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Lessons in Leadership from the U.S. Navy

By September 2, 2013Article

Many Americans have become disillusioned in what passes for leadership in senior positions of government, politics, business, religious institutions and even our military. And the higher the positional authority, often the worse behavior some of these folks exhibit. Perhaps it’s our celebrity culture, the quest for our “15 minutes of fame,” persistent, invasive social media technology or the 24/7 cable news beast that must be fed daily that highlights and trumpets our inevitable human foibles and sins. Or maybe it’s the increasingly morally ambiguous society we are becoming. Whatever the reason, we often forget, maybe never learned or even experienced the foundational elements that constitute the bedrock of great leadership. 

Why is this even important? Throughout the course of human history, great leaders moved cultures, societies and nations forward. They inspired millions of people to make sacrifices for the common good, righted gross social injustices and won wars and battles. Great leaders often achieved significant acclaim and riches; but others work tirelessly, unknown, unheralded and under-appreciated except by the teams they lead and inspire to achieve what they did not believe they could accomplish on their own.

In my 30 years of leading U.S. Navy sailors, employees, teams and businesses, here are the five characteristics I look for when I hire leaders for my team.


It all starts and stops with this one. Without that moral compass in your gut that differentiates what is right, what is true and the discipline to act on those core principles in a consistent and disciplined way, you never can expect others to exhibit the same qualities. Integrity is the courage to do or say the right thing regardless of the immediate or long-term consequences. It’s a process and we all trip up along the way. But this is the first commandment of leadership.


The best leaders figure out the few things in life in which they excel and try to focus in on those. It takes too much energy to fake the rest of it. Frankly, your team can see through it anyway. So what’s the point in trying to convince people you’re something you are not? Most of us know people who want to be something, rather than do something, and that never comes across as genuine. So focus on the doing, not the being. My five-year-old daughter has a printed t-shirt that sums this up perfectly: Be yourself, everyone else is taken.


We all make mistakes and bad decisions every day. I sure do. Just own them. And we probably need to apologize for them more often. Some of them we can take back and fix immediately, and some of them just live on in perpetuity. They become that character scar tissue that allows us to grow and improve over time. We are never as good or worthy as our pet dogs think we are, nor is it likely that we are the leader that our employees or a temporarily adoring public leads us to believe.


Tell your people the truth, all of it, the good the bad and ugly. They can take it, and they expect it. Invariably, everyone will find out anyway. There are some good examples of non-transparency going on in our nation’s capital right now. So take a look and don’t do that. If you have established some credibility on the first three items of this leadership to-do list, your team will most likely cut you some slack if it’s bad news. They probably have the answers to fix what ails your organization anyway. You just need to ask them.


This is one of my favorites and perhaps least practiced characteristics. This one is at the core of most military leadership training. Simply put, you own the results of your actions, be it good or bad. Unfortunately, in some circumstances, this leads to inaction, analysis paralysis or blaming bad results on others or outside circumstances beyond your control. It’s uncomfortable and the penalties for failure can be severe. But if you want to assume the mantle of leadership, this comes with the job.  

How many of the people that you have known or worked with have all five of these characteristics? Do you exemplify them yourself? By following these principles you can become a better leader in your family, your community and your business.  

Craig Malloy is co-founder and CEO of Bloomfire. He is a Navy officer turned entrepreneur who founded ViaVideo (acquired by Polycom) and LifeSize (acquired by Logitech) and is now re-inventing himself in cloud software. Building a great company out of an idea with a class-A team is his passion. Bloomfire is shaping up to be his best work yet. Follow Craig on Twitter at @craigbmalloy.



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