Earlier this week at the United States Coast Guard Academy, hundreds of cadets funneled from the bitter January cold into Leamy Hall to hear a personal address from Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp.
The Commandant delivers an annual leadership address to the entire Corps of Cadets at the beginning of each spring semester. This year, as the cadets settled into their seats, Adm. Papp made his way to the stage and informed them that tonight would be a little bit different.
“This year, I don’t have a formal speech prepared for you,” said Adm. Papp. “I thought tonight, rather than talking about lofty ideas and theoretical leadership, I’d talk about some practical matters to consider. I’m going to be very personal and candid tonight with you and hopefully at the end of it, you’ll have gained something from it.”
Adm. Papp proceeded to take the cadets on a virtual journey through his career, focusing on his experiences commanding the Coast Guard cutters Red Beech, Papaw, Forward and Eagle, and several important lessons he learned along the way.
Above all, Adm. Papp stressed the importance of utilizing the expertise and proficiency of the Chief’s Mess.
“If you remember nothing else tonight, remember to use the Chief’s Mess,” said Adm. Papp. “That’s a good start for all of you.”
Accompanying Adm. Papp’s words, was a projected slide highlighting some additional key points: Autonomy is a good thing; arrogance is a bad thing. Arrogance leads to selective obedience; selective obedience leads to selective disobedience.
Adm. Papp commented on several of the Coast Guard’s mishaps and incidents in recent years, some which resulted in tragic losses of life. The fact was stressed that often these mishaps are the result of small indiscretions that create a climate of selective disobedience.
“For the success of our service and the success of our Coast Guard, there are thousands of leadership decisions made on a daily basis; by third class petty officers, by chief petty officers, by lieutenants-junior grade, by ensigns,” said Adm. Papp. “Any one of those people can make a mistake. Any one of those people can cause an error chain that results in a mishap for one of our people, or perhaps some embarrassing situation that causes us to lose prestige as the world’s best coast guard.”
Adm. Papp related it back to the cadets and their future role as leaders in the fleet.
“Leadership isn’t natural for all of us,” said Adm. Papp. “Leadership at its most basic definition is accomplishing tasks through other people. Some people do it very well. Some people do it very poorly. We want you to get the job done well, and to inspire people and make them happy about what they’re doing.”
Adm. Papp urged the cadets to use their time at the Academy to learn everything that they can about leadership and to practice it, exercise it and learn from their mistakes.
“To gain the highest levels of accomplishment you can as leaders – that’s what we want from all of you,” said Adm. Papp. “Many of you will do it. But it doesn’t come naturally, and it doesn’t come automatically when you put on that gold bar. You have to have some idea of what it’s all about before you get there.”
The cadets appreciated Adm. Papp’s candor and realize the importance of utilizing the Academy as a training ground for leadership.
“It’s nice hearing that everyone’s human and that everyone makes mistakes, but that they learn from them,” said Cadet 2nd Class Zachary Kearney. “We all make mistakes at the Academy, but that’s what the Academy is for.”
As Adm. Papp’s tenure as Commandant draws to a close in the coming months, this will be the last time many cadets will hear him speak as Commandant of the Coast Guard. At the end of his address he was presented a Corps of Cadets flag, signed by each cadet.
Adm. Papp expressed his gratitude and left the Corps that night with several practical principles and important lessons to take away and incorporate into their personal leadership development.
“You are joining a great organization,” said Adm. Papp, “and I am very proud of all of you and of all my Coasties.”