Thomas Modly reflects back on some missteps while also maintaining his core leadership beliefs, like the power of redemption.
Thomas Modly has a submarine full of leadership lessons learned from his five months as Acting Secretary of the U.S. Navy — a term that ended in chaos and controversy April 7, 2020.
The situation stems from a COVID-19 outbreak, early in the pandemic, on the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. The ship’s captain, Brett Crozier, went outside the chain of the command, Modly says, when he wrote to an assortment of leaders that most of the crew should be taken ashore. While the letter won Crozier the support of the crew of nearly 5,000 military personnel, it also was improper, Modly contends, and, for a host of reasons, jeopardized the Navy’s mission: to protect America and its allies.
Crozier’s letter was also leaked to the media and led to a series of other incidents. First Modly removed Crozier of his command. That was a seemingly obvious move for what Crozier did, a move later supported by Navy investigators. A few days later, addressing the crew of the ship in person in Guam, Modly gave a speech where he harshly criticized Crozier — using some salty language to do it. That speech was leaked, too, and by the next day, with a Washington fire raging — the pro-Modly crowd and anti-Modly crowd mostly broke down Democrats for, Republicans against — Modly resigned.
Nearly a year later Modly, 61, now lives in the Sarasota area. He was a keynote speaker for a recent Gulf Coast CEO Forum event, held at the Sarasota Yacht Club, where he recounted some of that history. In an interview a week after the event, Modly, a Naval Academy graduate, also talked about the parts of his career that weren’t in the headlines,
The latter part includes his work in mergers and acquisitions with PricewaterhouseCoopers. One of the more unique tips Modly offers in M&A for business leaders is, when doing deals there are things more important than P&L sheets, assets and the book of business. “Always check the bathrooms,” Modly says of the company or entity that could be acquired. The cleanliness of the bathrooms in the office, he says, is a telltale sign about how the organization treats and what it thinks of its employees.
Challenge the old ways
The son of Eastern European immigrants who escaped from behind the Iron Curtain after World War II, Modly says his leadership style is focused on two factors: challenging conventional wisdom and creating a process-driven environment where the individual members of an organization or team can lean into problem solving on their own.
'Leaders don’t have to make unpopular decisions every day, but when one has to be made, make it yourself. Don’t push the decision down, and the potential backlash, onto others below you in the organization. Be decisive and take the heat. That’s what you are there for.' Thomas Modly
In his speech, our interview and an article Modly wrote for the U.S. Naval Institute early last year, Modly detailed his top 10 leadership lessons while at the helm of the Navy.
“Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone,” Modly writes. “In times of high tension and stress — times like the current pandemic — fear often accentuates mistakes and increases the misinterpretations of facts surrounding them. That fear drives public vitriol and division, but it should not dissuade leaders from making unpopular decisions. Our world will get less and less predictable, but we must not abandon our responsibilities and missions simply because we fear that social media mobs may call for our heads when they disagree with decisions we have made.”
Full of grace
Highlights of Modly’s top leadership lessons includes the following:
• Don’t be afraid to reach down into your organization to talk to people several layers beneath you: “While this may frustrate or anger those within the established hierarchy who you must bypass to do so,” Modly writes, “it is the best way to get the unvarnished truth about the conditions of your workforce, your customers, your suppliers, etc.”
• If you believe something is true, be your own biggest skeptic: Modly talks often about this, saying for many leaders it can be a blind spot. “As a senior official in government, or a senior executive in a corporation, it is easy to become subject to believing your own assumptions about things,” Modly writes. “Committed staffs reinforce this by affirming your instincts as a way to demonstrate support and loyalty. If possible, construct a staff with smart people who do not do this — people with high integrity who have different perspectives that challenge your own. Alignment on strategy is critical, but dissent on execution must be allowed so that you do not become enamored with your own ideas.”
• Redemption can be earned, and it is usually deserved. Modly doesn’t regret reliving Crozier of his command — he stands by that as the right thing to do. He also says giving Crozier an opportunity for another role in the Navy was the right thing to do.
“We have become an unforgiving society, one in which mistakes are not tolerated,” Modly writes. “Often one mistake is used to condemn a leader who had a lifetime of virtuous service. This is unfair and unjust, and it should stop. Social media shaming has exacerbated this trend as the mob is generally undeterred from piling on, without facts or consequences. As a leader, your default position should always be to offer individuals an opportunity for redemption…offering grace is not a sign of weakness.”
“People make mistakes all the time, but, for the most part, their value far exceeds the cost of their mistakes,” he adds, “and that value is worth embracing, protecting, preserving and redeploying.”
• Always speak from the heart (and try to avoid profanity!) This stems from what became his last big speech with the Navy, when he addressed the Theodore Roosevelt crew. “We are now living in a world in which there are very few private conversations, particularly for those in leadership positions. Be aware of this reality, but don’t be afraid of it,” he writes. “People want leaders to be real — to communicate with them, from the heart with passion and emotion. If leaders worry too much about ‘optics’ and the media misinterpreting their words, they risk saying nothing and inspiring no one.”
• When emotions are raw, particularly your own, empathize more and lecture less: Talking about that moment in Guam, Modly says emotions under pressure can quickly become anger. “There is nothing wrong with feeling angry at times, the trouble comes when you allow it to show in your demeanor too demonstrably,” Modly writes. “Without question, anger will undermine your credibility as a leader.”
• When explaining difficult decisions, take off the “mask” and look people in the eye: This is both a metaphor and a reality of the COVID-19 era, Modly says. “The fact that I could not address the entire crew (of the USS Theodore Roosevelt) in a gathering where I could see their faces, listen to their voices and truly sense their angst and anger made the situations worse,” he writes. “This was a huge mistake on my part.”
• If an unpopular decision has to be made, make it. Delegating is OK and necessary for many tasks, he says, but a leader shouldn’t ask someone else to handle the tough calls. “You’re not there for self-preservation,” he says.
“I took the job to drive change and have an impact,” he adds in the U.S. Naval Institute article. “Leaders don’t have to make unpopular decisions every day, but when one has to be made, make it yourself. Don’t push the decision down, and the potential backlash, onto others below you in the organization. Be decisive and take the heat. That’s what you are there for.”
• Titles are fleeting, impact is what matters: “What you do is always far more important than what title you have,” he writes. “Titles are fleeting — and in Washington they come and go more frequently than elections. The same is mostly true in the private sector, and often the loss of title for an individual leader comes as rapidly, and as much of a surprise, as it can in government. Don’t focus on it. Focus on what you can do in the job you are privileged to hold at that moment.”
• Understand that serving others, and your country, means you are the least important person in your life: When you have the responsibility to lead an organization, large or small, you must put yourself last, Modly says. “This is especially true in public service because you have been entrusted by your fellow citizens to act honorably and in the best interests of your city, state or nation. If you begin your decision-making process with the question ‘How will this impact my organization and its mission over the long run?’ as opposed to ‘How will this impact me and my career?’ you have a better shot at making the right call.”
• When in charge, act like it, don’t pretend: “If you are given the authority and responsibility to be in charge of an organization, big or small, embrace it,” Modly writes. “Your job is not to be popular, although you may be. Nor is it to avoid getting fired, although you may not. Your job is to lead. Don’t pretend to do it. Act.”