Sandra Stosz is the author of “Breaking Ice and Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters.” Sandra is a retired U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral who served for over 40 years, including 12 years at sea. She often led all-male teams and was the first woman to lead a U.S. Armed Forces Service Academy. In this episode, Sandra shares with humility some of the leadership lessons she learned in the Coast Guard. She shares humorous stories, and reveals things she learned early that shaped her remarkable career, and why she baked cakes for her staff!
[1:36] Jim introduces Vice Admiral Sandra Stosz, Retired, tells of her background, and welcomes her to The Leadership Podcast.
[2:08] Sandra’s nephew Hunter Stosz is a Lieutenant in the Coast Guard, serving as the Combat Systems Officer on the Coast Guard National Security Cutter JAMES out of Charleston, S.C. Hunter was a cadet at the Coast Guard Academy when Sandra was the Superintendent. That was his leadership crucible!
[3:01] Sandra’s hobby is baking cakes! She would bring them into the office and give people a break to stop what they were doing and gather in the conference room to talk and laugh.
[4:35] Sandra talks about the Coast Guard Academy, where she was Superintendent from 2011 to ’15, and the Loy Institute for Leadership. She retired from the Coast Guard in 2018 but she is a trustee of the Loy Institute for Leadership, which is the Academy’s agent for leadership development.
[6:16] The Coast Guard Academy, like all the service academies, is a 200-week program, meaning four full years of school. A lot of the Academy’s leadership development happens during the summer. Training is given through a framework called LEAD: Learn from theory, Experience through practice, Analyze using reflection, and Deepen understanding from mentoring.
[7:09] It’s a virtuous cycle of leader development. It starts with cadets learning in a classroom from Posner and Kouzes’s Leadership Challenge for leadership theory. Then they put the cadets on the water for experiential leadership development through seamanship in sailing programs, and small boat practice, all on the water. The more senior cadets use a practicum that tells them how to instruct.
[8:19] After a day on the water, the cadets analyze through reflection. They sit down and “hotwash” what happened; what they want to repeat next time, what they want to avoid next time, and what they learned. Then the cadets deepen their understanding through mentoring. Everybody who learns continues to mentor somebody else, making it a virtuous cycle.
[8:48] Sandra shares a story of leadership learning. The cadets sailing a ship tacked suddenly without warning the cook in the galley, the only female cadet on board. Hotdogs flew all over the deck and what seemed funny to the cadets on deck upset the cook who felt laughed at and disrespected. Leadership also means inclusion and respect.
[11:18] You can learn to lead through practical experience. The Coast Guard Academy collects data from performance reviews to measure leadership development over the four-year program. It’s hard to measure leadership development over four years but they are on a mission to do that and they are getting closer every month.
[12:15] The Coast Guard Academy LEAD framework is built upon the Coast Guard framework of leading self, leading others, and leading the organization. Cadets learn to lead themselves and lead others. They do not advance to leading the organization at the Academy. Sandra tells a story of a cadet who carelessly filled the fuel tank with water. He will never do that again, having learned by experience.
[15:12] Officers in the Coast Guard learn to lead the organization, which is strategic. Sandra has seen senior leaders fall short and fail when they did not mature from tactical thinking to strategic thinking. Strategy is looking over the horizon to anticipate threats that might come over that horizon, and then adjust, adapt, and be agile.
[16:15] At the organizational level, you face crises where the easy decisions and actions have been made at the lower levels; if it ends up in your hands, it is a big decision. You’ve got to be strategic and decisive. A lot of people aren’t strategic or are not decisive. They haven’t learned how to move from leading others to making decisions that affect the organization and how the organization relates to others.
[17:59] Jim highly recommends Sandra’s book. It addresses the balance between power and control. Sandra speaks of the responsibility of the individual and the team to find ways to power through crisis and adversity. There is leadership at all levels. It’s not just about the top boss. Sandra mentions Extreme Ownership.
[19:50] It is popular now to blame others for everything wrong so you don’t have to own up to it. Sandra was thinking about that when she wrote her book. She was grateful when someone gave her a Serenity Prayer plaque at a difficult point in her career. She was trying to control everything and having trouble letting go of things she couldn’t control. She carried that prayer to every duty station.
[20:50] The balance between control and power reminds Sandra of Aristotle’s Golden Mean, which is the balance between extremes. The most powerful thing you can do is release your control and give your power away. Giving power away empowers others. You don’t lose anything by giving power away. You gain the respect and trust of those you empower.
[22:12] Control originates from humility and power originates from hubris. Sandra explains why humility is hard to maintain as you advance in rank. The more senior she became, she tried hard to build trust and earn respect and not use her position of power.
[23:59] Sandra shares a story on the paradox of control about giving away power. Her Captain gave his power to her, a young lieutenant, to give an important brief to a Commandant of the Coast Guard. She had never given a speech before! For the rest of her career, she worked to give her power away to younger officers.
[27:26] Jan cites an Arthur Brooks article, “Being special vs. happy: What success addiction looks like and how to recover,” that discusses motivation and happiness. What would Sandra’s advice be to her 27-year-old self? She would tell her younger self that prevention comes before response and remember the importance of establishing boundaries.
[31:41] The four types of exhaustion or wellness are physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Don’t allow yourself to be exhausted in all four of these areas at the same time! You can manage your wellness with a structure of boundaries built on a foundation of values. If you can’t manage your wellness, you can’t manage your team’s wellness.
[36:15] One of the chapters of Sandra’s book is “There’s no secret ingredient.” — Kung Fu Panda. Sandra sees 10 leadership lessons in Kung Fu Panda and Kung Fu Panda 2.
[37:26] Sandra shares a foundational story from serving on her first ship, an icebreaker sailing to Antarctica. She learned the Three Ps of Power: Personal, Professional, and Positional. Lean on the first two and go to the third only as a last resort. Your personal power is your EQ. Your professional power is your work ethic and values. Your positional power is your rank or leadership role.
[39:44] Use your personal and professional power every day and you will build trust and earn respect. People will want to do their jobs because they feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves, they feel shared values, they know their purpose, they have pride and passion, and they want to end each day deeply content, satisfied, and feeling good about themselves, their work, and life.
[41:12] Leadership is not all in a textbook. It’s hard to learn it and hard to teach it. If you’re trying to understand leadership and finding it not easy, your symptoms are normal. Jan shares a message with new listeners. Jan and Jim use the tagline, “We study leaders.” After interviewing 300 leaders, we’re still learning. It will be our lifelong pursuit.
[43:02] Sandra’s advice for people in transition from one chapter of their life to the next: Watch out for becoming part of another “me” generation. The people who will be happiest, in the long run, will be are going to look at how they can contribute as part of a bigger purpose with values that they share. They’re going to persevere. They’re going to put in more than they take out. They’re going to be contributors.
[45:20] Sandra’s last words are about life-long learning. She stayed for 40 years in the Coast Guard because it gave her opportunities to train, advance, and go to the Kellogg Business School, the National War College, and a Capstone program. She continues to read and develop herself. Life-long learning is key to your ability to succeed in a meaningful way.
[47:06] Jan closes with a quote from Amelia Earhardt on the decision to act.
Quotable Quotes“Every once in a while, you need a reason to laugh when you’re at work and you’re in a really tough job. I think the cakes helped build that camaraderie and that’s one thing I like about in-person workplaces.” Click To Tweet “We expect the cadets to make a mistake when they’re learning how to lead themselves. It’s trial and error. And this is the time when we give them leeway to fail and pick themselves up, and make mistakes, admit them, and try not to… Click To Tweet “I’ve seen senior leaders fall short and even fail if they keep on with the behaviors that made them successful while leading self and leading others and they move into leading the organization but don’t mature to strategic… Click To Tweet “Be strategic and be decisive. A lot of times, people … haven’t learned how to move from leading others to making decisions that affect an organization, … the programs, and how that organization relates to others. … Move up into… Click To Tweet “Type “A”s out there, hear me! You want to control everything and it can drive you crazy. And if you don't let it go it will burn you out.” Click To Tweet “The most powerful thing you can do is to release your control and release your power and give your power away.” Click To Tweet “The best leaders cultivate their humility, which is really hard to do as you advance up in the ranks. Whether it’s the military or if it’s a private sector, or public non-profit, the more senior you get, people are treating you a… Click To Tweet “What you should be seeking is deep contentment and satisfaction. That comes with a different way of looking at life. It comes from balancing and this becomes the response.” Click To Tweet “People never make good choices; they always have to learn from experience, right?” Click To Tweet “So many people are in the leadership space and trying to teach leadership and it’s not easy. … If you are trying to understand leadership, how to be a better leader, and finding it not easy, your symptoms are normal.” Click To Tweet “The people who are going to be happiest, in the long run, … look to find out how they can contribute as part of a bigger purpose with values that they share. … They’re going to persevere. They’re going to put in more than they take… Click To Tweet “Lifelong learning is key to your ability to succeed in a meaningful way where you’re meeting all of your objectives and you’re staying motivated. Otherwise, you lose the meaning of life if you don’t continue to focus on life-long… Click To Tweet
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- Vice Admiral Sandra L. Stosz
- U.S. Coast Guard
- U.S. Coast Guard Academy
- The U.S. Coast Guard National Security Cutter JAMES
- Loy Institute for Leadership
- Admiral James Loy
- Congressman Dan Crenshaw
- Kellogg School of Management
- National War College
- Coast Guard Capstone program
- Amelia Earhart
- James Mattis
- Arthur Brooks, “Being special vs. happy: What success addiction looks like and how to recover”
- Bill Murray, “Army Training, Sir”
- Kung Fu Panda
- Kung Fu Panda 2
- Senator Blutarsky
- Great Resignation