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Book excerpt: ‘Rock the Boat: Embrace Change, Encourage Innovation, and Be a Successful Leader’

Preface

I recently transitioned from the US Navy back to civilian life after more than 30 years on active duty where I held many key leadership positions. I retired as a rear admiral specializing in communications, information technology, and cyber offensive and defensive operations. I wanted to write this book to share my first-hand experience serving in some of the toughest leadership positions across the nation.

Over my years in the service, I mentored hundreds of diverse people—both in and out of the military—and have spoken to hundreds of audiences, so I have a huge breadth and depth of direct experience to draw on for the lessons in this book. The advice in Rock the Boat transcends industries and is applicable in any leadership or management position, and I have included many of the most-requested topics of conversation from my mentees and conference attendees.

Even better, if you’re tired of reading complicated leadership books, Rock the Boat gives leadership lessons and advice in plain, simple language supported by humorous, touching, and practical storytelling. It will also challenge you to find your “three positives” in any situation. I imagined this book as a conversation with your mentor over a cup of coffee, during which real, actionable guidance and recommendations for growth are discussed.

Stories I’ve heard and experienced throughout my career back up the lessons. You’ll remember those touching, funny, serious, and relatable tales long after you’ve put the book down and acted on its recommendations. I hope that you come away with the feeling of enjoyable learning and practical, no-nonsense actions you can take to become a better leader and mentor.

You will also come away with creative approaches to handling tough leadership and mentoring challenges in an increasing complex world where solutions and the vision needed for the future can feel overwhelming at times. Rock the Boat provides the simple, concise leadership and mentoring advice to develop change leaders who can make a better future for their organizations and those they mentor.

This book will empower you to be a great change leader and mentor with simple but important concepts, enabling you to develop other strong change leaders and mentors. In real-life situations, exceptional leadership isn’t rocket science if you just focus on what matters most.

In fact, it’s so easy a monkey could do it.

Introduction

Leadership, unlike management, is not science and numbers. It is about people. It is intrinsic and learned behaviors that people use to inspire others to follow and exceed expectations while achieving common objectives. Through innate ability and experience, everyone develops their own unique style as a leader. That style is heavily influenced by both the good and bad behaviors they have observed in other leaders over the years but remains unique to each individual. Those who stand out are able to translate their vision into reality by the way they communicate, connect, and collaborate with others to generate excitement about that vision and see their role in achieving it. A leader’s courage, tenacity, and ability to not be deterred by cynics or obstacles motivate others to follow in their footsteps.

We are faced today with the unprecedented, accelerating, and exponential pace of technological advancement, which is fundamentally revolutionizing whole segments of society. Where those technologies converge is where you find truly transformational change. This change is both disruptive and positive, so mentoring people to become those change agents who have the vision to see convergence points and the resulting possibilities and risks for their organization is not only essential but will lead to true greatness. We need to nurture and grow people who are comfortable with being uncomfortable when making decisions and accepting risk. Growing fearless and successful agents of change is particularly relevant today; creating leaders who excel in harnessing the rapid pace of change and empowering them to take calculated risks to achieve the art of the possible will lead to extraordinary success.

There is no one formula for successful leadership, but there are behaviors and approaches that are repeatable for success across various situations and in any leadership context. The most consistent and pronounced hallmarks of great leaders are seeing their vision through to successful execution, tenacity, integrity, trustworthiness, and thoughtful and persistent mentorship of others. Humility and confidence enable leaders to excel in promoting success in others and in mentoring them to become bold change leaders.

Good leadership is not complicated, but it is deliberate. It can be summed up in three basic principles:

• Inspire and connect

• Find your three positives

• Don’t be a jerk

Inspire and connect

Even in this age that is being complicated by accelerating technology, which is making our lives increasingly virtual, leadership is not about machines, formulas, and numbers. It is about people. It is about carbon life-form to carbon life-form interactions.

When I read leadership and management books and they include what appear to be complex mathematical formulas to reinforce some leadership theory, it makes my head implode. We’ve all been victim to those books, and that misguided effort to add gravitas to some leadership concept through equations really makes me just want to grind a fork in my eyeball. Being composed of about 60 percent water and the rest mathematical antimatter, I just can’t relate. For me, leadership is inherently about people and behavior, not formulas and complex theory.

Leadership and mentoring are about developing, inspiring, and leading change with people. Management is about metrics. Thankfully, no calculators will be harmed by reading this book; we will generally avoid the insanity of leadership mathematics.

But not to disappoint those of you who love a good formula (many of my nerdy friends in this field are squarely—no pun intended—in this camp) and feel that a book in the genre is incomplete without an equation of some sort, I will give you just one so we can get it out of the way.

What a beautiful formula. I can see my Frontier Central High math teacher, Mr. Wiley, tearing up now. After two tries at passing trigonometry and barely scraping by with a low C, I celebrated the mission accomplished and the headline “Local girl does good.”

All kidding aside, even the most complex leadership challenges can be broken down into common, simple pieces that are solved through human interaction. It involves focusing on and understanding the perspective of others and how to motivate people toward a common outcome. For everything else, you can always eat π.

Find your three positives

1. Train your brain to be positive and put that into action.

2. Choose to see opportunity and remove barriers; don’t be deterred by obstacles. Acknowledge negatives and challenges, then move on, with all effort and focus on the positive outcome.

3. Collaborate and promote positive teamwork.

Just as the best leaders never let a good crisis go to waste, the best leaders are also positive and in constant receival mode, open to diversity of thought and new ideas different from their own. They do not allow ego to get in the way of the humility and humanity necessary to learn from someone else, a mistake, a gaffe, a failure, or another leadership challenge. They don’t see blunder, failure, or shortfalls; they see opportunity and will pull positive learning from every experience.

Finding your three positives in any situation is simply a matter of perspective and attitude and the ability to not take yourself too seriously. My life is basically a series of cringe-worthy experiences and gaffes strung together in a continuum of well-crafted and perfected jackassery. But with each of those incidents, I learned something that helped me make better decisions or guide others with a range of options so they could avoid the same misstep.

Sea Stories are anecdotes told by sailors, chiefs, and officers, often embellished over time and with alcohol, that have humor, heart, and some redeeming quality or lesson to be learned. Having spent the last thirty years in the US Navy, I’ve collected many experiences that illustrate various leadership examples or scenarios. I’ve often found the best way to talk about them is through stories. Over the years, I’ve learned that the best way to mentor and lead change is through personal experiences that are relatable and shared rather than just dry leadership theory. Every event in our lives presents a learning opportunity and a nugget to be used in mentoring others. You can use Sea Stories to provide a colorful example of what to do or what not to do as you mentor and lead change. Sometimes even small stories carry big lessons.

Make it a point to pull three positives out of every situation and capture them in your own Sea Stories. The events don’t need to be monumental to result in a teaching moment. Be a storyteller. Including Sea Stories in the overall fabric of your leadership—and sharing them with those you mentor—strengthens your shared bonds and makes the lessons easier to remember.

Don’t be a jerk

We have a general tendency to overcomplicate leadership, but it’s actually so easy a monkey could do it. At its core is our third basic tenet: Don’t be a jerk. Although we all have potential jerks hiding inside us, great leaders constantly reexamine their behavior and root out the jerk within. They are open to constructive feedback on their leadership style from others, and they act on that feedback to improve.

Think about the best leaders and mentors you’ve known or had. What was it about them that made you want to follow them, made you want to be like them, or made you loyal to them—not just to their vision but to them as a person? People might get pushed by jerks, but they don’t follow them. Good leaders are people you want to follow. That is a testament of respect and of their impact on the lives of others. I don’t always get it right, and neither will you. Instead of striving for constant perfection, I acknowledge my flaws and work hard at correcting them. I can be impatient and have a tendency to interrupt or to not be a good listener. You know that annoying person who thinks they know what you are going to say next and is already planning their response? Sadly, that’s me. It’s something I have to constantly work on and fight against with better active listening techniques.

Growing as a leader requires you to identify your own faults and to take specific actions, not just brush over the flaw. For example, in the case of better listening, one of the best lessons that I’ve learned with the help of others along the way is to keep eye contact with the person speaking. I try to focus not just on what they are saying but on how they are saying it. This keeps my mind occupied looking for meaning and purpose rather than a response.

You want people to be comfortable coming to you even with the worst news. If you go Game of Thrones on them and start lopping off heads, you will hear bad news only once. That is not the type of environment you want to encourage, because you can’t fix a problem if you don’t know it exists. You need to hear the bad news as well as the good, and you need to hear it sooner rather than later. Bad news is like stinky cheese: It doesn’t get better with time. If you act like a jerk, your people will shut down—and, eventually, so will your business.

Leadership is a bit like chess; it requires strategic thinking and meaningful action. Well-mentored and successful change leaders know how to identify and understand unintended consequences and second- and third-order effects, and how to incorporate those into their efforts and articulate them in their strategic vision. Achieving this type of agile-acting leadership in an organization requires people who are artfully mentored and visibly supported, able to navigate through uncharted waters, transparent and tenacious in pursuit of their vision, and inspirational in collaborating and growing others around them to share those same traits and values. In other words, it requires you to not be a jerk so you can mentor others to also not be jerks.

Sides of a coin

Leadership and mentorship are two sides of the same coin, and you have to be deliberate in your actions to do them well. They both require integrity, empathy, and the ability to inspire others. They require you to excite your team, your employees, and your mentees. You must genuinely connect with other people, clearly and frankly communicating what to expect, how you measure success, and that what you do means more than what you say. Above all, they both require you to not be a jerk. To that end, I’ve interwoven leadership and mentoring concepts throughout the book, alternating between chapters but with the intention of showing their interconnectedness and how the best leaders align their efforts in both areas effectively.

Sea Story: Getting Schooled by a Three-Year-Old at the Hat Parade

When I was a lieutenant, I was stationed on a ship in Norfolk, Virginia. I was responsible for the networks and communications services the staff used to conduct operations. My daughter was about three and a half years old at the time and was enrolled in the Child Development Center, a day care facility about five miles away from the ship. I would drop her off in the morning and pick her up at night. She spent a lot of time there, because my normal days on the ship were about ten hours long when there was nothing operationally significant going on; if there was, the days were longer. One time, when I went to pick her up early, she said, “Mommy, what are you doing here? It is not dark yet.” Ouch.

I had a lot of mom guilt and felt like I could never get the balance right. I used to try to go to events at the day care when I could break free, like having lunch in her classroom. One day, they were having a hat parade in the morning. The kids each made a goofy-looking hat, usually out of newspapers or papier-mâché, only loosely held together, as most of the glue was eaten instead of applied to the hat. The kids loved it though and took pride in their hats, which they thought looked like some priceless piece of art but more often resembled a dog’s breakfast. The level of creativity, intentional or not, on the hats was unmatched even at major art colleges. They resembled everything from a hot dog to something Queen Elizabeth would wear on coronation day without batting an eye. Then there was the one kid with the unintentional Salvador Dali or Picasso hat—the face with the errant eyeball and out-of-proportion nose that looked like it just got run over by a UPS truck. They would wear the hat on their head and march proudly around the parking lot as a group of impressed parents watched, enthusiastically cheering them on and snapping photos. Normally, the entire event lasted like ten minutes—which, in a three-and-a-half-year-old’s mind, made it an all-day event.

So, this one beautiful fall day, my daughter announced on the way into work that it was hat parade day, and she was jazzed. She had the hat of all hats to present at school, clearly a masterpiece, which I had not yet seen. I told her I would be there.

I knew it was going to be a busy day at work, as we had a military exercise starting the following day. The ship was going to be getting underway early the next morning for two weeks, and we were going to have about three hundred extra people joining the staff and all trying to get onto the network accounts to prepare for the exercise. The tricky part about those extra people was that they were not going to be Navy folks accustomed to living and working on the ship. They were going to be people from the other services like the Army and the Air Force. So, there were going to be additional challenges to the normal “help me, my tongue is stuck in the keyboard” type problems the network officer routinely faces. We were going to have a lot of “What’s a port? What’s a starboard? How do I find my stateroom? Where are the lifeboats? What are all the bells and whistles about? How do I find the ship’s list? Whose pants am I wearing?” Anyway, you get the picture. Although I knew we were going to be very busy, I thought I would be able to get out for a few minutes to attend the hat parade without drama.

I dropped her off with a cheery “See you in a few hours,” and went to the ship, where I quickly found network chaos reigned—lots of outages and frustrated operators who could not get access to their information on the network and new users who couldn’t get their initial access turned on. I kept an eye on the clock, knowing I had to leave about 9:45 a.m. to get to the hat parade on time.

As the clock ticked closer, I got more stressed out. I finally left the ship about 9:55 a.m. and got over to the day care about five minutes after 10:00. The parking lot was empty. I thought maybe they had not started yet and I was still good to go, but no. The kids were on the playground now, wearing their hats and doing that crazy kid run where kids, for no apparent reason, run full throttle in one direction then shift to another direction aimlessly but still at full speed like they are on some special mission.

All except one: my daughter. I saw her across the playground, and she saw me. Have you ever seen pictures taken from satellites where you can actually make out the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall of China from space? That was what my daughter’s mouth looked like. At that moment, her face contorted, and her mouth became this big gaping hole. She started to cry and ran over to the fence. My heart sank. I had missed the hat parade.

When she got up near me, she laced her fingers through the fence, reaching out to me on the other side, and said, “Mommy, you promised you would be here, and you weren’t.”

Epic parent fail. While missing the hat parade may seem like a small thing, it wasn’t at that moment to my daughter. She had believed in me and trusted that I would do what I said I would. As I touched her little fingers through the fence, my heart broke. In that instant, I made a decision that I was not going to be “that parent,” the one who put work and service above all else, including my daughter and family.

That is not to say that we would not sacrifice over the years or that we would not have challenging times. As a military family, you are faced with separation during deployments, moving every few years, long hours at work, and always being on call. But by the same token, because it is service and not just a job, we develop a selfless mentality to always do what is asked of us regardless of the price to our loved ones.

I decided in that moment, though, that I was going to get my life in balance and would not prioritize everything else over my daughter.

Fast-forward six months later and almost the same scenario was in play. An exercise was starting the next day, and the ship would be getting underway for six weeks with a couple hundred additional personnel streaming aboard. Communications and network chaos again ruled the day, which stressed out my immediate supervisor, since he was not a communications or network engineer; he was a ship driver who relied on me and the other officers to get the communications right. For those of us who had several years of experience under our belt in this field, we all understood that being a communications officer means never having to say you’re welcome, but for my boss, it was new territory, and he was getting heat from his own boss to make sure everyone was up on the networks and preparing for the exercise.

It was my daughter’s birthday, and I had cupcakes with melting frosting in the car ready to be presented as a Michelin meal loaded with sugar to a bunch of already hyper three- and four-year-olds at the Child Development Center.

I went to my boss and said, “Sir, I need to leave for an hour to take some cupcakes to my daughter’s birthday party at the Child Development Center.”

He said, “You can’t leave now! It’s crazy here with all these people and the problems we are having, and we need to be ready for this exercise.”

I told him, “Sir, you are right. It is crazy and hectic now, and it’s going to be crazy in an hour and the rest of the day. I am going to be here all night, and we get underway tomorrow. We will get these problems fixed. I just need one hour to do this.”

He replied, “OK, but you better be back here in one hour.”

So off I scrambled to the center with my lamely decorated cupcakes, which were a hit, as is anything with an overabundance of sugar and neon food coloring with the three- and four-year-old center mafia. But most important, my daughter’s face lit up when she saw me, and her faith was restored in my word. She knew how important it was for me to keep that covenant with her. I was back on the ship in an hour, and all was still chaos, so plenty of job security to go around.

At that moment, I made a choice to do something that was not focused entirely on work. It could have left some to question my loyalty or commitment to the concerns of the organization or the mission. But what it did was make me more grateful that they understood how important that one hour was to my family, and it actually made me want to work harder for the organization. The commitment was mutual and reciprocated.

You need to be savvy enough to know when to play that card. For example, I would never go to the commanding officer of the ship and say, “Gee, I would love to get underway with the ship when we leave port tomorrow, but it’s hat parade day at the Child Development Center, so I think I’ll take a rain check on that deployment.” I also would have explained to my daughter that I wouldn’t be there for that hat parade and why if I knew I couldn’t make it. And I would make sure I was at the next one when we returned back to port.

What were the professional repercussions of prioritizing my family? Do you think when my selection board for the next higher rank came up that anyone at that board said, “Lieutenant Barrett? Holy cow! I remember she missed one hour of communications checks prior to an exercise back in 1998. There is no way she can be promoted!” Of course, that didn’t happen. But would my daughter have remembered that I missed her birthday? Absolutely.

Sea Story: “You’re Naked!”

When my daughter was about fifteen years old, she had three of her friends sleeping over for the night. Now, I loved a good sleepover, because it normally consisted of the girls lounging around doing their thing on their cell phones—texting each other from the same sofa, posting every waking moment to Instagram or Twitter, taking 450 pictures of their big toes after adding face filters and setting that to music, and so on—but most of all, lots of giggling and raucous noise. It made the house come alive in a way that you have to stop and appreciate.

Well, this particular night, things had slowed down, and the girls had exhausted all their activities, like making some inedible science project in the kitchen. This is inevitably filled with tons of sugar and butter, and they surely eat most of it before it gets anywhere near the oven. No matter how bad it turns out, the remains are reserved for my husband because, of course, “Dad eats anything.” Because they were looking for something to do, I suggested, “Hey, let’s watch some home movies from when you were a baby. Those are always fun.”

A teenager staple, the eye roll, from my daughter. But her friends egged her on, and before long, everyone was all in, especially when I recommended that critically acclaimed favorite, the naked baby video. What teenager doesn’t want to show naked baby videos of themselves to their friends, am I right? So, good sport that my daughter is, she was up for a little teenage humiliation and agreed. In went the video, and we were off to the races.

The video starts off with us on one of those ginormous ships, taking a cruise through the Panama Canal. My daughter was eighteen months old at the time and cute as a button. We were in our cabin on the ship getting ready to go to the pool. As all kids love to do, she was running around, buck naked, as we tried to catch her to put her bathing suit on. There is something about kids and not wearing a stitch of clothes; something brings out the exhibitionist streaker in all of them. Thankfully, most of us grow out of this. There is this sense of freedom seldom replicated in adulthood when jiggling and dangly bits get in the way of that unabashed freedom of movement.

So, there she was, running all over as I videotaped her, yelling “naked baby!” to which she responded with joyous peals of laughter as she would run by us and we would fake trying to catch her, only to have her “escape” at the last second for more laps around the room. The girls were watching the video and laughing at how silly and cute she was when my daughter turned to me in complete horror and said, “Mom, you’re naked!”

I looked at her, not understanding what she meant, and said, “No, honey, you’re naked. You know, ‘Naked baby! Naked baby.’”

My daughter, face beet red, replied, “Mom, look in the mirror.”

Sure enough, off to the side of my wild daughter was a mirror. Clearly visible in the reflection is me, completely naked, only my face hidden from view by the video camera. It goes on for an excruciating amount of time. I cannot believe we did not notice that before. The girls started laughing even more now. But that was not the worst part.

The worst is when I think about how many copies of our vacation video we happily gave to relatives and friends—probably upward of ten copies. I can only imagine their reactions. “Does she know what she sent us?” before they too, I’m sure, burst into laughter. No one ever said a word to us about it, but this does explain a great many mysteries that have been unanswered since that fateful day, like why my mother-in-law has given me underwear and nightgowns like clockwork for Christmas for the last fifteen years. She would have probably sent a weed whacker too if postage from South America hadn’t been too high.

Important safety tips for future reference: Refrain from holding recording devices while naked. Mirrors are not your friends; they are evil, so know where they are at all times. (This is a helpful tip for murders and other crimes you may be considering as well.) Never give your kid more ammunition for blackmail. They are also inherently evil and will use it to their advantage.

About the Author

Former Rear Admiral Danelle Barrett is mom, wife, daughter, sister, and friend. She was born in Buffalo, New York, and graduated from Boston University in 1989 with a bachelor of arts in history. She received her commission as an officer from the US Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps in a ceremony aboard the USS Constitution. She holds a master of arts in management, national security strategic studies, and human resources development, and she earned a master of science in information management.

As an admiral, Danelle served as director of current operations at US Cyber Command and as director of the Navy Cyber Security Division and deputy chief information officer on the Chief of Naval Operations staff. In her last position in the US Navy, she led the strategic development and execution of digital and cyber security efforts, enterprise information technology improvements, and cloud policy and governance for 700,000 personnel across a global network. An innovator, she implemented visionary digital transformation to modernize with unprecedented speed, significantly improving Navy Information Warfare capabilities. Her numerous operational assignments included deployments to Iraq, on an aircraft carrier in support of operations in Afghanistan, and to Haiti providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief after the 2010 earthquake.

She currently executes a portfolio of work that includes being an independent director on several corporate boards, consulting, public speaking, and writing with more than thirty-five articles published. And most important, for fun, she signs up to be an extra in movies.

Rock the Boat: Embrace Change, Encourage Innovation, and Be a Successful Leader” by Danelle Barrett is on sale June 22.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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