“Something as seemingly innocuous as making sure all your buttons are buttoned speaks volumes about the kind of leader you will eventually become.”
The Norwich Record | Winter 2019
THIS PAST FALL I HAD THE PLEASURE OF RETURNING to New London, Conn., for my 50th reunion with my Coast Guard Academy (CGA) classmates, many of whom I had not seen in 25 or more years. During the four-day celebration, I came to appreciate how profoundly meaningful this milestone truly is. Like weddings, graduations, and funerals, there is something about these moments in our lives that puts us in touch with what we believe and why we believe it.
Our class was small. Out of the 300 who began together as swabs, only half of us graduated; of those 150, 14 are no longer with us. One thing I learned at the CGA—and the same holds true for Norwich—is that being in a crucible of pressure bonds people together. Time and again my mettle was tested during harrowing training exercises. If you have ever been launched in an open Monomoy rescue surf boat with ten oars and a sweep oar that functioned as a rudder, you know that it builds competence and teamwork like nothing else. Tossed about by 10-foot seas—having only our arms, backs, and legs to exert power and control—we learned to rely on each other.
As a result, like the alumni of Norwich, I developed a deep and abiding love for the place where I was transformed. It was an environment with a strong sense of camaraderie and equally strong guiding values. To steal a line from General Sullivan, the Coast Guard Academy was where I “discovered who I was,” as well as my purpose in life.
The leadership lessons I learned at the academy were lifelong. First and foremost among them: pay attention to detail. Something as simple as making sure all your buttons are buttoned speaks volumes about the kind of leader you will become.
Two more lessons from those days that have stood the test of time for me are to take care of the people in your charge, and the paramount importance of accomplishing the mission. These critical life lessons are an intangible currency that enables future success as a leader—no matter where life takes you.
It boggles my mind to realize I now have a half-century of perspective on my adult life. If I were to give my 22-year-old self a piece of advice now, I would say slow down and enjoy it more. When you look back at your life through the rearview mirror, you realize that what matters above all else are your personal relationships. It is very easy to get caught up in the “doing” and “having.” But is in the “being” with people, and building strong, deep bonds with them, that life is truly lived.
Richard W. Schneider
RADM, USCGR (RET.)