking in this regard…  I have several reasons (or excuses – however you want to look at it); however, it is growing more and more clear to me that these issues are not just limited to me, the most junior officer in my current command.  They are systemic, and even those more senior to me who I look up to as examples of the type of leader I want to be are at risk of succumbing them.  Writing this article has helped me realize two specific difficulties that prevent us from effectively leading our people and has allowed me to take the time to reflect on how to I can overcome them…

The first is what I will refer to as “the vortex”… specifically in regards to time… it seems as though the second I walk through the door in the morning, the “hot-taskers”, “crisis” situations and endless meetings and briefs to prepare for and / or attend all start spinning out of control and I quickly find that my time and concentration have been sucked into the black hole at the center of this “vortex”.  The defeating result of this is that precious minutes of my day are lost forever.  It’s usually the case that those lost minutes were ones that I had started the day intending to set aside for “player development” strategizing (favorite Connecting the Dots blog entry on this here).  However, by the time I’ve put out all the fires of the day, the day is gone and I have wasted yet another opportunity help build the team with whom I am lucky enough to serve.  The taskers, crises, meetings, etc… only seem to get more important and numerous as you move up the chain, yet at the same time, it becomes more critical that we set aside the time to mentor and develop our subordinates and peers.

As someone “low on the food chain”, how do you fix this?  Each one of those “hot taskers” is an important one and we are usually not in a place to tell our chain of command that their crises or taskers sometimes need to take a backseat to “player development”.  Going back to the “vortex” analogy, in open ocean swimming, when you get trapped in a current (vortex’ are similar for the purposes of this example), human nature is to try to swim as hard as we can towards our destination, regardless of the direction of the current.  However, in reality, this only leads us to exhaustion and, ultimately, failure.  However, if you work “with” the current, or swim perpendicular or at an angle to it, you’ll find that eventually, you’ll be able to work your way out of its chaotic grasp.  The same has proven to be true in the workplace vortex.  We are constantly operating at a “max effort” pace either to try to keep up with or to try to get out, of the vortex.  This pace makes it extremely difficult to train up junior team members, and hence, results in the more senior members of the team either producing (or reworking) most products themselves.  While you could, and we often do, argue that these are the ideal moments for junior teammates to “sink or swim”, it is unrealistic to expect anyone to meet and exceed expectations when their leadership has been too stuck in the constantly spinning and ever-strengthening “vortex” to help them develop their abilities or to clearly define what the expectations are in the first place.

This brings me to the second point that I think affects leaders’ ability to develop their players….  One of my favorite recent quotes sums it up perfectly: “Short-term wins often give way to long-term failure; while short-term failure is often critical to long-term success.” Unfortunately, this mindset is by no means the standard paradigm in military culture.  We need to give people the opportunity to excel (including ourselves), but the only way to do that is to expect them to fall.  The key here is that we must help them back up when they do… and then give them the chance to do it again.  Too often, there is absolutely no tolerance for anything less than perfect, again resulting in the more experienced or capable team members doing the majority of the work.  Furthermore, in my experiences at least, there is often no tolerance for failure to begin with, resulting in those who had the courage to try, but fell, being chastised, reprimanded or worse, not being trusted with future projects.

In summary, every single one of us is a leader…. No matter how junior you are in your organization or what demographic you are leading.  Slow down.  Stop working so hard to try to get out of your vortex.  Work with it to get to your destination and to not let it suck your precious minutes away from taking care of your people.  Be willing to take the time to set your followers up for success, but most importantly take the time to help them back up when they fall.