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United States Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Admiral Sean Buck Shares His Wisdom on Leadership

By Robert E. Haywood

 

 

“If you want to know your future, look at your friends.”

“Your character is the sum of your habits.”

 

The above adages derive straight from the United States Naval Academy’s Life Skills Handbook. As I prepared for my interview with Vice Admiral Sean Buck, Superintendent of USNA since 2019, I read this handbook and other Academy documents. Reading it reinforced to me that very few people are more qualified to talk about leadership than Vice Admiral Buck.

Vice Admiral Buck is himself a graduate of the Naval Academy and received his commission in 1983. He earned a Master of Arts in International Security Policy from George Washington University and has completed studies at the College of Naval Command and Staff, U.S. Naval War College, and the Armed Forces Staff College. This abbreviated list makes the point that higher education is extremely important to him. His equally extraordinary service record includes, early on, flying the P-3C Orion for at-sea operational tours with the “Fighting Marlins” of Patrol Squadron (VP) 40 and later commanding the VP-25 and Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 11.

This summary hardly does justice to this distinguished man’s service, not to mention all his medals and awards. But I hope it is enough to inspire you to consider all that he has to say. When reading this interview, you will no doubt appreciate the depth and clarity of his thinking on leadership as it applies to the Naval Academy as well as to business, teaching, parenting, and everyday life.

 


 

HAYWOOD: What are essential leadership qualities you have learned from all your life experiences which you can share with us, including business and civic leaders?

VICE ADMIRAL SEAN BUCK: I’ve had the honor and the privilege of commanding in our Navy six times, where I’ve been the guy in charge and making sure that we take care of our people and accomplish our mission. Three words that resonate in my head—and I remind myself daily of them as a leader—are to be fair, firm, and consistent. And I’ve always chosen the word consistent as the most important of those three words because all of us have different personalities, all of us will lead differently. You may have a reputation of being gruff and mean and short-tempered. As long as you remain that way every day and every moment, your team gets to learn how to operate and work under that environment. If you have a reputation of being nice and soft and easy, you should remain that way instead of being on a roller coaster of different emotion sets. So, consistency in leadership, consistency in decision-making is really important, but also to be fair and firm.

 

HAYWOOD: How do you decide what to base your decisions on?

BUCK: I’ve realized that being a good leader is one who tries the best they can to fall back on facts and data to make decisions.  So, if you have time to study, to ask questions, to learn, and to try to understand both sides of a dilemma or a particular task that you may have, and base your decisions with data and facts, you’ll do better.

Now I’m a Naval Aviator and there are many cases in which I’ve had to make split-second life or death decisions in an airplane.   You hope that you can fall back on good training and repetitions that you learned. It’s good if you can be as deliberate on the ground as I can as the superintendent of the Naval Academy. I have time to listen to people, to ask questions, to learn, and use facts and data.

 

HAYWOOD: When you make a decision or manage a project or task, how do you assess that the job is well done?

BUCK: I have learned, and I would suggest to other leaders maybe of small business or big businesses, that the 80% solution is quite often good enough. We say in the Navy and I’ve heard people say “paralysis by analysis.” People are striving to get to the 100% solution to a question, to a task, and they end up missing the mark. They end up either being late to task or failing in the task because they so over-analyzed that it took so much time that they failed.

And I’ve realized in life, even at being a dad, the 80% solution is good enough. You then add your wisdom and your life experience to it and make a decision and move on.   

Remember, your subordinates look up to you as a leader. If you’re the president of the company, CEO, or if you’re the commanding officer, they expect you to be decisive, they expect you to make decisions. So, if chosen to be the leader, lead, don’t waver, don’t wring your hands; make a decision. They’re not all going to be right, but for the most part, through experience and through listening and learning, you will make the right decision, but that entire team is expecting the leader to lead, and I have found that very, very important. I also have seen how I’ve earned the respect of my teams by having the courage and the backbone and the guts to stand up and make hard decisions so that they didn’t have to, but they were willing to help me carry them out. I probably could come up with more but those are some really key ones—and listening is the most important.

 

HAYWOOD: I’ve gone to seminars on leadership, and listening is not usually at the top of the list, but I agree with you.

BUCK: Well, I think there is a difference between hearing somebody and listening to somebody. And when you listen, you’re absorbing and learning. When you hear somebody, it could go in one ear and out the other, and you’re not really comprehending what they’re saying. But if you listen to them, you’re learning.

 

HAYWOOD: It is inevitable that most people in leadership positions are going to make some decisions that later seem misguided or mistaken. If and when this has happened to you, how did you deal with it so that you retain the confidence of others and get back on track?

BUCK: Well, I think every decision-maker has the onus put upon them to assess the results of the decisions that they made. And if you take the time to do that, you realize, “Wow, that was a misguided decision, I made the wrong decision. We made a mistake.” The most important thing as the leader, to keep the faith of your team, is to own the mistake. You got to own it, you have got to show a little bit of vulnerability so that they can see in you that you’re human, that you’re prone to making those mistakes. You have the courage to own them, and then you go back and rally the team and come together and go, “Hey, ladies and gentlemen, hey teammates, we didn’t do that so well because I made the wrong decision, or I had the wrong assumptions. Help me help us do it again and do it better.” So, it’s ownership. Leaders have got to own it.

 

HAYWOOD: Yes, I like that. So, my other question is how do you skillfully manage conflict and radically different points of view? To give an example, I’ve got six people here, and they just don’t agree at all, and I’ve got to figure out how to negotiate that and still keep the team together. And I wonder how you manage conflict or different points of view and hold everyone together so that they own something with which they really don’t privately agree?

BUCK: Well, in the end, the decision rests with the leader, or with the president, or the owner of the small business or the organization. And I think it ties back to what I told you a moment ago: as the leader you have the responsibility to maintain decorum, to maintain calm, and to make sure that everyone at the table is doing their best to listen. And so, when you have a heated argument, or if you have a conflict of opinions, and some strong-willed people who want to be heard, I believe as the leader, you’ve got to make sure, if you have time, that all of the voices that you’ve brought together to make a decision are heard.

There are some introverted people, there are some extroverted people, some people are louder than others, more bold, shy. Those good ideas may truly rest with that introverted one who doesn’t feel empowered to be able to speak up. Well, there’s one person that can empower everybody at the table, and that’s the leader. And you need to have the courage to be sure that your whole team is heard if you want to hear from the whole team, and I would suggest that with the diverse experiences in life and ideas that you have around that table everybody should be heard.

And if you don’t take charge as a leader, if you don’t make sure that it’s a civil meeting and that people are treating each other with dignity and respect, well, you’ve lost control, and shame on you.  It’s your responsibility to go back and once again make sure that we’re all listening.

Now, in the end, this is where the hard part of leadership comes in. In the end, you’ve got six different opinions from those six people; the decision rests with the leader, and it’s time to be decisive. You listened, you got the facts, you got the data; you use your maturity and your life experience, and you make the best decision that you think. And then here’s what my sailors have always wanted. I have found out through thick and thin that my sailors will give me the shirt off their back. My sailors will work 72 straight hours in some very austere environments and dangerous environments, if I take the time to tell them why we’re doing something, and they understand it. They press on and do really, really well.

So that’s another important aspect of leadership—taking the time to tell your subordinates why you made the decision you made, even though you heard six different opinions. How did you process those facts and that data? You tell them why, they generally give you a cheerful “Aye, aye” and they move out. And once again, they respect you because you’re the leader and you chose to make a decision. You could’ve sat there and just argued for an hour, and with all those six different opinions, and not gotten anywhere, and then the company fails.  It’s hard to do that sometimes, you might perceive that you’re unpopular. As long as you feel in your heart that you did due diligence to make a good decision, or a sound decision, or a safe and a moral and an ethical and a legal decision, then you got to move on.

 

HAYWOOD: Right. What is an instance where you had to make such a decision?

BUCK: During this year of COVID, I’ve had thousands of those decisions in which I was at odds with some of my senior leaders who were advising me. One, we all came to the table with different levels of risk tolerance. This COVID pandemic, this virus scared the hell out of a lot of people. A lot of people didn’t know what it was, they didn’t know how it would affect themselves, their health, their loved ones, and we all found ourselves with different levels of risk tolerance. And in the military, you got to be able to operate in an environment where you take a lot of risk: educated risk, calculated risk. And I didn’t necessarily find that consistent, but I’m the leader, and I was the one they were all depending on to make a decision and move on with the mission of the Naval Academy, which is to develop these young men and women to be leaders out in our fleet and leaders of character.

 

HAYWOOD: Your bringing up COVID is interesting because, in the beginning, we were wiping down our grocery bags. And then later we realized we didn’t necessarily have to do that. In looking back, people were just fumbling in the dark.

BUCK: We didn’t know. Well, what we did is we evolved because we were listening, we were reading, and we were learning from the facts, the science. I heard, “Listen to the science.”

We began to listen and learn from the science and the facts, and then we were able to adjust how we reacted to the virus to lead our lives. We were all on a very steep learning curve; none of us knew.

 

HAYWOOD:  You have so many people whose well-being you’re responsible for, and that’s huge. Those of us with small businesses could temporarily work from home if needed, but you’ve got a lot of people to oversee, a campus to manage, and students to train.

BUCK: You don’t develop leaders online. I can give them an education through distance learning. I don’t think that’s maybe the optimal way to learn, but you can teach and give an education online. But the other aspects of our mission here at the Naval Academy, the moral mission, the moral development, the physical development, and the experiential leadership opportunities that the Naval Academy gives these folks can’t be learned online. It’s kind of a leadership laboratory here, trial and error. Sometimes we give them a task to lead, and they fail. We debrief it, they learn, they grow stronger, more confident. You can’t do that online. They’ve got to be here, present, getting their hands dirty.

 

HAYWOOD: Absolutely. I was a university professor for many years, and I feel like, yes, you can learn online, but there’s nothing like a student coming into your office and saying, “You said this, but I was thinking maybe this….”   That’s really what you’re paying for when you send your child away to college, those face-to-face moments of learning and exchange.

BUCK:  I share that opinion with you.

There’s a time and a place for distance learning, distance learning was very, very important to us here as we learned how to safely operate in waters. And there were moments in which we needed to convert to distance learning, so I’m not throwing that out with the bathwater.  But my preference, and many people’s preference was, is, when we can, come back and let the kids learn how to lead.

 

HAYWOOD: Yes, and students do learn how to lead in the classroom when you break your class into small groups.

BUCK: Project-based learning, that’s true.

 

HAYWOOD:  So is there anything that I haven’t asked you about leadership that is central to you?

BUCK: Well, one last important concept that I’d like to tell you about the Naval Academy and military service, and that’s the idea of a team. And we don’t say this sarcastically; generally, we say it with meaning and conviction: the letter “I” is not in the word team. And almost every single thing that we do in military service, that we do here at the Academy, is based on teamwork and being a good teammate. And sometimes you’re the leader on the team, and sometimes you’re the follower on the team, but you want the team to succeed, and I believe that applies to private industry and small businesses.

 

HAYWOOD: It does, absolutely.

BUCK: If everyone on the team thrives and works well together, then the company thrives and succeeds. And I’ve been blessed since I’ve been a superintendent here; I’ve been surrounded by the best team that I’ve ever served with in 38 years of service. I have never seen so many people singularly focused on the success of accomplishing our mission here, which is to develop the Brigade of Midshipmen. Through a lousy year of COVID and through a normal great year, all of us feel so much pride about being here, and we all are good teammates to one another, so that’s a real important part of leadership, is teamwork.

 

HAYWOOD: And how do you as a leader build a team, and build the concept of a team without a domineering “I”?

BUCK: Make sure you build and grow that team and nurture it by making the time to tell every member on that team that they’re valued. You include them and be sure you try to seek out their opinions. But if they come to work every morning and they know that they feel valued and that they’re going to be treated well with dignity and respect, they’re going to do wonderful. And it doesn’t matter what your role is for the team.

Where you are in the hierarchy of the pay scale or the responsibility scale, everybody matters, and that breaks down when people begin to not feel valued.  And that’s the responsibility of the leader.

 

HAYWOOD:  I wonder, with someone in your high-level position and the sheer demands of working every day and being responsible for so many people, how do you shut down, get away, recharge, so the next day you’re coming back focused on work again?

BUCK: I go to my two happy places. I spend time with my bride, and I go play tennis. Those are my happy places. That’s where I can completely disconnect and I get into just a completely different frame of mind, and I do recharge and refresh.

 

HAYWOOD: You’ve made so many great points that I feel you are giving people a gift, so thank you for that. And congratulations on all your successes.

BUCK: Thanks. I’m proud to be here. It’s a real honor to come back to my alma mater.

 

 

Additional photography courtesy the United States Naval Academy.


 

Robert E. Haywood interviewed with Vice Admiral Sean Buck, Superintendent, United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland in his Naval Academy office on April 20, 2021

 

 

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