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Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Rear Admiral Marc Purcell

I spoke to Rear Admiral Marc Purcell (U.S. Navy, Retired) about his journey and his best advice on leadership

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts on leadership. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Marc: I grew up in a home where both my mom and dad emphasized the importance of doing the right thing and acting honorably, and I watched them live their lives that way. They were also both life-long learners, with a broad “renaissance” approach to their reading and the experiences to which we were exposed. At a very young age I recall being taken along to the theater, to concerts, and museums, and I’m thankful for that gift of curiosity and learning they gave to me. My father was also a WWII veteran as well as both a high school and college coach. I learned many of life’s lessons about hard work, competition, and the rewards of being part of a team from him. There was also this TV show called “Men of Annapolis”, which influenced my career choice. This was a weekly, dramatized series about life at the Naval Academy. Of course, much later, I discovered it was highly romanticized and not very realistic, but at the time it sparked an interest in the Naval Academy that I never lost. By the time I was thinking about college, I knew I wanted to attend the Naval Academy and fly Navy fighters. I was fortunate that it all worked out as I had imagined, and the rest of my career followed from those early influences and choices.    

Adam: What experiences have been most instrumental to your growth as a leader? 

Marc: I’ve mentioned my upbringing, which was certainly one of those factors.  But it would be difficult to overstate the role that competitive team sports also played. There are so many important life and leadership lessons to be learned there; the value of hard work, dealing with failure and success, personal commitment, teamwork, working through pain, mastering your fear, just to name some of the most important. I think these sports lessons have a strong correlation with the personal traits necessary to succeed as a leader. 

And as I believe is true of many successful leaders, I was fortunate to work for a number of outstanding leaders, whose examples and methods I often copied and adopted. By the time it was my turn to step into my first senior leadership role I knew from firsthand experience what “good” looked like, what a winning organization felt like, and what standards of performance and behavior were most important to me. I was fortunate, because I think it’s more difficult to build a high-performing team if you’ve never been on one.

Adam: What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most impactful in developing your leadership skills?

Marc: There have been many and there’s little room here to discuss them all, but several were personally embarrassing enough that I still don’t like to dwell talk on them.  In one particular instance, I was so sure of myself that I overreached and didn’t properly account for all the variables of an operation I was conducting. When the event didn’t go as planned, I made mistakes that could have been prevented by better planning. The end result was professionally very embarrassing, but it could have ended disastrously. Fortunately, it didn’t, but it was very humbling, and I learned several important lessons. I became a more meticulous planner and always had 2 or 3 possible fallback options. But more importantly, I gained much greater compassion and understanding for those who later made mistakes when working for me. Mistakes will happen, but an individual’s intentions and their ability to learn from them are more important. Later, I found that the individuals who had made mistakes and learned from them were often wiser and more reliable leaders than some others who still hadn’t learned those hard lessons and felt themselves invincible.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? 

Marc: To be effective, particularly over time, I think a leader has to earn the respect of the people they lead. Not the “positional” respect due to your seniority or title, but an “earned” personal respect. Without earned respect, you may have the power to direct action or reward and punish, but your people are just following the rules. Without personal respect you won’t have your people’s longer-term commitment to you, your policies, or your vision. You’ll get compliance with the rules, but not commitment to the “mission” or your organization. People are just not loyal or committed to anyone they don’t respect. You can’t demand personal resect – you have to earn it, since it has to be given willingly.  Earning that respect means meeting several key challenges: You have to be competent in your profession – whatever it is. You don’t necessarily need to be the expert at everything, but your people need to feel “safe” that you understand the business and can keep the organization on track. This is particularly critical in a combat unit, but even in business, it’s basic “table stakes”.

I think people must believe that you place both the organization’s and their well-being ahead of your own. As their leader, your personal success or safety must be a lesser priority. If people believe you are making decisions for your own benefit or safety at their or the team’s expense, then you’ll lose both their trust and respect. A lack of physical or moral courage that compromises the team is fatal for a leader.    

Finally, I think you have to demonstrate through your actions that you care about your team and understand the impact of your decisions on them.  This is not about being easy or making people like you; that road usually leads to failure. As a leader you will have to ask your people to do hard things and to make sacrifices. You must care for them enough to drive them to be prepared to meet those challenges, while caring about them enough as individuals that you don’t ask for those sacrifices lightly.

Adam: How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Marc: Aspiring leaders can take several conscious actions to help prepare themselves for new leadership challenges, particularly those that come with increasing levels of responsibility and span of control.  

Don’t pass up an opportunity to view the world from their boss’ vantage point, to better understand what it takes to be successful (or not) at that next level. Seeing the world from your boss’ perspective as a member of their staff is helpful in maturing your leadership, which must also grow as your leadership span of control grows. Success at one level does not ensure success at the next higher level.   

I strongly recommend reading histories, biographies, and literature so you can improve your own understanding of decision making, crisis leadership, motivating people, and even raise your emotional intelligence. Thoughtful reading will increase your insight and wisdom.  

I think you also need to learn to be introspective and brutally honest with yourself. You need to understand what motivates you, what your own weaknesses are, and what “success” means for you personally. You need to master yourself before you can lead others successfully.

Adam: ​What is the best advice you have on building, managing and leading teams?

Marc: First, find the best people you can and get them “on the bus” with you. Give your strongest people the hardest jobs. Ensure you set high standards and make everyone accountable for meeting them. Teach your team your objectives and goals so they understand the desired outcomes and can drive toward them, making decisions independently when needed. Trust them to do the work you’ve prepared them for, then step aside, while putting sufficient “guardrails” or check points in place to allow you to verify progress to the larger plan, allowing you sufficient time to intervene, if necessary, to prevent failure. Recognize and accept there are often multiple acceptable ways to solve a problem – it doesn’t have to be exactly the way you would have done it – it just needs to be good enough for the task at hand. Not everything is a critical operational issue. Don’t stifle their thinking and allow the team to succeed on it’s own. If there’s a failure, then you own it.  Take accountability. When there is success, give the credit to the team.

Adam: What are three leadership lessons from your time in the service that are applicable to a broad audience of leaders? 

Marc: Regardless of who’s on your team, it’s the leader’s responsibility to figure out what motivates them and to then bring them to the right level of performance for your organization. Ultimately, leadership is about winning hearts and minds.

I think people are basically the same wherever you go, and generally speaking they want similar things: To be appreciated and respected as part of the team, to be recognized when they do good work, to have a chance to succeed, and to be associated with a team/ organization that they can feel proud of.

It’s been my experience that you can fool your boss about who you really are, and many times you can fool your peers, but you can’t fool the people who work for you – they see who you really are and what you value because they’re watching you every day. Don’t try to be what you’re not or make promises you can’t live up to. 

Adam: ​Who are the greatest leaders you have been around and ​why do you admire them? ​What did you learn from them?

Marc: I worked for a series of very senior and accomplished military leaders from all three services, and in each instance I was impressed with the value they placed on building consensus and “buy in” across organizations in order to achieve their goals. The larger the organizational span of control, the more this becomes critical. I saw the time and thoughtfulness that went into those efforts and those leaders’ willingness to make changes or concessions to secure their larger goals. I think it’s unusual when a significant policy change or transformational initiative is successfully implemented without successful collaboration and consensus building. 

Adam: What are the biggest misconceptions people have about the military, the Navy and military leaders?

Marc: I think some of the military stereotypes that make for good entertainment have led many people to believe military leadership is about yelling and ordering people around. In my experience this is completely off the mark. I can probably count on one hand the number of times in a 30 plus year career that I was “ordered” to do anything. Usually, even as a very junior officer, I was given a task or objective and told to solve a problem or achieve an outcome. Within boundaries, it was up to me to figure out how to get it done. It’s been my experience from my time in both the military and commercial industry, that the amount of autonomy and decision-making authority given to junior military officers generally far out strips that of their peers in commercial industry. 

Adam: What do you believe are the three most important issues facing the country and the world? Are you optimistic about our ability to address them?

Marc: I think the threat to western values and democracy from radical Islamic Fundamentalism and nationalistic Russian and Chinese adventurism will continue to be the major geopolitical challenges facing our country (and our natural allies) for the next several decades. Our ultimate success will require the same sort of political vision and will, committed alliances, and consistent policy that we mustered for the Cold War. I am hopeful that we can overcome much of today’s internal bickering and small mindedness, and once again work together on an overarching strategy for our country. If we can meet that internal challenge, I think we will be able to master our external challenges as well. 

I am concerned that our business leaders are not engaged with more passion in defense of capitalism and limited government. The dearth of voices defending the merits of our current system seems to have left the arena of public discussion too lightly contested to idealistic but unrealistic arguments for a socialist system of economics and government intervention that has been thoroughly discredited by both past history and current events. I would hope that this situation will change as particularly as this current political season matures, but it will not be enough to simply condemn, we must also win the war of ideas. 

I also think it’s fundamental to our future well-being as a nation that we find ways to provide all this country’s children an adequate education. Not an easy task I know, but one critically important to each individual’s opportunities in life, to our Nation’s competitiveness in the world, and to the strength of our democracy, which depends on an educated citizenry to assess competing ideas and decide important national issues.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Marc: As I was going to my first job as an aviation squadron Commanding Officer, I received some simple advice from a mentor I respected: He told me, “When in command, command.” I nodded my head, not immediately sure what he meant, but still young and foolish enough to pretend that I did. After pondering his comment for several days, I realized what he was trying to tell me: Be willing to make decisions, take responsibility and embrace the accountability of leadership. He didn’t mean to avoid collaboration or input when the opportunity allows, he was emphasizing that a leader needs to ultimately make decisions, taking responsibility for them and accepting the consequences – good or bad. Don’t shy away from that responsibility and accountability; seek it out and embrace it – its fundamental to good leadership. If you are willing to accept that burden then you have an opportunity to create something and make a difference in an organization. Don’t squander that opportunity – it may not come to you again. I found this advice liberating and empowering then, and in every subsequent leadership opportunity I’ve had. 

Adam: ​What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Marc: I think we can all “pay it forward” by investing of ourselves engaging in causes we believe will improve our society and our world – whatever is it, take your experience and gifts and put them to use hands on, in something concrete and practical, giving our time and effort to something that will make our world a bit better than it is today.  

Adam: ​What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you as a leader? 

Marc: I love fitness, reading, travel, history, sports, and the arts. To this day I try to live by a quote from Plato that I saw in my father’s office many years ago: “Mental Fitness and Physical Fitness go Hand in Hand”. I continue to try to seek that balance and breadth in my own life, and I think that helps one remain resilient and open to new ideas and challenges.

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