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Leading with Character: The Power of the Pen

My last blog, “Resolve to be Worthy,” ushered in the New Year. In it, I presented an alternative to traditional New Year’s resolutions. As most of my readers know, I served for 36 years in the US Coast Guard, a branch of the armed forces. In the military, we have two levels of planning: tactical and strategic.

Looking at the Bigger Picture
To me, tactical New Year’s resolutions, like resolving to lose weight (yes, I’ve tried that one!), are often fleeting. I prefer more strategic resolutions that require a bigger picture view. Resolving to be worthy is strategic because it compels one to contemplate what it means to be “worthy,” and what tactical means might help achieve that end.

A Treasure Trove
I’m writing this blog from my home on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It’s a blustery January day with snow falling outside. There’s a fire burning in my wood stove, the flames lapping the tempered glass door panel. It’s keeping me warm and cozy while I watch the birds outside scratch for seed at our feeders. I think how this comfort is a far cry from the tumult of my last command, the 210-foot Coast Guard Cutter Reliance, stationed in Kittery, Maine. The North Atlantic knows no mercy when the winter storms rage.

I’m enjoying my confinement and taking advantage of the down day to go through boxes of hand-written thank-you notes that I both wrote and received. My incredible administrative assistant, Bonnie, took the initiative to make a copy of each outgoing note during my tenure as superintendent at the US Coast Guard Academy. What a treasure trove—thank you Bonnie!

Juggling a mug of warm, mulled cider while going through the notes, I serendipitously re-live years of service, reflecting on the countless friendships and relationships that are what, in the end, mattered most. There were notes to cadets congratulating them on winning a competition, notes from fellow college presidents congratulating me on my installation as superintendent, notes to faculty and staff thanking them for a significant contribution, notes from parents thanking me for taking care of their cadet. Reading them, I was overcome with emotion while reflecting that it was not the just mission success or the accomplishments that were so important during my 40 years in uniform; it was the people behind those missions and accomplishments that mattered most.

Leading with a Pen
Over the years, many people have approached me in person, e-mailed, or written to acknowledge the impact a note I’d written made on them. Some have said they still have the note posted in their workplace. Others have confided the note came at just the time when they most needed a word of encouragement. Never in a million years would I have expected those notes to have such a positive impact on so many people. To me, writing notes to thank or acknowledge people came naturally – I didn’t ever see it as an element of good leadership. But over the years, I’ve come to realize the power of a personal note. And, in an age where hand-written notes are increasingly rare, their impact seems even greater.

When I retired, people would ask me, “What would you do different if you had it to do all over again?” I used to say, “I wouldn’t change a thing; I believe God has a plan for my life and career and that everything happened for a purpose.” Today, sitting comfortably in front of the fire, I see the faces and names of those dedicated individuals with whom I served and my response is, “I’d write more notes to people to acknowledge, thank, or congratulate them.”

Going through hundreds of such notes here at home today makes me realize just what a powerful leadership tool a pen can be. Taking the time to personally acknowledge someone with a private note is a very special type of recognition that only you can provide. This year, why not resolve to be worthy by writing more personal notes?

Look in the mirror. When is the last time you recognized someone with a hand-written note?

Please join me again next time for more on Leading with Character.

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