by LTJG Katie Braynard, April 15, 2015 – Each May, around 200 cadets raise their right hands and take the oath of office, concluding the declaration with, “…I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”
It’s what those new officers commit to the American public, in return for supporting their education and the Coast Guard’s missions. But, they don’t learn how to faithfully discharge their duties overnight, especially when tough decisions are involved. There remain infinite lessons to be learned after they have lowered their hands.
There is no denying the difficult ethical situations with which cadets will be presented as young junior officers. To build upon their developing experience, they must learn from the experience of those senior to them; those who have learned to face the odds and carry on the missions they vowed to perform and the people they promised to protect.
For nearly three decades, the Coast Guard Academy has set aside one day each year for the Ethics Forum: a chance for young cadets to learn from and interact with junior officers, experts in military professionalism, and others seasoned in difficult decision-making. The forum is made possible through generous gifts from the classes of 1948 and 1957 to the Academy Alumni Association.
As the speakers at this year’s forum began, the cadets’ intent faces did not disguise the questions hovering in their minds: How do I lead people who’ve already been in the Coast Guard for years when I’ve just received my commission? How can I own up to a mistake, and why should I? How do I keep myself from making bad decisions?
During a junior officer panel, one young officer shared her approach to leading a division of enlisted members, just months after receiving her commission from the Academy. She expressed the sentiment many in the room undoubtedly felt: you want to be respected and you want to be liked, but you know that you have to stay true to the values that are important to you and that the Coast Guard upholds.
“That’s a tough role for JO’s – how do you learn to lead?” she proposed.
Her advice? Lean on your division for advice and build trusting relationships with division members, but make sure you have clearly communicated your values. There may come a time when your values override their desires, but they are more likely to understand your position if you’ve built trusting relationships with them.
“You’re going to make mistakes, but it’s where you learn from them,” was the advice another junior officer shared, repeating the wise advice her commanding officer had given her while assigned to her first cutter.
A third officer agreed, encouraging the cadets in the audience to follow their gut instinct, citing an incident in which he failed to follow his own advice.
“It was right there that my character, my judgment, everything I had worked for, was called into question,” he recalled.
The junior officers’ advice would serve as a prelude to the insight author Michael Tougais would also share in one session.
Tougais tied together lessons he’d gathered from survivors and rescuers he’d interviewed over the years with a narrative of the HMS Bounty replica rescue during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
As the Bounty made preparations to depart New London, Connecticut, for Florida, Claudene Christian, a Bounty sailor, felt uneasy about sailing into a hurricane, as her e-mails to family later showed. But, the captain had offered for anyone on the crew not comfortable sailing to meet the ship in Florida, and the entire crew declined the offer. The Bounty ultimately sank off the North Carolina coast in the midst of Hurricane Sandy, and Claudene did not survive.
“Never ignore your intuition,” Tougais cautioned, explaining that intuition is a clue that comes from your subconscious. “We ignore our intuition at our peril.”
The Bounty had been through hurricanes before and as the captain prepared for the voyage, he felt his ship could go around Sandy, not realizing it was too wide to circumnavigate. As Tougais warned cadets, there were two very important lessons to learn from the captain’s mistakes.
First, “do not project past outcomes to a current situation,” he warned.
He encouraged the cadets to analyze even the most subtle elements of each situation, even if it is very similar to a past circumstance.
Second, “Sticking to a plan can lead to a disaster,” he said.
The plan was to sail to Florida; a hurricane was not a part of the plan. Tougais advised that it’s better to be adaptable, so you can respond to new information, instead of staying so focused on the original goal that you ignore the new information.
The perspective offered by Tougais, the junior officer panelists, and other panels and speakers throughout the day left the cadets pensive, with new context to apply to their own experiences. In turn, the forum offered the tools the future officers needed to grow themselves into professional and competent public servants.