ReThinking with Adam Grant
Admiral Linda Fagan on servant leadership
May 30, 2023
[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.
My guest today is Admiral Linda Fagan, the Commandant of the US Coast Guard. In 2022, she became the first woman ever to lead any branch of the US military, overseeing a workforce of 79,000 people. She hasn't wasted any time rethinking outdated policies and challenging the military to embrace practices like flexible work and parental leave.
She's also won more awards and medals than I can count, including for her Arctic and Antarctic service. More on that later. In the meantime, serving the Coast Guard hasn't just been her life's work. It's also sort of the family business. Her younger daughter graduated from the Coast Guard Academy and serves as a lieutenant.
Admiral Fagan, welcome to Rethinking.
[00:01:05] Linda Fagan:
Thank you. Thanks. It's a privilege to be here with you.
[00:01:08] Adam Grant:
Well, we'll find out if that's true or not. I'm a little disappointed that you beat me here ‘cause you have a much bigger and busier job than I do.
[00:01:13] Linda Fagan:
Well, I have a good staff that makes sure that they keep me on track and on time.
[00:01:18] Adam Grant:
Uh, I definitely respect that. I'll just say from my part as a stand-in for our listeners, I know the original Coast Guard traces back to Alexander Hamilton, I think late 1700s, if I remember correctly. I know much less about what you do today, and I'm probably not alone in wondering.
[00:01:34] Linda Fagan:
[00:01:34] Adam Grant:
Like in the 21st century, why do we need to guard our coast?
[00:01:38] Linda Fagan:
So, a confusion point for some people is, is the Coast Guard a military service? Yes. We are first and foremost a military service. We reside in the Department of Homeland Security and not the Department of Defense. We're a law enforcement agency. We're a lifesaving agency, a regulatory agency, and all of that authority that comes with those requirements create the Coast Guard, and so, we save people's lives.
We do aids to navigation, ensure the safety and security of our waterways. That's very much a homeland mission. But increasingly, demand for our leadership, our expertise internationally. So small nations find that partnering with us to improve their capability, capacity, learning how to enforce their own economic exclusive zones, their own economic prosperity, that really, the US Coast Guard is the partner of choice. The return on investment the nation gets for their 12.5 billion, Coast Guard, we’re about 45,000 people strong, is really second to none.
[00:02:41] Adam Grant:
That's a, that's a really helpful overview and I'm stunned by the, the shortage of acronyms in it.
[00:02:47] Linda Fagan:
Gonna try and not use too many, so SAR, which I used, is Search and Rescue, obviously if you find yourself in trouble at sea, we will find you.
[00:02:55] Adam Grant:
Well, I, for one hope to never need those services, but I'm grateful that you provide them.
[00:03:00] Linda Fagan:
[00:03:01] Adam Grant:
I want to talk about your vision for change and where you're at as a leader, but I feel like we should start at the beginning for you. How did you get into this line of work? Why did you join the military, personally?
[00:03:10] Linda Fagan:
I'm a New Englander. Don't let the lack of Bostonian accent fool you. But I grew up just west of Boston. Uh, my parents were Midwesterners, and we moved into the Boston area. The deal was that my dad got to get a boat, and so I spent my summers on the water in New England, and you can’t be on the water in New England and not see and notice the United States Coast Guard.
And I didn't wanna do the same thing my dad was doing. He was in HR for a big company. Like, he puts a suit on every day. It just looked boring. So I was determined to find something different. And I'm old enough that you found a little postcard in the guidance counselor's office that had a prepaid postage and you mailed it off, and I got a catalog to the Coast Guard Academy, and the mission, the work spoke to me.
I was so confident I was going to the Coast Guard Academy that I only applied to two schools, which with hindsight probably was not the, the smartest thing, but I did. It worked. What I didn't know as an 18-year-old was that I found a profession, a calling, a sense of community, and belonging in a way that not everyone is fortunate enough to find in life. I found it early and I've just really been drawn to the mission and stayed for the workforce. Stayed for the incredible people.
[00:04:26] Adam Grant:
Well, you signed up for something not boring.
[00:04:28] Linda Fagan:
[00:04:29] Adam Grant:
And from what I understand of your first assignment, it very much lived up to that goal. I heard that you were out at the North and South Pole trying to create waterways. What was that like?
[00:04:39] Linda Fagan:
Yeah, so my first assignment was on the Coast Guard cutter Polar Star. The Polar Star is our nation's only heavy icebreaker, and it was built in the mid-seventies. I was on it in the mid-eighties. Icebreaking is a very demanding, challenging, it's just hard on a ship. Typically as a uh, ship captain, you do not wanna hit things. You get in trouble if you hit things.
Not in an icebreaker world, you actually get paid to hit the ice and break it. In fact, Polar Star's on her way back from Antarctica right now, she'll be home sooner in a few days, and the mission is to break an ice channel so that you can resupply McMurdo, which is the US base in Antarctica, and bring in fuel and supplies to support not just the McMurdo base, but also the South Pole station.
There's a strategic advantage for us as a nation with that. We didn't talk about it this way in the eighties when I was on there, but we should remember we are an Arctic nation, and operating in the Arctic and the high latitudes, particularly off of Alaska, is about national security, sovereignty, and protecting our own exclusive economic zones and creating non-water presence in areas of the world that are very difficult to operate in is a big part of what, uh, what we do for the nation.
[00:05:50] Adam Grant:
How did that, that experience shape who you became as a leader?
[00:05:53] Linda Fagan:
I had not appreciated how early in the journey the organization was with regard to integrating women into the force, and so when I started the Coast Guard Academy, we had only graduated women the year before that. Four years later, I graduated and report to my ship and I was the only woman to serve in that crew for the two years that I was on there.
We're seagoing service and having time to serve on a ship helps provide foundation for leadership and professional growth. And leadership is a journey, right? You can't skip steps. You've gotta show up and commit to the work every day, even in when, you know, sometimes that's really hard. All of that opportunity was provided to me in that first tour.
If you'd asked me then where might you end up, I would certainly not have predicted here. But anyway, something seems to have gone right over the course of the 40 or so years.
[00:06:42] Adam Grant:
You could say that. I mean, that's an unusual experience of, of being a token, I would say, as Rosabeth Moss Kanter called it. One of my mentors, Richard Hackman, had studied the introduction of women into professional orchestras and found that it wasn't until about 40% of an orchestra was female that finally member satisfaction and also quality of music started to get to where you would hope. And that being in the severe minority was just overwhelmingly difficult for, for women in those situations. I can only imagine yours was so much harder as the only woman, and also in a military setting that was very traditionally masculine. How did you deal with that?
[00:07:20] Linda Fagan:
For me, being in that early group, there were some women senior to me that were already in the ranks, but I couldn't look up into an organization and see flag officers that were women. For me, it was about am I adding value. How do I continue to grow and contribute to the great work that we're doing?
And then through time and along the way, all of a sudden more women begin to join the service and I began to then be able to enjoy some of that same sense of comradery and community that comes with diverse work teams. The experience I had at the academy in the eighties is not the experience that women are having now at the academy or in the service.
My daughter is currently serving as a lieutenant. She's an academy graduate. Her class was 40% women. We currently have about 45% women at the Coast Guard Academy. To your point, right, it is a very, very different cadet experience. You know, when the Coast Guard integrated women into the service, we intentionally did not restrict where women could serve. We've allowed women, uh, to serve at sea, uh, fly their aviators. Truly every level of the organization. We did not create any barriers to women serving. And I think that has been super helpful to now where we are as a service. ‘Cause we are starting to draw the talent and now we need to keep it and make it easy for people to see themselves serving.
[00:08:41] Adam Grant:
So I'm curious about the defining moments that got you from there to here. I'm sure there are many, but when you think about what shaped you as a leader, where do you go?
[00:08:52] Linda Fagan:
So I do go to the Polar Star. It was absolutely just critical and foundational to where I am now. Mostly it has been this just sort of persistent endeavor and commitment to the work, to showing up, to bringing your best self and even, you know, on days when you're not necessarily feeling it.
I was a more senior officer, so as a captain or an 06, and had the opportunity to come into the staff around the Office of the Common, of course, you know, the office that I'm now in and leading, and that was really foundational in that it, it broadened perspective beyond not just the operational communities and identities in the Coast Guard, but where and how the Coast Guard postures itself with regard to the other military services.
At the time, we were engaging with DOD much more extensively than we had been previously. I can't imagine where we would be had we not been pivoting in that direction. And so, understanding that none of us operate in a vacuum, I don’t come to work in a vacuum.
[00:09:57] Adam Grant:
So this reminds me of the few years I spent on the Defense Innovation Board, and one of the big takeaways for me from all the different base visits we did and the leaders and, and also junior officers that we met, was that there are some significant barriers to change across the military.
Okay, I might have ruffled a few feathers when I said that I thought that DOD culture was a threat to national security. Which, you know, was maybe a strong way to put it, but when I looked at the lack of psychological safety in a lot of hierarchies, the difficulty of speaking up with ideas and suggestions and problems and concerns as a very junior person, the tendency for people to say, “But that's not the way we've always done it,” and that's not what my experience has shown. That does leave me a little bit concerned, and I know it's a big priority for you to challenge some of those cultural relics. So, where have you been heading with that?
[00:10:52] Linda Fagan:
So, right. Tomorrow looks different. So will we. The biggest red flag that I have as we're talking about some of the change that we're working towards is when someone says, “Oh, we've always done it that way.” That is code for is, “There is a cultural norm or assumption that has been so deeply inculcated into the organization that we're no longer willing to question it.”And the world that we are operating in, the workforce that we are hiring and training has different assumptions and different expectations, and we must remain responsive to that.
My primary focus, you know, in real estate, right? Location, location, location. Well, right now it is people, people, people. It won't matter if we don't hire and retain the people talent, the human capital, uh, that we need as an organization. And this is not unique to the Coast Guard. All employers are facing this, and so creating the environment where people see themselves serving, they wanna serve, and they find it easy to stay because we've changed rigidity and assumptions around, “Well, you have to move every two to three years. Oh, you have to start at the bottom and work your way up at a fixed pace. You can't stay in that job for 10 years and do the job.”
Like all of those are things that we traditionally, in fact, have not allowed people to do, and we are in the process of putting policies in place that'll allow increased flexibility and fluidity around work and what it means to serve. I'd like to see us get to a point where it is almost a revolving door between being in a uniform on active duty, going out into industry and gaining insights and skills, and then coming right back into active duty or as a reservist, but may just increase the fluidity and the view that we take on talent successfully looks like a lifelong affiliation and need not look like the rigidity that's in the system right now.
Having said that, there is cultural change that will need to come with it that will continue to challenge us and, uh, I know where I want to go. I have a great senior team around me. The junior workforce, their view on this is you can't bring it big enough, fast enough. Getting past the frozen middle, that’s in place right now. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the change or the changed assumptions. The status quo is the risk position. If we don't move beyond the status quo, we will become, uh, irrelevant as an organization. It really becomes existential, the kind of, sort of generational and transformational change that we've got an opportunity to do.
[00:13:37] Adam Grant:
It’s so powerful to hear you say that, and I'm gonna be quoting you now because I'm constantly working with leaders to recognize that yes, change carries risk, but not changing in many ways is a bigger risk.
[00:13:48] Linda Fagan:
We're changing how we train people, and to get past some of the culture bias, we’re gonna pilot that, right? So that's code for, “Hey, we're gonna move out, but we didn't make this big wholesale change, and let's try it.”
[00:14:00] Adam Grant:
I, I really like the framing of a pilot. It's very similar to, I guess, the time I spend trying to get leaders to think a little bit more like scientists and say, you know, “I'm not asking you to commit to a dramatic change. What I want you to do is to run an experiment, do the A/B test, learn from it.” And in some cases, you may learn that you were right and I was wrong. But if you're not willing to pilot, we'll never know.
[00:14:21] Linda Fagan:
[00:14:22] Adam Grant:
Now, you mentioned the frozen middle. This reminds me of some research by my colleague Damon Phillips, about what's been called middle-status conformity. And exactly as you've observed, the evidence is, has been clear over decades that middle managers tend to resist change more significantly than junior people or senior leaders, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that as a manager, I have relatively little to gain from change in my eyes, but I have a lot to lose, and I've worked really hard to get where I am.
And I think in some cases the goal is to get managers to change in other cases. What we try to do is we create lines of communication that skip levels, right? So now I can reach out all the way to you as opposed to being blocked by my manager. I know you're doing both, but what's your relative prioritization of getting managers to change versus allowing junior people to reach leaders directly?
[00:15:10] Linda Fagan:
So we are doing both. That's why, you know, I do a fair amount of travel with my senior enlisted advisor and master chief petty officer Coast Guard. Going right through the front lines of meeting with folks who are operating the Coast Guard every day and getting frank feedback from them.
Invariably, this happened last week. Somebody stood up to ask a question, and it was around personnel assignment issue, and what they had happened to 'em was completely inconsistent with my intent. What we're finding with that frozen middle, you know, you talk about it from a conformity standpoint, there's also a sense of, “Hey, this is a rite of passage. This hardness, this thing, this inefficiency that we're forcing you through? This is sort of one of the conditions for you now moving forward, ‘cause we know if you sort of can do it, you've got the stuff, so to speak. Right? You've got the grit that we're gonna look for on the other side of it.”
I, I need to do some more thinking about how we let go of some of that and acknowledge that there are other ways forward, other ways for success, and particularly for that middle group. We'll see what my report card looks like at the other side of this. It's a four-year tenure and just about a year into it now.
[00:16:23] Adam Grant:
I wanna make sure that we get to a lightning round. Rapid fire is one of your specialties.
[00:16:27] Linda Fagan:
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
[00:16:28] Adam Grant:
So are you up for it?
[00:16:29] Linda Fagan:
I got it. I'm up for it.
[00:16:31] Adam Grant:
How do you define leadership?
[00:16:33] Linda Fagan:
I define leadership as showing up, as confidence leavened with humility and creating the environment where others can succeed and eliminating any barriers to their success.
[00:16:47] Adam Grant:
Beautiful. It's almost like you've done the lightning round your whole career. Who is a leader you admire outside the military?
[00:16:55] Linda Fagan:
Brené Brown is definitely top of my list. She's fantastic and has really helped inform some of my thinking on, on leadership.
[00:17:02] Adam Grant:
Mine as well. Hard to argue with that and for good reason. She's a recurring guest on this show. What is a book we should all read to get better at leadership?
[00:17:10] Linda Fagan:
I would go to Daring Greatly, honestly. Increasingly, my team is like, “You need to be listening to more podcasts.” I'm not a millennial, obviously, but there’s just all kinds of great information out there on, uh, leadership and thinking.
[00:17:24] Adam Grant:
You were a rower in college. What did that teach you about leadership?
[00:17:26] Linda Fagan:
It saved me from all of the sort of trials and tribulations of the four years of being at the Coast Guard Academy. ‘Cause it was an oasis from what was going on in the barracks or not going on in the barracks. And just that academic workload. I was a starboard oarsman.
In fact, they ended up re-rigging the boat so that I could row starboard stroke. And what I learned from that experience is first, and I mentioned it earlier, you have to show up. If you don't show up, the boat doesn't go out. I mean, your teammates are quite literally depending on you, and at 4:30 in the morning on a cold, rainy morning, when you really don't wanna go out there, it, it's not an option not to show up.
The success comes with persistence. You need to commit enthusiastically to that work. In rowing, you quite literally have to pull your own weight. You're pulling both your weight and the weight of the boat. And when you put in that work and effort, it becomes effortless. The boat moves in a way that each of you as individuals could not even begin to hope. And it literally just flies across the water. I miss that. I wish there was opportunity or time, frankly, to continue to row.
[00:18:38] Adam Grant:
We’ll, we’ll put it on your list for your next career. Stay tuned.
[00:18:41] Linda Fagan:
[00:18:42] Adam Grant:
What is the worst leadership advice you've ever gotten?
[00:18:43] Linda Fagan:
The worst leadership advice I ever got was early on in my career as I came off of the ship I was on, and I wanted to go to the marine safety office to become a ship inspector for safety, security, environmental compliance.
Everyone on that ship, all the officers said, “Don't do it. It'll end your career. You won't get promoted.” I followed my passion. It seems to have worked out for me. So, anytime somebody sort of advises you to do something that's not consistent with where your heart is, your passion is, that's, that's just bad leadership advice.
[00:19:17] Adam Grant:
Do you have a favorite military movie?
[00:19:19] Linda Fagan:
There aren't that many great Coast Guard military movies. They just haven't been made. So it's kind of a toss-up between The Guardian and The Finest Hour for me. But Ashton Kutcher's in The Guardian; the Finest Hour is a big ship disaster in the middle of a blizzard off of the Cape, and they're both just great compelling stories about the incredible work that we do as a workforce.
[00:19:39] Adam Grant:
What have you learned from seeing your daughter join the Coast Guard?
[00:19:41] Linda Fagan:
You know, when you get into this level of leadership, the people around you don't tend to like to tell you bad news. So it is good having a millennial daughter in ‘cause she does not hesitate. She's like, “Listen Linda, this is not what you need to be doing.”
But it has been incredible to watch the experience. She joined a different Coast Guard than the one I joined. Her current supervisor and leadership team, several women down there in senior roles, just doing incredibly great things. Those people weren't in place when I joined. I see how excited she is, the opportunity that she is able to take advantage of and she, now she gets to look at a Coast Guard where from her mom, the Commandant, all the way down through the youngest recruit that we graduated on a Friday from Cape May.
[00:20:24] Adam Grant:
Did I hear you correctly that your daughter calls you by your first name?
[00:20:28] Linda Fagan:
She's a millennial, so when she gets a little unhappy with me, yeah, she'll say, “Linda, that? You need to knock that.” And then sometimes it's followed by mother. No. Mostly she calls me mom, but occasionally I can tell I've, I'm like getting myself out of bounds when, when she trots out the first name and calls me on something.
[00:20:45] Adam Grant:
I like it. That definitely goes both ways. It's from parent to child as well as child to parent.
[00:20:50] Linda Fagan:
It does. Yes.
[00:20:51] Adam Grant:
So I know that when you reach the top of an organization, it's common for you to look at leadership differently than when you've been both managing up and managing down. Is there something about leadership that you've rethought since becoming Commandant?
[00:21:06] Linda Fagan:
I knew coming in that creating a network of sensors was gonna be important ‘cause I could feel as I came into the job, literally into the corner office, you can sort of feel the shields get put up around you. And as you start to get more and more insulated and isolated from the messy bits of the organization.
And so I have had to become much more intentional and deliberate on where and how I try and sort of break through that insulation for myself. It's not easy ‘cause the team, they like to give you a nice package with a bow on it. There could be literally a dumpster fire underneath it, but they won't tell you about it. And so, creating opportunity for bad news to come up as quickly as good news and that it doesn't have to be, it doesn't have to be a hundred percent solution.
[00:21:57] Adam Grant:
What do you look for when you promote leaders?
[00:21:58] Linda Fagan:
It's a panel process. We do fitness reports, evaluations on people annually. And then we look for adherence to core values, honor, respect, devotion to duty, and so that becomes foundational to every leader that we promote.
If you are not abiding by and adhering to those core values, you, you're removed outta the service fairly quickly. Frankly, you know, the, the litmus test for me is, “Os this a person that I want my daughter to work for?” Right. It's like it doesn't get much more complicated than that. And if this isn't a person who's kind of empathetic and supportive in, you know, providing the kind of leadership and creating the kind of culture that I want my daughter in, then we, we need to address that.
[00:22:42] Adam Grant:
That, I think that's a question we should all be asking, whether we're promoting a leader or choosing a leader to work for.
[00:22:47] Linda Fagan:
[00:22:48] Adam Grant:
Would I want my child to work for this person?
[00:22:50] Linda Fagan:
We’ve just implemented a 360-degree review. We're required to do it at the flag officer level. We're moving that down into the senior, you know, the captain and 06 ranks of those that are commanding our major units to begin to create exactly that feedback loop. It's anonymous, but your subordinates get asked to, to provide information on how you are actually doing as a leader for them as a subordinate.
[00:23:14] Adam Grant:
So important given the tendency for people who fall into the taker rather than giver categories, as I've studied it, who are very good at kissing up, and also have the habit of kicking down.
[00:23:24] Linda Fagan:
The number of times I'll have a reaction to somebody who is working below me, then talk to people working for them. You're like, “Wow, that is not how that person presents themselves.” Like the ship I was on, had that CO, had some of those unattractive tendencies. You’re at the, literally at the bottom of the world. It is a very difficult thing for you, that as a subordinate to have any recourse in, which just means it becomes that much more critical to have those feedback loops.
[00:23:46] Adam Grant:
Well, I also love the fact that when you talked about what you promote on, you put values above skills. I see so many organizations do the opposite, where they look at competencies first and then principles are secondary. It goes without saying that we need to reverse that. But it needs to be said because so many people don't do it.
[00:24:03] Linda Fagan:
Yeah. If you don't have the principles, the values, the integrity in play, none of the rest of it matters ‘cause at some point that leader will lose their way in a way that creates a risk and creates reputational risk for the organization in a way that's not helpful.
[00:24:17] Adam Grant:
Yeah. So I'm gonna give you a chance to turn the tables for a second here. I, I noticed, I don't know, a few months into this that I was doing all the question asking and I wasn't giving my guests the space for that. So, over to you. Is there a question you wanna ask me as an organizational psychologist?
[00:24:33] Linda Fagan:
I know you focus on organizations, but organizations are just conglomerates of people, and the question that I get asked is around mental health and resiliency. And so my question for you is, with the current generation as we reconstitute, post-COVID, what are some things I should be thinking about, we should be thinking about to improve individual resiliency in a way that increases organizational resiliency, particularly around mental health?
[00:24:59] Adam Grant:
That's such an important and timely question, and I do not necessarily have an easy answer to it. I think starting the conversation is a valuable step in and of itself, right? I think that too many of the mental health challenges that people have faced historically from a career standpoint were not acceptable to talk about at work, and so, just giving people the psychological safety to admit that they might be depressed or anxious or burned out or languishing, that's a huge step in the right direction.
Beyond that, I think that the role modeling you do as a leader is vital. I've been really taken, you know, over the past year, especially with leaders who have announced to their whole organizations, “I'm taking a mental health week.” Or, “I’m taking a recharge month.” And I think what that does is that, you know, not only states, but also symbolizes behaviorally that mental health is a priority and we should be taking it every bit as seriously as we do our physical health. And so I guess this starts at the top. It's obviously something that you have to really deal with in a, a delicate way because you can't afford to take a month off, right? As the commandant of the Coast Guard, I don't think.
[00:26:05] Linda Fagan:
[00:26:06] Adam Grant:
But I think that your behavior of prioritizing your mental health gives other people the permission to do that. So I guess the question back to you would be, you know, given the demands and constraints of your job, how do you think about doing that?
[00:26:15] Linda Fagan:
Just as you suggested, right, beginning to normalize discussion around it, that there is no stigma with talking about mental health and ensuring that we're investing in the resourcing and capacity so that as people have the courage to say, “Hey, I'm struggling. I need help,” that we've got the right tools and resources available to people. The fascinating thing is generationally, this generation's really willing and open to talk to mental health in a way that, like my, my gen, I joke, right? My generation, somebody says, “How you doing?” And I go, “I'm fine.” Right? Discussion over.
And so when creating that culture for myself personally, you know, it becomes a energy balance, demand an everyday day that can look and feel a little different. I commit to regular exercise as a really key tool for me to stay kind of balanced. And then there are times, you know, I just had a recent trip where they had me programmed from like 8 in the morning until 10 at night.
And I'm like, “Yeah, that's not gonna work.” And so there were, there were opportunities in the day to sort of dip out for two hours and go and work out and take a walk and then come back in, refresh. And so I've had to rethink ‘cause I can't take a month off. Sometimes I'm lucky to get a weekend. So thinking differently about how those little micro resets, they've been really powerful sort of way to, to refresh for me in the just sort of the grind and demands day to day.
[00:27:41] Adam Grant:
And I think, I think it also matters that you're broadcasting that, right? You're speaking to the entire military and saying, “Look, this is a priority for me. It ought to be a priority for you too.”
[00:27:51] Linda Fagan:
[00:27:51] Adam Grant:
I’d love to hear what's been your toughest leadership moment.
[00:27:56] Linda Fagan:
It's always around people and having to address a failure is in the core values realm, it actually fairly easy to handle. I think it's somewhat black and white. You know, “You just have not demonstrated the integrity that we expect of you as an organization.”
Where those failures come in the professional realm where somebody just sort of sub-performs, those are the most difficult. And as a 06 commander, I was a captain of the Port of New York, and I, I had an, uh, 04 midgrade officer working for me in a really frontline job interacting with all the interagencies, and we're about eight months in and I'm like, “Well, where is this guy?”
Like, I didn't, I saw his predecessor all the time. I didn't see him. And so the, the reason I consider it a failure, a leadership failure on my part is I failed to realize I didn't have enough sensors around me to know that he was in trouble professionally. So there was an 05 between us who I thought had the leadership to identify and self-correct. It did not.
And so by the time the issue was identified, there was too much water on the bridge. There was a loss of trust. And confidence on the part of the interagency partners. But that example has stuck with me. So I'm constantly sort of asking, do I, do I have the right sensors? Am I aware enough of what is going on around me?
One, to, to celebrate the successes of what people are contributing, but more importantly, to identify where those failures may be beginning and early enough that you can correct him. ‘Cause I do think this officer, with the right guidance and coaching earlier, might have been sort of saveable, if you will, because people, and I said this before, people come to work wanting to do their best.
[00:29:45] Adam Grant:
Especially in the face of failure, it's easy to doubt yourself and wonder, do I belong in this role? Do I belong in this room?
[00:29:51] Linda Fagan:
[00:29:52] Adam Grant:
What do you say to yourself and others in those moments?
[00:29:54] Linda Fagan:
When there’s a failure, like the first question I ask myself is: how might I have contributed to this as a leader? Was there a lack of clarity on expectations, direction, intent?
I have grown more confident that, yeah, it probably wasn't me as a primary contributor, but that doesn't mean that there isn't policy and inefficiency in place that creates that. This just, you know, really boils down to self-awareness too, right? There's a healthy dose of self-awareness that goes with leading at this level and introspection.
I talk about the, one of the paradoxes in leadership. It's not about you. It's all about you. If you've not done the sort of self-assessment, self-care, self-leadership, then you're doing a disservice to your team. They'll see through it.
[00:30:46] Adam Grant:
You said recently that when people ask themselves, “Do I belong here?” They'd be better off asking, “Can I make a difference here?”
[00:30:55] Linda Fagan:
Yeah. And so that is the environment that we are creating here in the Coast Guard is so that people can make a difference. I'm committed to making a difference in the organization, and my ask of the team is that I don't say, “Hey, have you read my strategy? Have you done this? Have you done that?” I'm like, “Find something you're passionate about and help us make a difference.” It's our Coast Guard, it's our organization. When I was junior, I think, you know, it was they, them, those guys, and that ill-informed policy. I'm like, “There is no they or them, it's us.”
[00:31:24] Adam Grant:
Well, for anybody who's listening today who wants to make a difference in their workplace or as a leader, what would your closing advice be?
[00:31:33] Linda Fagan:
Show up. Be prepared. You have been given the opportunity to be in the room. Whatever that room is for you in your workplace, you were there for a reason. If you don't show up, you can't make a difference.
[00:31:44] Adam Grant:
Well, Admiral, thank you so much for taking the time to chat today. I'm incredibly grateful for your service and for the service of the many, many people who are touched by your leadership and just really grateful that we have your vision and your openness to change steering our Coast Guard.
[00:31:59] Linda Fagan:
Thanks, Adam. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk with you.
[00:32:03] Adam Grant:
In those moments when we're doubting ourselves, Admiral Fagan made it clear that we ask ourselves the wrong question. It's not, “Do I belong here?” It's, “Can I make a difference here?” And I can't think of a better way to make a difference than proposing a pilot. Change is scary. It's huge, it's overwhelming, it's uncertain. A pilot, a small experiment. That's something I can try right away.
ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington-Rodgers. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Our fact-checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.
Does it also bother you that it's pronounced Common-daunt and not Command-ent?
[00:33:02] Linda Fagan:
No. So it's funny, commandant is just, it's been a term forever in the organization. No, but I, there are other better titles out there. The, so the head of the UK Royal Navy is the First Sea Lord. How cool is that? That's a much more impressive-sounding title than Commandant.
[00:33:19] Adam Grant:
Oh, I think you might have to get dual citizenship right there.
[00:33:22] Linda Fagan:
Yeah. It's time to upgrade the title.