Leadership Lessons: Be a Speed Boat

By: Howie Cohen

In 1990, I served as the Executive Officer (XO) of the 122nd Signal Battalion located in Camp Casey, Korea, where I was the second-in-charge behind the commanders. At the time, Brigadier General Tom Schwarz (later promoted to General — 4 Stars) was the Assistant Division Commander for Support and Maneuver.

Early in his command, I recall Brigadier General Schwartz scheduling a mandatory meeting for all Battalion and Brigade XOs and Deputy Brigade Commanders. His intent was to articulate his command philosophy and his standards and expectations for our performance. I honestly don’t remember the specific standards and expectations. What I do remember is the story he used to communicate them. Here is what he told us:

There are three kinds of boats: a row boat, a sail boat, and a speed boat. The row boat does not know where it is and nor where it is going. When the rowboat leaves the dock, it just goes around in circles and gets nowhere.

A sail boat at the dock has an idea of where it is and an idea of where it is going. However, once it leaves the dock and gets out in the water, the wind takes the sailboat to the left, then to the right, then back to the left. The sail boat ultimately gets to the final destination after weaving its way there; it does not take the most direct route.

The third boat is a speed boat. The speed boat knows exactly where it is and knows exactly where it wants to go. When the speed boat leaves the dock, it pushes down the throttle to maximum speed and takes a direct line to the destination. The speed boat goes straight to its destination as fast as possible.

After telling this story, Brigadier General Schwartz looked us straight in the eyes and said,

“Each of you holds a very important position in your unit and in this division. I expect each of you to be a speed boat. In fact, I expect you to be the best speed boat you are capable of being. If you are a row boat or sail boat, I understand, but you will not be an XO in this division. You see, I only want speed boats as XOs. If you are not willing to be a speed boat, you need to tell me so I can replace you with someone who is.”

He continued, “Now, if you are unsure about your commitment to being a speed boat, take the rest of today and tonight to think about it. Have an honest conversation with yourself. If you decide you are willing to be a speed boat, then drive on. If you are not, tell me tomorrow. I will respect you for your honesty; I will fire you as the XO and find a more suitable position for you. But do not stay in the XO position without committing to being a speed boat. That will not end well for you and me.”

I committed to being a speed boat.

More importantly, Brigadier General Schwartz taught me an important leadership lesson: the need for leaders to be completely transparent and clearly communicate standards and expectations to the organization he or she leads. This lesson stuck with me for the remaining 17 years of my career and helped me be a more effective leader.

Brigadier General Schwartz helped me understand the value of stating and committing to a Common Purpose (the way a group of free agents is transformed into a cohesive, orderly team aligned to a shared set of goals and values) and developing Trust (faith in the benevolence and competence of one’s colleagues). These capabilities, Common Purpose and Trust, are two of the four key capabilities of the McChrystal Group Team of Teams methodology. The other two are Shared Consciousness and Empowered Execution.

I committed to the principles of the Team of Teams methodology as a young officer, but at the time I did not know it. These principles and capabilities guided me throughout my 28 years in the military and my nine-year career in government contracting. Now I have the privilege to help private sector firms learn and implement the Team of Teams methodology, enabling them to transform and operate more effectively in the complex, unpredictable environments of the 21st century.

Howie Cohen is a partner at McChrystal Group, an elite advisory services and leadership development firm that aims to build adaptable teams capable of solving the world’s most complex leadership challenges. Prior to joining McChrystal Group, Howie served for 27 years in the US Army, retiring at the rank of Colonel.