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Leading with Character: Recognizing Inspirational Leadership

Exceptional organizations know that people are their most valued resource; they motivate employees and recognize excellence. The US Coast Guard, in which I served for 36 years, is an organization with strong core values of honor, respect, and devotion to duty. It develops leaders of character who serve the people of the United States by executing eleven maritime safety, security, and stewardship missions. The oath Coast Guard members take incurs an obligation that demands excellence.

To distinguish top performers, the Service employs a wide array of award programs ranging from excellence in specialty areas to outstanding leadership ability. The awards are targeted to recognize employees of every status, rank, and paygrade. Read on to learn how you can become an even better leader by learning about character and core values from one of the Coast Guard’s very best.

Inspirational Leadership Award
Among the Coast Guard’s most prestigious awards is the Captain David H. Jarvis Inspirational Leadership Award. This award is presented by the Navy League of the United States to a Coast Guard officer who has made outstanding contributions to the high standards of competence and leadership traditions.

Here’s the story behind the award: During the winter of 1897-1898, David Jarvis, then a first lieutenant in the US Revenue Cutter Service, led a storied rescue mission to save more than 300 men in a whaling fleet trapped in the ice near Point Barrow, AK. Knowing the men faced starvation, Jarvis led a small team that herded about 400 reindeer across 1,500 miles of tundra to save the stranded men. The rescue mission was heralded as a “Victory of Peace” by President McKinley as he awarded Jarvis and his team Gold Medals of Honor in 1902.

Recognizing This Year’s Recipient
Captain Jarvis would be pleased to know the 2023 recipient of the Inspirational Leadership Award named for him is Commander George MacDonnell, a 2006 graduate of the US Coast Guard Academy. Commander MacDonnell is a cutterman who currently serves as the Officer and Civilian Leadership Continuum School Chief at the Coast Guard Leadership Development Center in New London, CT.

Commander MacDonnell is recognized for his inspirational, innovative leadership while serving as school chief. He created and implemented the Vice Admiral John P. Currier award for graduates of the Midgrade Officer and Civilian Transition Course and Senior Leader Transition course—established as a result of Vice Admiral Currier’s leadership. The Currier award honors a student in each class who most embodies the spirit of inclusive, positive, and effective leadership. In addition, Commander MacDonnell inspired lasting behavior changes in his students by employing a revolutionary cognitive reflective framework to maximize student engagement and personal leadership development.

Self-Made Leadership
Recently, I sat down with Commander MacDonnell to ask about his perspective on leadership. His sage responses demonstrated why he was selected as this year’s Jarvis award recipient…read on to see for yourself:

  • What is your leadership style? To this Commander MacDonnell responded that over the course of his career, he’s been exposed to a number of trending leadership styles that capture people’s attention, then often fade away. He told me, “I believe leadership styles are highly personal, and an exceptional leader pulls from a tool bag of leadership skills and styles that fit the moment.”

I asked Commander MacDonnell about his style of leadership. He told me he advocates for “self-made leadership,” explaining that “It comes from a quote by Vice Admiral Currier along the lines of ‘you need to be constantly learning and testing yourself in a manner far beyond being passive…challenge yourself.’ That means find new vectors, question your schemas, get out of your comfort zone. Be humble. No one can do that for you—it takes self-made leadership.”

  • Do you have personal core values? Commander MacDonnell surprised me by jumping up and bounding into his office. He returned with a paper desk placard emblazoned with five words: kindness, humor, zest, gratitude, appreciation of beauty/excellence. He explained that he uses the VIA Institute on Character’s Character Strengths Survey to help his students assess their character strengths. These values are his top five from the survey.

I found the value, “zest,” intriguing. Commander MacDonnell explained that “zest” means, “Approaching life with excitement and energy; not doing things halfway or halfheartedly; living life as an adventure; feeling alive and activated.” Yup, that describes Commander MacDonnell to a T!

  • What is your leadership philosophy? He told me, “A positive workplace climate is the ultimate key to success.” I asked how he defined such a climate. “The elements are high standards, rules, excellence, efficiency, bias for action, flexibility.” His response sure sounds like it comes from a leader who advocates self-made leadership and who has strong personal core values!
  • What is the most important trait in a leader? Commander MacDonnell answered, “Courage…to make a decision; to hold others accountable.” And I couldn’t agree more. One of the three tenants of my leadership philosophy is “Demonstrate Moral Courage.” It’s a character attribute that if practiced, will make every leader become one who people follow because they want to, not because they have to.

Understanding your character strengths/values is key to personal and professional development, and will help you become a better person and leader. I’m living proof. After sitting down with Commander MacDonnell for just 45 minutes, I walked away a better person, and hopefully a better leader. And having read this post, I trust you will, too.

Look in the mirror. Can you identify your character strengths/values, and are you prepared to help others identify theirs to achieve their full potential as leaders?

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

If you enjoyed this post, please visit my website where you can sign up for my mailing list to get this blog in your inbox, and buy my book, Breaking Ice & Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters (proceeds from my book are donated to the US Coast Guard Academy to help develop the next generation of leaders of character):