To find yourself in the presence of Admiral Robert F. Willard, Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, is like landing in the pages of a history book and running through the vivid frames of a film about the future all at the same time. A decorated warfighter and a visionary leader, Admiral Willard has a way about him that is unlike that of any person I have ever met or had the pleasure of working for in my life. It is no secret that I am a BIG fan – and not just because he is a Top Gun pilot and was in the movie, though it does keep me ‘star struck’ – but because he possesses, among other things, the one trait that many executives seem to leave behind a few rungs down the ladder on their way up: Humility.
The first time I was asked to brief “a four star” was in October of 2007. We were gearing up to execute the plan to become a Maritime Headquarters with Maritime Operations Center (MHQ with MOC). I had my one slide ready, was nervous to no end, and had practiced what I needed to say several times in my head in an effort to TRY to not look like an idiot in front of MY boss, Rear Admiral Joe Mulloy (who is quite arguably the smartest person on earth), and THE boss. No pressure…
Right before the lead action officer (AO), CDR Eric Kennington, introduced the briefers, Admiral Willard interrupted to inject some direction. He said (paraphrasing here), “Before you brief me, I don’t want you to tell me what’s good. I want you to tell me what we are doing differently now than what we were doing in the past, and tell me what is not working so that we can fix it”. This statement caught me completely off guard and I had to think quickly about how to ‘retool’ my voice over, which I did simply by injecting more “executive level honesty”. Here was the Commander of the Pacific Fleet essentially saying to his staff, “Don’t B.S. me – be honest because I want to know how we can do better”. Tell me how many leaders at that level ever say or ask that and are genuine about it?
Every meeting I have attended with Admiral Willard since then has had me in awe of this unexpected humility. In one meeting, I remember him saying to one of our newer staff members (a lieutenant commander), “Hey, if you know something I’m saying is wrong, speak up. Some of you guys have been in school more recently than I have.” Granted, very few people will actually counter or correct what he says, but when they do (respectfully), you can tell he appreciates it.
At our recent KM conference, Admiral Willard made mention of the fact that I “pushed back” on him during a particular meeting, and several attendees came up to me during the conference and asked “How did you DO that?” That question was the impetus for this blog entry. The reason I could “do that” was because I have a leader who is willing to listen, who wants more honesty and less ‘smoke’, and who sets the tone for open dialog when it is appropriate.
As a KM advocating for the good work other KMs can do for their organizations and bosses, I encourage leaders at every level to show the same level of humility that Admiral Willard shows in his engagements. If a four star admiral, soon to be Commander of the entire Pacific AOR can do it, why not you? By being open to learning and hearing what’s good AND bad about your organization (and your own ideas), you will gain more knowledge and become more effective in your endeavors. Your knowledge managers are there to help you do just that.
Photo Credits: MC1 Sarah Murphy, CPF N00PA