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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Words Matter

"Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing." (Prv. 12:18)

We probably learn best when we fail. During my initial sea tours I made countless leadership mistakes. Shore duty afforded me the opportunity to reflect on them and consider how I can change to be better for my Sailors as a DH. Those who have stood the watch before us should share their experiences to improve the performance of their reliefs. None of us perform flawlessly (in spite of what our FITREP/award says); we all have fallen short in how we care for the people that have been entrusted to us. I certainly have - more than I wish to remember. I hope that when I share it edifies those who read and I encourage others with their own leadership experience to impart their wisdom as well.

I learned that my words matter early in my second Divo tour. Prior to this I thought that I could "joke" and say nearly whatever I thought without any thought. I learned this lesson the hard way on one particularly long day when everything seemed to be going wrong - gear was breaking repeatedly, and all of our work-arounds were ineffective. The crew was small (~40) and one of my First Class Petty Officers was really carrying the load (he always did as the #1 E-6 onboard). You would have to know this guy - big (6'4'', 250lbs), tough, and with considerable experience (~18 yrs of service). I was standing on the fantail, late in the evening, with my Senior Chief and one of my Divos. The First Class comes up, sweaty and greasy, to tell Senior that things just weren't going as planned and repairs were going to take longer than expected. In my arrogance, I made an off-hand comment, joking to the effect that if he could do more than one thing at a time it wouldn't have been a problem. It was the proverbial "straw that broke the camel's back" at that point in his day. He had put out max effort and to have me say that nearly brought him to tears (rather in anger or just exhaustion). I'll never forget the look on his face. It's hard to believe that as a 25 year old LTJG my thoughts/words could have such an impact on a guy like him, but it did. He left quickly so nobody would see him. I'll also never forget Senior Chief's face as he told me how inappropriate my comment was. Our words reveal our thoughts. To the First Class, as his boss (I write his eval), I communicated that I thought his performance was sub-standard. Of course, it hadn't been but he will never know that. I missed the opportunity to encourage him and tell him how much I appreciated his efforts and the efforts of those he lead. Not to mention, I also set a bad example for the Ensign that was there. Of even more significance I sinned - displeasing and poorly representing Christ. I learned when you are in a position of authority your words matter immensely. They can pierce or they can heal - we must communicate carefully.

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