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Military Leadership Requires Authentic Self-Evaluation and Openness

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Podcast featuring Buster Nicholsonmanager of Public Sector Outreach and
Vice Admiral (retired) Jan Tighe, U.S. Fleet Cyber Command

As the first woman to command a numbered fleet for the U.S. Fleet Cyber Command, retired Vice Admiral Jan Tighe faced many leadership challenges during her long U.S. Navy career. In this episode, learn how she continually worked to understand and evolve her own leadership style, why she encouraged open feedback from her subordinates and her bosses, and the steps she took to be an authentic leader. Also learn the value of self-reflection and why the work needed to be an inspirational and trusted leader is never complete.

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Read the Transcript:

Buster Nicholson: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host Buster Nicholson. This show is dedicated to highlighting issues facing organizations from the perspective of those in leadership positions. Today my guest is Vice Admiral Jan Tighe. Vice Admiral Tighe currently serves on the board of directors for Goldman Sachs, the Huntsman Corporation, Progressive Insurance, IronNet Cybersecurity, and serves as a trustee for the MITRE Corporation. Jan retired from the U.S. Navy as a Vice Admiral in August 2018. Her last Navy assignment was as the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Warfare, and the 66th Director of Naval Intelligence.

Previously, she served as a commander of U.S. Fleet Cyber Command and U.S. Tenth Fleet, where she was the first woman to command a numbered fleet. Jan is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and has a doctorate in electrical engineering, a Master’s of Science in Applied Mathematics from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Jan is also a National Association of Corporate Directors Governance Fellow. Jan, welcome, and thank you for joining me.

Vice Admiral Jan Tighe: Thanks, Buster. Happy to be here.

Buster Nicholson: Just to give a little background. I saw you speak at the annual Florida City County Managers Association meeting back in June, and you did a great job. And during your presentation, you touched on an area of interest to me, which was the dynamics of personality in the workplace.

I’m guessing this really isn’t something that many managers think about, but with your background in managing a large staff, give me a perspective on the importance of understanding the dynamics of personality traits when it comes to staff interactions and just general organizational wellbeing.

Vice Admiral Jan Tighe: Well, sure, thanks Buster. That conference was a lot of fun for me, and the first one done in-person since COVID. So, that was a different experience. I think in my experience, understanding yourself, a self-awareness of how you are perceived, or how you may be perceived—perception is in the eye of the beholder—is an important element of leading and communicating and managing, and even mentoring people that may be in your orbit.

And so there is the self-awareness and then there is the understanding of the particular traits of those that you’re trying to lead. If you want to build a team, as in many other dimensions, diversity, and even diversity of personality is going to get you a better result out of the team. And so understanding those dynamics as you craft the team, or as the team begins to form and storm and norm, I think is also a big element of success. And maybe how efficiently and effectively that team comes to a solution and then problem-solving in and of itself, we all have different ways in which we try to tackle problem solving.

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And so working as part of a team, all of those dynamics come into play. And I think there could be clashes. There could be group think. And so all of the various personality traits come into play when you’re trying to solve a particular problem as a group. And so just being aware of that and understanding, or picking up on other people’s traits so that you can get the most out of each and every one of them, I think is an important job of a leader.

Buster Nicholson: Yeah. And I do agree with the picking up on other people’s traits. I was a town administrator for a small town and I did a Myers-Briggs test with all of my staff. And one thing that everybody noticed was, “Hey, I didn’t know that individual was like that. I didn’t know they communicated a certain way. Now I understand how to really talk to this individual, interact with this individual a lot better than I did before taking this test.” Could you tell us a little bit about the Myers-Briggs and maybe how that would work towards helping the staff understand each other and understand the dynamics of the group?

Vice Admiral Jan Tighe: Sure. Happy to do that. The Myers-Briggs test is based on a self-reported questionnaire that you take that characterizes your personality in four dimensions. The first dimension is your preferred world. Do you prefer to focus on the outer world, or your inner world? And that’s the difference between extroversion or introversion. And if you have introverts on your team, as an example, you may need to draw their thoughts out.

The second dimension is about information and how you prefer to focus on the basic information, or do you prefer to interpret, add meaning, analyze, extend what you’re seeing in the data. And so this is called either sensing, if you’re focused on the basics, or intuition, if you’re more big picture and interpreting.

The third dimension is about how you make decisions. Do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency, or do you look at the people in the special circumstances? And those two differences are between thinking, or feeling, T or F. And then the final dimension is in structure and dealing with the outside world. Do you prefer to get things decided, or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options? Get something done, or keep your options open, is how I think of it. And this is called either judging or perceiving.

And so with this tool, the outcome could be 16 different types or combinations, of those four questions, and they interact with each other. And it’s your natural preference. It doesn’t mean that you can’t adapt to a different way of doing things once you understand what your preferences are, if you will, but they’re your inborn tendencies and it gives you the fullest picture of a personality type.

And I think you’re right, in my experience I realized very late in my career that really communicating things about myself, like my Myers-Briggs, explaining that, or other leadership traits. I took a course that allowed me to survey, to do 360s about my leadership style so that I could understand it. But I realized that having my direct reports, my immediate reports, of which you’re not going to believe this, but there were 50 at the time.

Buster Nicholson: Wow.

Vice Admiral Jan Tighe: It was when I was in Command of Fleet, Cyber Command. So I had other commanders working for me, and I had my direct staff. So we went through all of that. And some of these people I had worked with for quite a while, but I got a great response out of them in terms of, “Now I understand, I didn’t really understand this before about you, or I thought you were being critical when you were trying to do problem solving with me,” those kinds of things. So opening yourself up and having those conversations is just, I think, a game changer in the effectiveness in which you can lead.

Buster Nicholson: Yeah. And I can definitely understand where you’re coming from about late in your career. The same thing happened to me. I didn’t even consider this. I didn’t even know what this was. And there was an individual that I worked with on the team that would ask all these questions and questions and questions. And a lot of people took it as, in almost a negative way, but the individual, that’s how they processed information. That’s how they made decisions. And the recipient of the questions on the end felt cornered sometimes, I guess. And really that was not the individual’s goal to do that. So, yeah, later in the career and you look back on your career and you’re like, “Wow, if I would have started with this things would’ve gone a lot smoother.”

Vice Admiral Jan Tighe: Yeah. Even in just understanding yourself, but you make a great point. I remember some of the feedback in my 360 came from very senior people that would say, “Well, if she just tell us exactly what she wants us to do, we do it.” And my Myers-Briggs is, again, that big picture, I’m an ENTP, so extrovert, although that’s not very strong in me. The N is the intuitive meaning, big picture.

So when I say what I want done, it’s not to the specificity that a lot of people want. And I do that on purpose because in my mind, they’re the experts, they will find the way to get it done, but in their mind, they’re like, “Well, we want to do what she wants us to do. So she’d just tell us.” So you see how that can conflict. Other people will be like, “Great, I can do it in whatever method I want. I just know what outcome she wants.” So it’s just fascinating the differences in people and just understanding that basic principle, I think helps immensely in getting things done.

Buster Nicholson: Yeah. And I’m an ENTJ, or JT, I get those mixed up with, but the same perspective. I would ask somebody a big picture and not give them the direct because they are the expert, they are the subject matter experts. So I want them to grow in the aspect of, “You figure it out, you problem solve, that’s how you learn.” You get in and you just do it. And you’re right. That might be taken in a way, “Well, why isn’t he telling me exactly what to do?”

And now there’s a communication issue and then emotions get involved and so forth. And wow, it is so deep. And it’s such a good thing to have that knowledge up front with a team. It did change, as you had expressed, the dynamics of my staff when everybody figured out, “Wow, this is a thing, this is a real thing. These personality traits play a huge part in how people perceive the world, perceive themselves, as you mentioned, and communicate.”

Vice Admiral Jan Tighe: Absolutely.

Buster Nicholson: So can you give us any rubber meets the road, practical stories involving this issue, or the Myers-Briggs, the personality stuff. Can you remember anything back on your career that, “Hey, this is an interesting aspect when I tried to introduce this, or this played out this way.”

Vice Admiral Jan Tighe: Sure. Leading people really is all about inspiring them to be more, inspiring them to achieve more in order to accomplish a particular mission. And so when I look back at my career, the military is fantastic about starting you at one level and increasingly expanding your responsibility and your span of control in a very deliberate fashion.

And so I think back about my division officer’s days. And so you go from leading maybe 10 people to a department, which it removes you a step from the deck plate work that’s going on. And so tens of, maybe a hundred people to, when I was in command, it was about 2,500 people at the 06 level, at the captain level.

Vice Admiral Jan Tighe: And so your leadership styles, as you go through those different wickets, necessarily changes. And so I think back about when I was maybe a division officer, first of all, leading people that were probably older than me, and a woman in the early ‘80s, in the United States Navy, not a typical leader, if you will.

And so I think back about my experiences and I think I felt then that I had to be more guarded in my leadership style. I thought if they really knew my heart, if they really knew me as a person, that they would take advantage of me, or they wouldn’t respect me, or you fill in all the blanks of your own demons that you worry about.

And I think I realized over time that, that’s exactly wrong. And that guardedness prevents building trust with your team. And you might guard yourself, but when you got 10 people that you’re working with every day, they’re going to figure you out, no matter how guarded you are.

As you get more senior, though, you’re removed from all the people to a certain degree. You’ve got your direct reports, but the rest of the group doesn’t see you. And when you’re at a level of having 50,000 people that are under your control, you have to find a different way to express yourself. I think being authentic and being vulnerable and allowing your personality and your traits, and I think one of my biggest vulnerability experiences was standing in front of all my direct reports and going through my evaluation, which is the 360 evaluation.

And putting it all out there and asking for their help to make me better, or to make us better, and to look for my weaknesses, because I’m big picture, I might be too abstract when talking about things. If you don’t understand what I’m trying to get at, tell me, don’t be afraid to tell me, because I will explain it in a slightly different way.

And so I think that your leadership style tends to evolve over time and you have to adjust to the level that you’re at, because the way you lead your division, or your squad, is not the same way you’re going to lead a battalion, or a regiment.

And so my regrets, of course, looking back are, I was a little too guarded in my early days, and it might have to do with the woman part of it. But I just feel like if I could tell people now, be yourself, because in my experience sailors pick right up on anybody who’s inauthentic and they wonder why. What are you hiding? Are you in this for yourself? Is it all about you, or is it about the mission, or is it about us? And so being willing to communicate in a way that’s believable, I think is important. And so understanding your personality traits, to be able to find ways to communicate your true self to the people that you’re leading, I think is the most powerful thing you can do as a leader.

Buster Nicholson: Oh, absolutely. And I love the idea of the transparency. Because you are right, they will figure it out regardless, if you spend enough time with somebody and you are a person who’s good with observation, or takes it all in, detail-oriented, eventually you’ll figure out where this individual is coming from. And being upfront and transparent right from the get-go I think sets that level of trust.

Vice Admiral Jan Tighe: I totally agree.

Buster Nicholson: So you mentioned 360 evaluation. Could you go a little bit deeper into what that is for the audience?

Vice Admiral Jan Tighe: I’d be happy to. There are different types of leadership measurement tools that are out there. And in this case, it was an opportunity for your subordinates, your peers, and your bosses to rate you on a five-point scale maybe, or compare to others, across a wide range of leadership characteristics and traits. And you rate yourself.

So you get the results back and it shows you how you think about this particular skill versus how people that work for you view you, your peers view you, or your boss views you. And so in my experience, I always like to bring humor into the deadly serious business of military operations.

Buster Nicholson: Sure.

Vice Admiral Jan Tighe: You have to find humor just to get through the day. And so the one area that I graded myself higher than anybody else graded me was that I was funny. We had a lot of fun with that when I was going through it with my folks, I was like, “I’m so hurt. I thought I was funny. You guys laugh at me.”

Buster Nicholson: Yeah. That right there would be hurtful because comedy is great. I want to be funny.

Vice Admiral Jan Tighe: And the more senior you are, people tend to laugh just because they feel like they have to, right?

Buster Nicholson: Right. Right.

Vice Admiral Jan Tighe: I didn’t tell jokes or anything, but I’m pretty good with the witty turn of phrase or whatever.

Buster Nicholson: Sure, sure.

Vice Admiral Jan Tighe: Or I thought I was anyway. But the 360s would talk about a whole bunch of different types of personality traits besides your Myers-Brigg, which is you judging yourself on that. But your ability to inspire, your ability to be part of a team, your ability to lead groups of people, just a whole lot of different questions that gives you insight into how the different orbits in your life operate, which is really good, because certainly I have worked with people that I thought were amazing, or that worked for me. And you come to find out that that person’s bosses all thought she was fantastic, of course, the people that were working for her thought she was terrible.

And so understanding the face that is put forward to your bosses versus how your subordinates see you, which, to me, might be the most important thing. Your job is to lead people. So being clear and communicative and building trust and loyalty with your subordinate, people assigned, is the sign of a leader in my view.

Buster Nicholson: Right. And it’s having a group of people that want to accomplish the mission, that want to do good, that wish to make a difference. And the impact is on subordinates as far as the quality of the environment, and the quality of the product.

Vice Admiral Jan Tighe: Yeah. I totally agree. And that loyalty to the leader. If people believe that the leader cares about them, cares about accomplishing the mission, and is not in it for their own self-aggrandizing, if you will. That loyalty drives people to do more, to try to want to do more for someone else, which is the leader, or their teammates. And building that kind of loyalty and trust among your group is what’s going to be the difference between performing well and performing with the highest excellence the group can perform at.

Buster Nicholson: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And now Jan, you do have a very impressive resume. So I just wanted to ask in light of that, what motivates you?

Vice Admiral Jan Tighe: Well, that’s a great question. I think a lot of it comes from my upbringing. I come from a family of educators, both of my parents were teachers. And they actually taught me to believe, or told me that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to, and I believed them. So, that has been a propelling force.

I also think throughout my career, the impact of the people I have worked for, of my mentors and champions who have seen in me something that either might need to be built upon, or might need to be developed, or encouraged me to seek a particular job that I might have thought I wasn’t ready for.

And that kind of encouragement, like “Wow, if that person thinks that I’m capable of being the commander of NSA Hawaii, maybe I can do that.” So it’s the village for one, but I’m also naturally curious, want to learn and grow, happy to throw myself into those really uncomfortable situations where I’m going to either sink or swim.

That’s probably a personality type, taking that risk and being willing to fall on my face, although internally saying “You are not going to fail at this.” I will tell you one funny story. We did a team-building event on Mount Fuji, the NSA commanders and directors in the Pacific. And there was only three of us who actually were brave enough to do it, but I had no idea, but I do get altitude sickness. I live in Florida. I wouldn’t have known that.

So we’re going up the hill and when we got 10,000 feet, I got nauseous. And I heard them talking, “We’re going to have to take her back down.” And I was like, “Oh no, you aren’t. It might take all night to get to the top of Mount Fuji.” And I did call it a hill, that’s ridiculous, it’s not a hill. But little old ladies were passing me while I was throwing up behind a rock. We did it, we made it, I wasn’t going to turn around. There was no way. And that is my personality. Having people understand that probably is a good thing.

Buster Nicholson: Exactly. I can totally relate to that, believe me. Once you’re there and you’re on your way you don’t look back, you got that mission, you got that target, that goal, and you make that decision ahead of time. You ponder it, maybe waffle a little bit before the decision, but once you make that decision, it’s on.

Vice Admiral Jan Tighe: That’s right. That’s right.

Buster Nicholson: Yeah, absolutely. So what advice would you give to yourself now that you’re on the other side of your career, what advice would you give to yourself, the young lady going in and signing up for the Navy? What would you tell yourself if you could go back in time?

Vice Admiral Jan Tighe: Well, I think we touched on it already, which was that leadership style question. How you communicate, lead, be your authentic self to the people that you’re working with. Perhaps there’s a bit of me that wishes I had—and some people that worked with you might laugh at this—but been more assertive in some cases.

In those areas where we were treading new grounds and was the Navy really ready for this? Or was this really within the realm of the possible to achieve? And I may have been too accommodating, if you will, in accepting that it’s going to take time for changes to happen. And I guess I wish I would have pushed harder on some of those things. And many of those things were more towards the end of my career, quite frankly. And this is me looking back at the end going, could I have made a bigger difference in this area?

And I think we all do that retrospectively, I hope, because it’s important. Could I have made a bigger difference? Was I enough? Did I accomplish all that I could, or if I had just pushed on this issue, or fought for this, or fill in the blank, would we be in a better place today? We, the Navy, we, the information warfare community, we, the national security situation that we were in.

So I think we all have doubts and I wouldn’t call it a regret, I’m just curious. I’m curious if things could have gone differently, or better, if I had been slightly more aggressive in my push. And as I said, people that worked with me might laugh at that.

Buster Nicholson: Yeah. Well, you bring up a good point about that. You do look back, every leader looks back and says, “What could I have done differently? What could I have done better?” But I guess if you also look back and say, what did I do great? What went well? It makes it a little bit easier when you look back on your career, okay, that went really well. So you balance it.

Vice Admiral Jan Tighe: Yeah. Although you have to force yourself to do that, because all the successes, well, they’re way in the rear view mirror. You remember everything that you wish you had done differently as opposed to the successes. So you do have to be reminded of that, because it’s not a natural thing.

Buster Nicholson: Exactly. Exactly. Well, Jan, it’s been a wonderful conversation and thank you so much for joining me today and sharing your expertise and your perspective on these issues.

Vice Admiral Jan Tighe: I’m happy to do it, Buster. Thanks very much for having me on the show.

Buster Nicholson: Yes. And thank you to our listeners for joining us and I hope you have a wonderful day.

Buster Nicholson is a manager of Public Sector Outreach. He has an M.A. in Public Administration and has worked as a public school teacher, analyst for the U.S. Secret Service, a town administrator, and a director of public works. At AMU, he works with directors and staff in state and local government to facilitate leadership growth through education and professional development.

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