Leadership Attributes that Made—and Make—Us Great
Over the past decade, I’ve had the honor to meet legendary senior intelligence officers who were responsible for remarkable collection and analysis successes during World War II and the Cold War. Our conversations made me wonder, “What made them so good? Why during their generation were we able to out-think and out-maneuver our adversaries? Was it their intellect? Resources? Authorities?” Clearly, there were many factors which contributed to our advantage. This led me to analyze the current generation’s intelligence successes, afloat and ashore, and look for the connective tissue between these eras. What did I find? One particular thing hasn’t changed across decades and generations of intelligence operations: the quality of our leaders and their demonstration of three core attributes which kept our community focused on meeting mission and developing personnel to face today’s and tomorrow’s threats. These three core attributes are “Teamwork, Tone, and Tenacity.” I call them “The Three T’s.” I’ve seen them exercised by our very best across generations and adopted them along the way as my own gold standard of organizational excellence, highlighting them in my commander’s intent documents for the past 10 years in peace, crisis, and combat while based in Bahrain, Tampa, Afghanistan, Hawaii, and Washington, DC.
Why teamwork, tone, and tenacity? There are loads of lists which highlight positive leadership traits and actions that help make people and organizations great. As a sample: Steven Covey explores 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, General (Retired) Colin Powell has “13 Rules of Leadership,” and John Maxwell authored a best-selling book citing 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. I recommend them all. You’ll find them on-line or in bookstores surrounded by other titles such as "11 Leadership Secrets You’ve Never Heard About,” The 360 Degree Leader, and, for those who prefer names instead of numbers, Leadership Strategies of Geronimo or even Leadership Secrets of Santa Claus. (I’m not kidding, you can look it up.)
So why in an ocean of leadership descriptors, adjectives, and narratives is it worth focusing on teamwork, tone, and tenacity? Because these three attributes form a superior set of mutually reinforcing behaviors aimed at meeting mission, taking care of people, and developing subordinates. They also happen to fit together well in a short, actionable, memorable phrase. Covey, Powell, Maxwell, and others all offer valuable advice, but that advice takes time to recall and apply. “Teamwork, Tone, and Tenacity” is user-ready in the fast-paced, pressure-packed, information-intensive environment in which military and civilian leaders operate in today. The guidance is immediately retrievable because it focuses on intent instead of tasks, and our human minds are conditioned to remember intentions and actions that flow in sets of three. For example, ”Lights, Camera ... Action,” “On Your Marks, Get Set ... Go,” “Ready, Aim ... Fire,” “Duty, Honor ... Country.” Now add to them “Teamwork, Tone ... Tenacity.”
Leaders and followers can recall and execute specific practices associated with “Teamwork, Tone, and Tenacity” rapidly and in any situation, from a contested combat zone to a boisterous board room. And when a leader’s clear, actionable, memorable guidance is known and understood by those seeking to achieve a common goal, the chance of achieving and perpetuating success is greatly increased. It’s worth sharing a few comments about each one of the three Ts:
"...the result of relationships is trust, the by-product of trust is loyalty, and loyalty to the team is the essence of workplace morale..."
Teamwork: Teamwork begins by building trust. A leader has many responsibilities, and one of the most important is building relationships, because the result of relationships is trust, the by-product of trust is loyalty, and loyalty to the team is the essence of workplace morale, whether wearing khakis or a business suit. That culture of teamwork was, and is, imbued into the organization from the top. The best military teams I ever encountered in Naval and Joint intelligence had a tangible sense of trust in and loyalty to each other with an understanding of what needed to be accomplished. Teamwork is especially important when two parties disagree on an issue, because with teamwork you have something to fall back on–and that is knowing the character of the individual you’re working with–which prevents the relationship from devolving into accusatory discourse and incivility. This is a lesson that can be well applied elsewhere in today’s society. I can remember many calls to analytic colleagues around the globe over the years where we occasionally voiced strong professional disagreements, but we all remain good friends to this day thanks to our trust in each other, thanks to our teamwork.
Tone: There are a lot of dimensions to tone, but when I reflect upon the leaders who demonstrated it best, I recall their positive attitudes which caused a chain reaction of positive thoughts, events, and outcomes. I esteem their genuineness, their integrity, taking the time to teach and train, always comfortable with who they are and consistent in their actions. And tone also applies to those who always seem to maintain advantage over any crisis by remaining cool and unruffled despite chaotic circumstances. The result of good tone is a positive command climate, one which makes people want to come to work and excel every day.
Tenacity: I agree with Thomas Edison that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. There’s no substitute for hard work in understanding all aspects of an issue, being involved and being visible to your people, communicating standards and applying sustained effort to ensure all members of one’s organization understand the objective and how to implement a solution. The most tenacious I’ve seen placed the burden and prioritized taking on and solving our toughest problems ahead of their own personal comfort and ambition. Succinctly, they just tried harder, challenged the status quo when necessary, and demonstrated indomitable spirit while serving our nation. Our most tenacious leaders accepted the toughest tasks when others asked them, "WHY did you take that bad job?" Those same tenacious leaders would later turn those jobs over to their successors with exclamations of, "HOW did you get that great job?" Their tenacity, their sequenced prioritization of the Navy maxim “Ship, Shipmate, Self” is a central ingredient to an individual’s and their organization’s success.
In summary, “Teamwork, Tone, Tenacity” are the Triple Crown attributes of leadership. They have been, and must continue to be the benchmark for today’s leaders at the Service, Joint and National levels. They are the gold standard connecting this generation of leaders with our predecessors. I’m proud to have benefited from seeing them enacted by outstanding seniors, coaches and mentors across several decades. That’s why I bin them together and use them as a star to steer by. The Three Ts: They’re relevant, they’re respected, they’re rememberable. They are “Teamwork, Tone, Tenacity.”
Rear Admiral Paul Becker, USN previously served as the Director of Intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Pacific Command, ISAF Joint Command, and was the Commanding Officer of the Central Command’s Joint Intelligence Center. The opinions expressed are his own and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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