Leadership: February 11, 2003


On those rare occasions when a military organization is incorporated into a larger civilian outfit, strange things happen. The largest component of the new Department of Homeland Security is the U.S. Coast Guard, which now makes up about a third of the personnel in the new organization. One thing that appears to have been noticed right away is that the Coast Guard people have the best leadership and management skills. Unlike most government bureaucrats, Coast Guard officers and petty officers operate in a very unforgiving environment. Make a mistake at sea, in bad weather (when the Coast Guard is often called out to rescue someone), and you die. This tends to focus the attention of commanders and crews and has created a non-nonsense attitude. For example, the Coast Guard was never segregated. If you were a good sailor, you were kept on duty. Long before the navy did so, the Coast Guard had black officers. The need for proven leadership trumped Jim Crow, if only because it was a matter of life and death. A true meritocracy, the Coast Guard now finds its officer and petty officer ranks being plundered to provide key managers for the new department. This is rough on the Coast Guard, although their leadership development system is always producing proven candidates for promotion. In the short term, it's going to be a little more dangerous on Coast Guard ships and aircraft. But it's probably a good thing, in the short and long term, for the new department. The no-nonsense attitude of the Coast Guard leaders will be a welcome change from the usual "cover-your-ass" attitude found in government bureaucracies. Then again, years from now, people will wonder why the folks over at the Department of Homeland Security insist on calling toilets, "the head."


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