#1681 When in Command…


In our last +1, we had a quick chat about Admiral McRaven’s #1 leadership aphorism: “Death Before Dishonor.”

We connected that wisdom to Stephen Covey and Nathaniel Branden as we committed to doing our best to live with TOTAL INTEGRITY.

Today I want to chat about another one of McRaven’s military aphorisms that helped shape his leadership: “When in Command, Command.”

Let’s jump straight in.

McRaven tells us: “As a leader, you must always appear to be in command, even on those days when you struggle with the pressures of the job. You must be confident. You must be decisive. You must smile. You must laugh. You must engage with your employees and be thankful for their work. You must have the look of a person in charge. You must instill in your men and women a sense of pride that their leaders can handle any problem.”

He continues by saying: “As a leader, you can’t have a bad day. You must never look beaten, no matter the circumstance. If you sulk, if you hang your head, if you whine or complain about the leaders above you or the followers below you, then you will lose the respect of your men and women, and the attitude of despair will spread like wildfire.”

And: “Being a leader is an awesome responsibility. There are days when it can be frightening to know that the weight of the organization rests on your shoulders. But you must also realize that you were chosen to be the leader because you have proven yourself along the way. You have demonstrated that you know the business. You have shown that you can handle the pressures and be decisive. You have exhibited all the qualities necessary to lead. And even if none of the above holds true, now that you are the leader, you are in command. So, take the damn helm and command!”

That’s from chapter/axiom #3: “When in Command, Command.”

In this chapter, Admiral McRaven tells us the story of one of his heroes: Admiral Chester Nimitz. Admiral Nimitz was the commander of the Pacific Fleet in World War II. He led the Battle of Midway that turned the tide of the war in the Pacific. McRaven’s team surprised him by installing Nimitz’s desk in his office when he was in command of SOCOM.

Of course, as leaders, we will have days when we feel overwhelmed and not up to the task of our responsibilities. Nimitz was feeling *exactly* that as he was deciding how to approach the extraordinary challenges of his command of the Pacific and how he would approach Midway. McRaven tells us that he “anguished over his decision for days.”

Then, after confessing his apprehension to a fellow Admiral Bull Halsey, Halsey told him: “You once told me that when in command, command.”

McRaven continues by saying “It was the clarion call that Nimitz needed. He understood that commanders are expected to make the tough decision. To act with purpose. To be confident and lead from the front. To accept the challenge and steal yourself for the rough waters ahead. A commander must command. Command the situation. Command the troops. Command your fears. Take command.”

I’m reminded of the parallel wisdom from some other great U.S. military leaders.

As Jim Mattis says in his great book Call Sign Chaos: “A leader’s role is problem solving. If you don’t like problems, stay out of leadership.” And: “The tougher the situation, the more I needed to choose to set a calm example, not allowing long hours and wicked issues to dictate my behavior around a team doing their utmost.”

In It Worked for Me, General Colin Powell outlines thirteen rules for leadership. Rule #13 is “Remain Calm. Be Kind.”

General Powell echoes Mattis and McRaven’s wisdom when he tells us: “Few people make sound or sustainable decisions in an atmosphere of chaos. The more serious the situation, usually accompanied by a deadline, the more likely everyone will get excited and bounce around like water on a hot skillet. At those times I try to establish a calm zone but retain a sense of urgency. Calmness protects order, ensures that we consider all the possibilities, restores order when it breaks down, and keeps people from shouting over each other.

You are in a storm. The captain must steady the ship, watch all the gauges, listen to all the department heads, and steer through it. If the leader loses his head, confidence in him will be lost and the glue that holds the team together will start to give way. So assess the situation, move fast, be decisive, but remain calm and never let them see you sweat. The calm zone is part of an emotional spectrum that I work to maintain.”

That’s Today’s +1.


When in command, COMMAND.

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