Lessons from the Navy

By CDR Jarrod H. Smith

In my twenty years of leadership experience in the US Navy, I have seen multiple leaders miss one critical step as they try to pass on good leadership principles: first, know yourself, then know others. I missed it for most of my officer career, too. I recently reviewed a book on Navy leadership that I believe also misses this critical step. This article focuses on this item and is my attempt to fill a major gap in leadership lessons the navy teaches us. My goal is to better equip the next generation of leaders, in military service or otherwise, in today’s information-saturated world.

The astute reader may recognize early that letting people get to know us, too, is just as important, but it is not a given in our current culture. The busy, young professional will likely not pick up on subtle prompts from their leaders, because the direction to “get to know yourself” typically, in my experience, is not explicitly given. Herein I close that gap and encourage the reader to get to know themselves before trying to truly lead in the military, or anywhere else.


Being open and letting others get to know us, both personally and professionally, must be explicitly stated for the aspiring leader. In communicating, we seek to influence behavior and affect change. Clear writing, however, tells the reader exactly what it is they are trying to convey. It can make assumptions that the reader knows some things (excluding those thoughts), while believing the aspiring leader does not know other things (including new approaches) to bridge those knowledge gaps.

Assumptions that an aspiring leader already knows themselves very well is a dangerous expectation, especially given the military leadership training and development pipeline curriculums. Knowing oneself happens through a combination of self-study, honest feedback from others, and a reflective review of life experiences. Our identities are remade into our rank and weapons platform affiliations early in military service, and some of us never overcome that, even in life far beyond it. This is the Achilles heel in our leadership development – not learning about and knowing who we really are underneath the rank and beyond the tank, ship, or plane (or space capsule!). True character, who we truly are, shows our leadership readiness, or lack thereof, when under stress or duress. If we are not ready for it, the chance of failure is high, and the opportunity to learn from it, great!

Who am I?

Behaviors are linked to who we are as individuals and the environments we allow to form around us. Emotion – energy in motion – results in a behavior. Knowing who we are is foundational to controlling our emotions, and through them, our behaviors. It is through our behaviors that others decide how much, or little, they are willing to do for the leader and the organization. A leader’s interactions with their staff will significantly influence the staff’s behavior.

Really get to know yourself and the behaviors that result from who you are and the environments you have allowed to form around you. Only once a person takes action to solicit feedback do they truly begin to figure out who it is they are at their very core. Unfortunately, only a select few ever do so, and who from day one knows who they are and what they desire to get from their dash through this world, and more importantly what they want to give and leave behind. Those winners run hard and never look back. If able to confidently answer the question of “What is my ‘I am’ statement?” outside of any title (job, husband, daughter, mother, son, etc.), only then is the reader equipped to navigate leadership books and spend precious minutes taking solid lessons from any leader’s time in military service or elsewhere.

Who are you? 

That is not the typical question we exchange when first meeting a stranger, a new colleague, or a boss. “What do you do?” in the context of work or employment, is much more common. As leaders, we are constantly told to “take care of your people,” in the context of the organization. Many leaders focus on the organization and demonstrate care and compassion for staff [through behaviors], but they fall short of teaching the aspiring leader how to earn their people’s trust.

I will use a lesson from Command Leadership School as an example. An instructor advises the class: during an initial conversation with a stranger who works for us, spend twenty-five minutes getting to know them by listening from the heart and paying attention. And then spend five minutes talking about yourself. Even though this technique is touted in multiple schools and throughout the leadership discussion today, I challenge its effectiveness. I find this to be a shortcoming in lessons that advocate for its use – nobody can get to know another when they are only speaking for sixteen percent of the conversation. Peppering the other with constant questioning can become an interrogation and is insufficient in building rapport. Weaving in a discussion about ourselves as it relates to another’s life, background, experiences, goals, and desires builds necessary rapport and is the behavior around which the leader achieves likability and eventually trust.

So, once again: Who am I?

We must answer this most important of questions ourselves, outside the context of work and employment, to equip ourselves to authentically lead. The answer comes through understanding our own individual being – our health (mental, emotional, physical, moral), our status of self (information about ourselves, authority, influence, autonomy), and our wealth (time, assets, cash flow, money, liabilities, and prosperity). This is a wise approach to life that will result in phenomenal relationships! Once we truly know ourselves, we are ready to embrace our humanness – empathy, respect, and trust – and begin leading.

My point is this: Know your authentic self and then ensure your people know who you are.

A successful start to leadership begins by asking others who they are, getting to know them personally, and just as importantly, allowing them to know us. Then we can ask ourselves “Who knows me? And do they trust me?” Once we, as leaders, earn others’ trust, we can change lives, lead teams, and ultimately achieve organizational excellence.

Knowing our why, that is who we are and our purpose, is the rock upon which any leadership structure must reside. It is foundational for building effective, fruitful relationships using our what – our values, up, down, and across the organization – not only in every job but in life, during the working years, and far beyond them!

Edited by Molly Schmidt

About the Author: CDR Jarrod H. Smith participates in a C!RCU$ at home, with an awesome survive-at-home wife and home-schooling mom, four kids, and two dogs. Using Imagination, Knowledge, and Experience he encourages military families and their heroes to intentionally plan for the time of their lives far beyond military service, starting NOW: https://www.jarrodhsmith.com social media: search #IKE and #HeckYeah 

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