| Feb 25, 2021

3 Leadership Lessons from a Navy Commander

Three primary lessons about leadership learned from the U.S. Navy: Leadership is the most critical skill of the twenty-first century, leadership is influence, and leadership is a learnable skill.
navy ship equipment

“Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.” —John C. Maxwell


When I was seventeen years old, I resolved to develop my leadership skills. I intuitively knew that, irrespective of one’s position or profession, everyone needed to be skilled in three areas to be competitive in the upcoming twenty-first century: leadership, technology, and business. These are essentials to anyone who wants to thrive and succeed in the twenty-first century, regardless of industry. At the turn of the twenty-first century, I was already developing my technology and business skills.

After September 11, 2001, I saw an opportunity to enlist in the U.S. Navy as a Seaman Recruit — a junior-enlisted rank — partly to develop my leadership skills. I quickly realized that leadership is to the U.S. Navy what location is to real estate. Sixteen years after my enlistment, I was selected to promote to the senior officer rank of Commander. I mostly credit this phenomenal success to the leadership lessons I learned while serving in uniform.

As I’ve written about before, lessons come in all forms. But today, I hope to share three of the most important leadership lessons I have learned in the past 17 years in the U.S. Navy: a world-class leadership organization where failure in leadership may cause loss of money or reputation, but also loss of lives. Leadership is the most critical skill for anyone to have — and it is a learnable skill.


1. The Most Critical Skill for the Twenty-First Century

Without fear of contradiction, I can say that the twenty-first century will be known as the century of change. Currently, knowledge is expanding at an exponential rate. Many industries have already been disrupted. Advanced technology and innovation are increasing rapidly. Automation and robotics are rapidly replacing all low skills jobs.

Even natural disasters and global pandemics seem to occur at a faster rate and higher intensity. The only thing that appears to be constant is that change is inevitable. For example, we have never lived and worked in an environment where three to five generations co-exist in the same space.

Today, it is not unusual to see employees from generation Z all the way up to the Builder’s generation (which includes generation Y or millennials, generation X, and Baby Boomers) in a single workspace. Not only is there a diversity of perspectives, experiences, and worldviews because of multi-generational interactions, but there is also a significant increase of women and ethnic minorities in the workplace. The leadership skills that used to work just fine in the twentieth century (when the American workforce was predominantly male, white, and within a generation or two from each other) may not work at all in the twenty-first century. In the twenty-first century, the American workforce is a lot more diverse in terms of generation, gender, culture, and ethnicity.

In such a dynamic environment, leadership is the most critical skill. The world will always need leaders to lead others, deploy the next disruptive technology, or execute a business strategy.


2. Leadership is Influence

Leadership can be described in many ways. The aforementioned John C. Maxwell quotes really brings it in here. Leadership is all about influencing other people to achieve a common goal. Leadership does not require a position or a title. Positional leadership is the lowest level of leadership. For example, people will follow a positional leader simply because they need a paycheck.

Leadership is about influencing others so that they feel like they want to contribute voluntarily and not forcibly. Respect as a leader must be earned. It cannot be demanded. Although the mission of the organization comes first, a good leader always takes care of his or her people, who in turn take care of the mission. A leader is different from a boss. A boss is served by his or her people, whereas a leader is the servant of the people. A boss is a taskmaster pushing the people from behind, whereas a leader is a role model, always leading from the front.  

My primary Navy mentor once told me that there were three kinds of people in this world:

  • Those who make things happen.
  • Those who are aware of what’s happening around them.
  • Those who wonder what the heck happened.

His advice was for me to at least be among those who are aware of their surroundings and eventually develop into a leader who makes things happen. This is only possible through influencing people within organizations. The synergy created between individuals working together to accomplish a common goal is much greater than the sum of each individual’s separate output.

The best illustration I have ever read about leadership is by Steven Pressfield in his book Gates of Fire, where he penned the words:

A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A king does not dine while his men go hungry, nor sleep when they stand at watch upon the wall. A king does not command his men’s loyalty through fear nor purchase it with gold; he earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last. A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them…A king does not expend his substance to enslave men, but by his conduct and example makes them free.


3. Leadership is a Learnable Skill

Finally, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned from the U.S. Navy about leadership is that leadership is a learnable skill. Someone once asked me, “Are leaders born or made?” To a Sailor, the answer will always be everyone is born, but leaders are made.

Imagine being a rebellious teenager and being sent to Bootcamp. The first thing the Navy will do is to cut off your precious hair. You will get a uniform, join a division of complete strangers, who will eventually become brothers/sisters in arms. You will be deprived of sleep, walk for miles without end in sight, be cut off from society, and experience what only every Sailor before you has ever experienced. During Bootcamp, every boy and girl is broken down. But, by the end of Bootcamp, boys and girls are put back together and turned into men and women Sailors.

This is the start of your leadership journey, where you will learn to develop the three Cs of leadership: your character, competence, and connections. One does not need to join the U.S. Armed Forces to become a leader. The fact remains, anyone can learn to improve one’s leadership skills. Improving one’s leadership skills is one of the few investments with unlimited returns. It takes about 10,000 hours, approximately five years, for anyone to become an expert in any field. Everyone who is an expert today started as an amateur. Five years from now, you will be five years older. You may as well resolve today to become a better leader in five years. Resolve to invest your time, energy, money, and intelligence to study leadership principles and improve your leadership skills. Amid all the chaos, disruption, and change of the twenty-first century, there will always be room for a twenty-first-century leader.

It seems like leadership is a topic that cannot be exhausted. My primary leadership mentor has already written more than seventy books on the subject and only has scratched the surface. Leadership is a continuous journey without an end in sight. Like Socrates, the more I know, the more I realize I do not know. The three most important leadership lessons I have learned in the past seventeen years in the U.S. Navy are:

  • Leadership is the most critical skill
  • Leadership is influence
  • Leadership is a learnable skill.

Whatever you do, irrespective of your position, title, or industry, resolve today to develop and improve your leadership skills.

Bob Fabien Zinga

Head of Information Security, Directly

Head of Information Security at Directly, leading and managing a cross-functional annually audited Information Security Program and Information Warfare Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve. view profile


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