Exploring Human Potential

Coast Guard Leadership Address – 2/17/05

Coast Guard Leadership Address – 2/17/05
New London, CT
Qualities of Positive Leaders
Mike Magee MD

It is a great honor to address the leadership of the Coast Guard Academy today.  My thanks to Commander Bill Kelly, Captain Jim Thomas, Captain Robert Dash, Chief Warrant Officer Guy Cashman and all of you for the kindness you have extended to me.

This evening we will, together, launch the All Available Boats exhibit, a moving oral history and photographic tribute documenting a largely untold story, the maritime evacuation of Manhattan Island on 9/11.  It is a story with many faces.  On the one hand, it is a story of the boat captains, managing a diverse flotilla of working vessels who responded that day without hesitation to a call for “All Available Boats” placing themselves in harms way.  On another level it is a story of the passengers, 300,000 of them, who placed their trust in those captains and assisted them and each other in what was the largest maritime evacuation since Dunkirk in World War II.  Finally, it is a story about the Coast Guard, lifesavers, guardians, warriors – certainly the most underrated Armed Force in America – whose unique training as a humanitarian force, as prepared for peace as they are for war, provided the leadership that allowed 300,000 human beings to come together and demonstrate their finer selves under the most difficult conditions.

On September 16, 2001, my wife and I attended the Sunday services at the Marble Collegiate Church on 5th Avenue and 28th St.  This was the church of Norman Vincent Peale and we came to hear the words of its current pastor, hoping to make some sense of the events of six days ago.  The Church was overflowing with a silent and expectant crowd still shocked and in grief.  The pastor rose and said “We have new heroes in New York today.  They are the fireman who went up while others were coming down.  They are the boat captains who came in as others were going out.  They came toward the danger.  They are our new heroes.”

As we walked uptown, after the service, still reflecting on what had been said, we passed a middle aged couple and overheard the one say to the other “Everything has changed.”  And indeed it had.  It was not a coincidence that within the space of one hour the themes of courage, leadership, and change had collided with each other.  For change is at the center of leadership, and courage is defined by ones philosophy toward and response to change.

Change is one of the few human conditions that can simultaneously support two diametrically opposed human emotions, fear and exploration.  Fifteen years ago, I wrote a book called “Positive Leadership” that described change as the critical lever in leadership.  Pull it one way and you create a positive leader.  Pull it the other and you create a negative leader.  Negative leaders are short-term thinkers who use fear as a currency to herd people together and move them in whatever direction suites their needs.  It is a short term, successful strategy, but suffers from a critical weakness, and that is that, heightening fear causes people to retrench, reinforcing old beliefs and behaviors, naturally segregating segments of society, reinforcing silos and resisting change.  In the medium and long term, fear holds the population in place, even as the world around them continues to change.  This inability to evolve, to stay in step, or to step ahead of a changing world, insures that negative leaders will eventually fail.

In contrast, positive leaders view change as exploration, and lead with vision rather than fear.  Their view is long-term and they reach out across the divide.  Rather than segregate, they congregate.  Rather than build walls and silos they build islands of common stewardship.  The Coast Guard Academy is an island of common stewardship.

Let me take a moment to describe to you my island.  It is 150 miles south of yours.  It is 23 square miles.  On my island English is taught as a second language in 167 different languages.  On my island you will find represented every country, every religion, every language in the world.  On my island we live in peace.  Crime is down 15% since 9/11 and crime has declined every year for the past 15 years.

We live in peace, but we also live in fear.  One year post 9/11 a study revealed a 20% incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder for residents who lived below Canal Street, and a 7.5% incidence for those below 110th street.  A study of 1000 New Yorkers I conducted 30 month’s post 9/11 found 56% feared another terrorist attack.  35% felt less safe than they had 2 years ago.  35% said they thought about 9/11 every day or every other day.  55% feared an attack on New York railways which carry 2 out of every 3 rail travelers in the US each year.  And while 73% said they were more vigilant then ever before, only 19% said they could spot a terrorist sitting right next to them.

We live in fear, yet no one in particular seems to have assumed responsibility for managing this fear.  Why should this level of fear concern us?  Well first, fear is the currency of negative leaders, and they are more likely to emerge and succeed in a fearful environment.  Second, fear undermines trust, and trust is the fabric of a civic society.  Third, fear clearly has short and long term mental health implications.  Fourth, fear accumulates, especially in those who are already fearful.  Post 9/11 studies showed clearly that fear biased women and minorities.  Finally, fear obstructs vision, actively discouraging imagination, innovation and hopefulness.  In compromising our wonder and inventiveness, fear fundamentally alters our collective future.

How can positive leaders combat fear?  First, they can identify, nurture, mentor and advance individuals with the values and temperament to become tomorrows positive leaders.  Second, they can incorporate fear management into their academic curriculum.  Third, they should never remain silent in the face of evil.  Forth, they should reinforce and honor the ties between individual, family, community, and society; and in the process personalize and individualize their efforts in a manner that honors diversity and respects cultures.  Fifth, they should honor judgment at least as much as they do decisiveness.  In surgery, we emphasize that knowledge, skill, and decisiveness alone do not create a great surgeon.  Judgment – knowing who to operate on, who not to operate on, and when – makes you a great surgeon.  In the end we combat fear by creating islands of common stewardship around a future that is inclusive, tangible and hopeful, and one managed by wise positive leaders.

The Coast Guard finds itself in a unique position in today’s world.  As a humanitarian force it is both proactive and reactive.  Grounded in history, tradition, values and service, it is known and respected by all.  At the intersection of two powerful metaphors, it exerts great influence and arouses great expectation from those it serves.

What are those two metaphors?  They are water and vessels.  Water representing life,purity, and goodness and vessels with the capacity to transport us to a better place. Water signals revitalization and rebirth.  Vessels contain hope and kindness, safety and salvation, equity and justice. At this intersection of water and vessel you will find the future hopes and dreams of the human race.  At this intersection you will find the Coast Guard. Writ large, with the Coast Guard’s help and guidance, we are more likely to find liberty, opportunity, security, civility and democracy on these and other shores.

On 9/11, the captains responding to your call for “ALL Available Boats” did the right thing; the passengers in trusting and cooperating did the right thing; and the Coast Guard did the right thing.  If the intent of our attackers was to destabilize our society by igniting a wave of fear that would expose the worst side of our human natures, causing our people to turn our backs on each other and turn our backs on the future, then our attackers have failed.

Still, as lifesavers, guardians, and warriors, it is useful that you, the leadership of our Coast Guard be reminded that people are basically good, but they are not perfect.  People are basically kind, but when afraid they may act unpredictably.  People are basically loving, but when misled respond with hatred and contempt.  People are people.  That is why you must continue to devote as much time and energy to the preparation for peace as you do for the preparation for war.  For our homeland will never be secure if fear has so weakened the fabric of our society that we lose the capacity to be human and humane toward each.

Allow me to give the last word to David Rockefeller, a wonderfully constructive and visionary leader.  Some years ago, over lunch, he was responding to the questions of 15 mid-level leaders who were participating in a one year fellowship that bore his name.  Near the end of the lunch, one enthusiastic and aggressive member asked him, quite directly, “Mr. Rockefeller, what must I do to be as successful as you?”  Taken somewhat aback, Mr. Rockefeller stared at the tabletop for 30 seconds that seemed like 30 minutes, heavy hearted and reflected.  He then lifted his head slowly and looked directly into the eyes of his questioner and responded, “Well, I guess I would do three things.  First, do not fear.  Second, be nice.  And third, lighten up.”

Thank you for allowing me the honor of addressing you.  While it would  have required a very short list to uncover someone more deserving of this great honor, it would have taken a very long list indeed to find someone more appreciative.

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