Commander Schilling was a remarkable leader. Motivational. Inspiring. Emotionally intelligent. A true sailor’s sailor. You knew it from the moment you met him that he was someone you’d follow equally into battle or the bar. Either way, he’d be there to simultaneously challenge and support you.
Well, at first maybe you wouldn’t have necessarily gotten that impression, because, quite honestly, he seemed almost too good to be true. No leader could be that authentic. But he was…signed, sealed, and delivered. The whole package. The real deal.
Leaders everywhere have heard of the concept “leadership by walking around.” Commander Schilling was just that type. Each morning, he was first to appear in the SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility), where we cryptolinguists worked on those days when we were not onboard our trusty reconnaissance aircraft. Within an hour or two, you could be assured he’d stop by the transcription stations, the training rooms, or the briefings to interact with the sailors in the department. Oh, sure, he’d ask about mission essential updates, get a sense for the tactical elements of our frequent flights around the Sea of Japan, off the coast of North Korea and the Russian Far East.
Not once did he micromanage, though. He wanted updates, both the good and the less-than-stellar. And he received both from his sailors, precisely because he didn’t judge or try to second-guess the operational leadership onboard the planes during the missions. He explicitly respected and trusted the linguists to know and do their jobs, the signals operators to gather the electronic data, the supervisors to manage their onboard teams, and the pilots to safely fly the planes. He epitomized empowerment, and he sheltered and filtered bad news and criticism when he received it from other officers about areas for improvement. Oh, he’d pass it along to us, but without the judgments and harshness with which he sometimes received it. As a result, mistakes were learning moments, and errors rarely repeated.
But he’d go further than just expressing just operational interest. His interest was as much on you personally as it was on the unit mission.
“How are Kaitlyn and Chelsea?” he asked at least weekly. “How is your Master’s degree progressing? Any good readings lately?”
Now, keep in mind, Commander Schilling hadn’t met my daughters more than once or twice personally. And he didn’t ask simply to appear interested. He genuinely was. In fact, when my youngest was born while I was deployed as an interpreter to Russia, he personally visited my (then) wife twice in the two-day hospital stay. Not only that, but he sent me a personal congratulatory note, delivered to me on the bridge of the USS Germantown as we pulled into Vladivostok. At his rank, many others would have simply made sure the command sent someone to check in on a deployed sailor’s wife. No, he truly cared. It showed, and it had results.
Now, THAT’s “leadership by walking around!” Authentic, personal, and most importantly…..fabulously effective!