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Learning from the Navy’s Commitment to Leadership Development

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The next time you’re feeling challenged about how to reach a goal, think of the sailors from the USS Carl Vinson. As reported in the Washington Post,  30 sailors from the Vinson set a goal to make last Sunday's Marine Corps Marathon their first 26.2 mile race.  More and more people are running marathons these days, but not very many have their training space limited to the confines of a Nimitz class aircraft carrier. The sailors from the Vinson were inspired by the example set by their former commanding officer, Walter Carter, a recently promoted rear admiral who shared his enthusiasm for running with his crew.  Carter has left the Vinson for his next assignment but came back to DC to run the race with his men. Through his own commitment to fitness and his and camaraderie with his team, Rear Admiral Carter is the embodiment of what a positive leadership footprint looks like.

I’m honored to report that I got a first hand account of how the race turned out for the sailors from the Carl Vinson when I was one of the opening speakers last Sunday for the Navy’s annual Flag Officer and Executive Training Symposium at a federal training center in the suburbs of DC.  (This is a week long annual event for the newly promoted admirals and their civilian colleagues in the federal Senior Executive Service. )

The speaker that followed me on Sunday was the head of the Navy’s Fitness program. She was there to brief the participants and their spouses on the range of support available to help these leaders stay fit in their very demanding roles. As she wrapped up her remarks, she read from the Post story and asked if Rear Admiral Carter was in the room. He was indeed and reported that all 30 of his sailors had successfully completed the race and that he had finished it in 3 hours and 36 minutes himself.  Bear in mind that this briefing came about six hours following the marathon.  Let it be noted that the admiral did not have the bearing or tone of someone who had just run 26.2 miles in under four hours.  He pretty much looked fresh as a daisy!

There were a number of  things I took away from the Sunday session that I think are worth offering as food for thought for leaders. Let me share three of them here.

Takeaway 1:  There aren’t many people who are in more demanding jobs than rear admirals and senior executives in the US Navy. By definition, these are busy people. And yet, the Navy has found that there is a high return on investment in taking these leaders off line for a week to support them in adjusting to their new roles. The Navy is apparently unique among the services in its inclusion of spouses in a program of this nature. They want the life partners of their top leaders to know and understand their spouses’ roles.  They also want to let them know how much the Navy appreciates their leaders and their families.    That strikes me as an approach worth emulating for any organization interested in fully supporting its top leadership.

Takeaway 2:  I was really impressed that the third item of a week long agenda was an overview on fitness.  To be fully effective, leaders need to have a fighting chance of showing up at their best. The Navy understands that fitness is the foundation for that and has a team of personal trainers that work with their leaders on exercise planning, nutrition, stress management and a range of other health and wellness opportunities. They take a research based approach to fitness and have found that incorporating simple activities like walking (10,000 paces on the pedometer a day is the goal) has a greater long term positive impact than focused exercise programs (those are still important, by the way).

Takeaway 3:  Leaders set the tone and example. Thirty sailors from the Carl Vinson had the experience of a lifetime in the Marine Corps Marathon because their leader led by example.

Like I said earlier, it was an honor to be a witness to these lessons.The people of the Navy do amazing work. It’s easy to see how their commitment to the total development of their leaders makes the difference.

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