Leadership Learnings: Paul Gillcrist, US Navy

I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership lately. There’s an election coming up, but leadership isn’t just important for elected officials. It’s crucial in our work and amongst our families, friends, and communities. I thought one good place to start the discussion is by asking a diverse group of individuals what qualities they think are important in a leader. We’ll explore the topic one person at a time, and as always, you’re invited to join the discussion.

First up: LTJG Paul T. Gillcrist (USN)

Paul’s been a longtime supporter of arts and culture since I met him in San Diego. His journey has taken him from camp director to concert and event management, marketing, business development, customer service, founder of an outdoors social club, and now — the US Navy.

Paul Gillcrist
1. Responsibility / Ownership

As a leader, taking responsibility is crucial toward your ability to own the successes and failures and protect those that serve under you. As a Naval Officer, the concept of ‘Ultimate Responsibility’ is one that while uniquely tied to Naval tradition, is useful in general leadership practice.

In the past, once warships sailed out of their ports, there was no way for them to communicate with higher command. Thus, the Captain of the vessel had to make decisions on his own related to the fate of the ship, interacting with foreign governments and militaries. This ultimate control was balanced by the ultimate responsibility that the Captain would hold for everything that occurred on or to his ship.

It is inevitable that the folks you lead will make mistakes. And when they make those mistakes, others in the organization that are impacted by them will normally seek to place blame and ensure that they are left unscathed.

While individuals own the responsibility of their actions, it is incumbent upon good leaders to take the concept of ‘ultimate responsibility’ seriously and to shield the folks they lead by owning these mistakes and not allowing others to seek reprimand against them. A prime example of this is that if you are managing a team at work and someone has an issue with what one of your subordinates have done, you should have them take the issue up with you and not allow them to go after your people. By owning the problem and the burden of blame, you are able to better understand what is needed to find a solution and you enable those you lead to focus on their jobs. In the words of President Harry S. Truman, “The buck stops here.”

2. Empathy

As a leader, focusing on an organization’s goals or mission is critical. In order to do so, numbers and data are employed to derive quantitative ways to measure that success. But leadership is ultimately about your ability to connect and inspire others. Being genuinely concerned and interested in the lives of those you serve is crucial towards building trust and a sense of belonging. Harder to measure, empathy is something we should demand from our leaders and its absence should cause us to pause and reflect.

An example of empathetic leadership can be as simple as taking the time and effort to memorizing the names of your subordinate’s family members. While something like this is a small gesture, it demonstrates to your people that their personal life is important and demands attention not just by them, but also by their organization they work for.

Another example of empathy from leaders that is small and easy to accomplish is for them to personally recognize and thank people for the hard work they do. Many people aren’t expecting or wanting a grand parade in celebration of their daily trials and tribulations, but receiving a simple acknowledgement of their sacrifices and hardships lets them know that their leadership sees their efforts and values their contributions.

What do you think of Paul’s take on leadership? Leave a comment or nominate someone we need to hear from in this series.