Vice Admiral Robert Parker, U.S. Coast Guard, leads Flex MBA Conversation on Leadership

U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Walter Shinn

U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Walter Shinn

Our Flex (part-time, evening) MBA students know that leadership is a highly desirable but complex and often elusive concept.  We’re all for it, we know it when you see it, but how do we proactively define and practice it?  How does the lofty become the everyday – every day?

So we called in an expert for our twice yearly Speaker Series on February 12, in this case Vice Admiral Robert Parker, U.S. Coast Guard, Commander of an area defined west to east by the Rocky Mountains and the Arabian Gulf and north to south by Canada and the Caribbean.  His responsibilities have included overseeing Guantanamo Bay and the recent Haiti earthquake relief efforts.  Admiral Parker knows leadership and here’s how he defines it:  “Getting people to do things they ordinarily couldn’t do on their own, based on vision, communication and goals.”  His definition clearly applies just as well to civilians as it does to service members.

Admiral Parker’s emphasis is definitively on inspiration and empowerment.  Parker’s style relies on “collaboration and cooperation over command and control.”

And everything the Admiral espouses begins with the self.  His top piece of leadership advice is, “Your attitude determines your altitude.”  Holding yourself accountable, doing the right thing, exhibiting moral courage, being optimistic, truthful and transparent:  The good news is these are all within our control.  The bad news is we must walk the walk – no excuses.  One must be able to lead oneself before one can lead others, and this is often the most difficult challenge.

Mastering yourself is necessary, but not sufficient, for leadership.  Leaders must set vision and ensure their teams are provided proper tools, training and support to achieve the mission.  Parker reminds us that “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  As Admiral Parker says, “If you take care of your people, they’ll take care of the mission.”  Parker is very clear when setting expectations as well, and he looks for 100% effort, accountability and enthusiasm from his people every day.  He tells those in his chain of command, “If you’re not doing what you love, you had better start loving what you do.”

Admiral Parker also cautions that the higher you advance in your career, the less ability you have to directly affect people.  You must use proxies, and this requires trust.  You must trust those who carry your message to others.  And they must trust you.

But that’s still not all.  Successful leaders push limits and take risks.  Parker means it when he says, “If you aren’t making mistakes along the way, you’re not trying hard enough.”  What should guide risk-taking decisions?  Parker says, “Make sure your decision is ethically driven and defensible.  Ask yourself, ‘Is this the right thing to do?’”

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Amy Blackburn

Amy Blackburn M.Ed. '12 is an Associate Director of the Mason School of Business' Flex MBA program.

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