A Leader for the Ages: A Eulogy for a Captain
By Bruce Griffiths M.S.
After 50+ years in the world of work, plus four decades of organizational consulting, I have concluded that the basics of good leadership do persist across time. Truly exceptional leaders could jump in Doc Brown’s DeLorean and be successful in other times and places. They have the core competencies, curiosity, and adaptability to lead across circumstances.
My first, and best, experience with one of these everlasting leaders was as a young officer in the U.S. Coast Guard. I had been selected to pilot the first inter-service transfer program between the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S Navy. So, on a chilly New England spring morning I drove my Chevy Camaro north up I-95 from my first duty assignment in New York City aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Spencer (WHEC – 36) to report aboard the USS Trippe (DE-1075) in Newport, Rhode Island.
The USS Trippe was returning from maneuvers when I arrived. So I waited, bundled in my bridge coat, on a blustery afternoon on Narragansett Bay. The Chief waiting next to me commented that the “old man was going to bring her in without tugs”. That he thought this unusual was unusual to me. In their home ports cutters and men-of-war typically dock without pilots or tugs. But I learned that this Knox class of destroyers was nicknamed “McNamara’s folly” for the cost-cutting Secretary of Defense who had changed the age-old twin propeller destroyer design to a single screw to save money. So, maneuvering without the torque of twin propellers, especially with a brisk off pier wind, was going to be a challenge. But the Captain, we’ll refer to him as ABH, I’d soon learn was an excellent ship handler. He competently brought her in and tied her up.
That was my introduction to a leader who would inspire me, and literally bend the arc my life toward my current career in organizational psychology. While the Coast Guard has a military mission (my first deployment was in Viet Nam aboard the Spencer) our ships at that point in time were decades behind the navy in war-fighting technology. So what to do with a Coast Guard officer? There are two jobs on every military ship that are about the business of going to sea; they are the First Lieutenant, in charge of the Deck Force, and the Navigator, responsible for guiding the ship safely between ports. So for my tour on Trippe that’s what I did. And as fate would have it, I ended up navigating her around the world as we deployed to Viet Nam and then the Persian Gulf.
I’ll admit my morale was low as I reported aboard and unpacked in my stateroom. I had been “volunteered” for this duty, and it had bumped me from my first choice as the commanding officer of a Patrol Boat stationed at some smaller port on the east coast. I had even done some politically risky, potentially career limiting, resisting to the transfer.
But I immediately noticed that in general the crew seemed motivated and satisfied. This was the commissioning crew (Trippe had recently been put into service) so special attention and resources might have accounted for that. But I soon learned that the real difference was the skipper. Our Captain, ABH, not only had impressive credentials as an Annapolis grad, and former submarine skipper, but was smart, funny, and personable with high standards and a passion for excellence.
I didn’t have the competency vocabulary back then, but I see now that ABH was exceptional in the absolutely essential competencies of Communicativeness, Influence (through personal power), Problem Solving, Organizing & Planning, and Relationship Building. He qualified as the exemplar you’d emulate as someone who produced results, respect, likeability, and exhibited passion for his job.
Proof of his leadership wasn’t just in morale and reenlistment rates, but Trippe was chosen to pilot several new weapons systems. And we aced our refresher training testing in Guantanamo Bay, affectionally known as GITMO to east coast sailors. He had a wonderful sense of humor. Once in maneuvers off of Boston the Junior Officer of the Deck pointed out a “large, unidentified contact on the horizon. A mystery”. ABH peered through his binoculars and declared it was a “Bravo Lima Delta Golf” (BLDG)! As we deciphered his joke we realized that through the mist it was the Boston skyline slowly rising over the horizon.
I’ve often referenced my time with ABH in my leadership lectures and conversations. As the years passed, and my civilian career progressed, I did try to contact ABH to let him know how much he had influenced my life. But, beyond active-duty references, I never connected. Then recently I Googled ABH again, and was distressed to surface his obituary. He’d passed away earlier this year at the age of 91. As I expected his obituary revealed he’d lived an exemplary life in the USN (retiring as a Captain), and as a civilian. Active in community and church, and connected with Jimmy Carter’s Habitat for Humanity program.
Across my almost four years at sea on two ships, I served under four commanding officers. Only one was a leader, the rest managers. ABH was transformational. The rest transactional. ABH led from a personal power base of expertise, integrity and communications skills. The rest relied on rank. ABH focused on effectiveness and morale. He was truly a leader. A leader who could lead today.
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