Flow and Attentional Leadership at the U.S. Naval Academy

28 Mar

Just when I thought our next generation of 18-22-year-olds were falling into a deep decline, I entered the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy and saw that we are in good hands.

What an honor to speak on this historic campus, working with seniors (commissions in hand), juniors exploring their professional path, and the leadership faculty shaping these young cadets.



During our time together, finding flow under stress, building resiliency, and leading dynamically (Attentional Leadership) was the main focus.

Like the USMA (West Point) where I spoke a few years ago, the Naval Academy requires the same combination of rigorous academics, intense leadership training, and competitive athletics. At both academies, first-year students received their fair share of institutional humbling—earning their stripes by standing out and excelling at everything, from shining belt buckles to increasing academic standing, to grow their formal and informal leadership.

In class, we started with 3 core dimensions of influence (internal, external, and time), explored the 12 personal dimensions of personal leadership, the 15 dimensions of scaled leadership—then explored the intersecting (5x5x5) 125 dimensions relevant for growing influence and leadership in dynamic VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Changing, Ambiguous) environments.

Among the topics, most relevant and top-of-mind for these officers focused on how to develop greater levels of resiliency during unfamiliar conditions and significant stress. Perhaps one of the greatest examples of these was James "Bond" Stockdale who withstood years of torture during the Vietnam war and remained true to his country.

One Midshipman came up and we spoke about the upcoming weekend's field simulation—a physically demanding multi-day screening for those interested in special operations. Not knowing what he didn't know (but was about to know), we spoke about scenario planning and visualizing in advance of every possible stressful event he might incur. We spoke about navigating his "three-foot world" (seeking to control the controllable and letting go of all external factors not relevant to the challenge at hand) giving just enough attention to various dimensions to inform his next action—yet staying mindful of the challenge "in the moment".

Going deeper into self-regulation strategies, we spoke of the 5 core internal dimensions and their relationship to one another. At the Physical level, we spoke about nutritional preparation, strength, aerobic, and anaerobic readiness, sleep, and taking small moments for rest and recovery. At the Emotional level, we spoke about the growing awareness of and managing emotions under stress. At the Psychological level, themes of attitude, self-talk, and perspective, were explored. At the Philosophical level, we discussed the power of the Warrior Ethos—even having a personal creed to maintain a standard consistent with one's core values. At the Spiritual level, we explored tapping into powers and purposes that were larger than self (God, country, family) and aligning one's actions based on top-down principles and practices (not bottom-up desires).

Recognizing that each of these internal dimensions interconnected and influenced one another was key. Seeing the connections between sleep and energy, thoughts and emotions, values on behaviors, beliefs on perspective, etc. helped them see the complex systems that they each are (individually and collectively) -- and that when one system is out of whack, other systems are affected.

Time-based dimensions were next, beginning with Long-Future planning (mission/vision/legacy), then backing into the Short Future (strategic plans/goals/immediate preparations). When aligned internally, backing in from the future towards the present, we discussed keeping attention focused on the present moment and addressing their WIN (What's Important Now), whether that was addressing a physical obstacle, academic challenge, or complex field simulation.

Short-Past and Long-Past were discussed in terms of learning from every experience through iteration, using a growth mindset by "failing faster better" and not taking mistakes as a fixed part of self. And finally, we spoke about learning to draw confidence from Long-Past successes while challenging old and untested self-limiting beliefs. This gave them the opportunity to consider their boundaries, and expand current self-concepts to break personal barriers. Of course, at the individual level, each of these dimensions required the right amount of attention on the Immediate Environment while keeping a ready eye on the broader Extended Environment to address ever-changing and unfolding circumstances.

Considering their emerging roles as officers and leaders with greater levels of responsibility and stewardship, we explored the proper ratio of time and attention given to self, to leading and developing others, to serving the team, the broader organization, and the many communities (foreign and domestic) that they will serve. The notion of leading self, then using the same internal principles to influence and serve relationships, teams, organizations, communities—even nations, began to tie the whole conversation together.

The net/net of our conversation: recognizing the paradox of always being in the present moment (that's all we really have), yet using those moments to maintain a flexible focus between internal dimensions (physical, emotional, psychological, philosophical, spiritual), external dimensions (personal, interpersonal, team, organization, community), time dimensions (long-future, short-future, focus in the moment, short-past, and long-past), and their many intersections.

Taken together this notion of Attentional Leadership and the navigation of complex systems gave them enough to chew on as they pondered the many arenas and people they will serve during their remaining time at the USNA and post-graduation as commissioned officers.

Just a week later, I had the privilege of discussing these same topics with a large audience at Goldman Sachs. While more casually dressed than the young Midshipman, similar challenges dealing with ever-changing geopolitical and market conditions, planning for the future, learning from past mistakes and successes, and managing oneself with a larger toolkit to build resilience while finding one's "Flow" resonated equally, as we are all seeking to navigate and perform well in challenging arenas that demand new and more refined skills to thrive during uncertainty and challenge.

Many thanks to my host CDR Kevin Mullaney, USN, Ph.D. and his team for the inspiring yet humbling opportunity to speak to classes and faculty.

What an honor to, in some small way, give something back to those young men and woman who will be dedicating the next several years of their lives to keeping America safe and secure.

Godspeed USNA—officers and crew. Thank you for your service, for making me proud to be an American, and the opportunity to see a bright, dedicated, and purposeful generation seeking to make a difference for their country, and the world.

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