Michael Parks, Boler College of Business Executive in Residence
United States Coast Guard, Rear Admiral, Retired
American Red Cross, Regional Executive, Northeast Ohio Region
1. You’ve been in some pressure situations during your 35-year US Coast Guard career. What does an experience like directing emergency response following the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 teach you about leadership?
The first time I went to Haiti was in 1982, when the US was repatriating Haitian migrants. I watched Haitians walk off the ship only to be beaten by their own people. That was a significant emotional event in my early development. I had to look at this from an ethical perspective. We considered the Haitians to be economic refugees, unlike the Cuban migrants that we interdicted at the time who the United States classified as political refugees.
The earthquake in 2010 presented a classic fog of war situation on the ground. Nobody knew what was going on. That was one of the biggest problems. We lacked communications and situational awareness. And that's typically what happens in most disasters. We watch the Weather Channel people reporting in 90 mile an hour winds and we assume to know what’s happening. You don't really see the full extent of the devastation until many hours and days later. The first challenge is to identify the people on the ground who can tell you the reality. Misinformation, especially now, is everywhere. That’s true for a business leader trying to improve a manufacturing process or someone working in disaster recovery. A top priority for anybody in leadership involves closing the gap between rhetoric and reality. In the Red Cross, we call it developing a common operating picture.
In Haiti post-earthquake, the initial story that circulated suggested a lack of drinking water. I had to brief the Joint Chiefs — the senior military leaders of all those armed forces—and explain that water was not the problem. The priority problem was thousands of injured people in tent cities that needed triage and first aid. Situational awareness is just another word for understanding — and when you’re communicating across distance, it takes more than words to create a shared understanding. At the Red Cross, we’ve created what we call the “Red Cross View” that uses multimedia and graphics to convey the true response picture and human need in any given situation.
2. Have you ever felt overwhelmed by a situation?
I would say tested. I often feel tested. As someone leading a Coast Guard ship and crew on a mission, such as intervening with drug trafficking, situations develop quickly. We were patrolling in International waters off of Central America and someone mistakenly believed that we were inside their territorial waters. They were in a gun boat and began firing at us because they didn’t know who we were. That situation can become a problem quickly in all sorts of ways. You don't always have the luxury of thoughtful insight — you have to evaluate what's happening right in front of you and manage the fight or flight reflexes. The work that you put in and the trust that you build leading up to those unplanned events pays off when you’re suddenly in the middle of a crisis.
3. Many say that trust has become one of the casualties in the Covid-19 pandemic. What’s your perspective as someone leading an organization, the Red Cross, that has always enjoyed a high degree of loyalty and trust?
The Red Cross remains one of the world's most recognized, iconic and trusted brands. I think that we have all experienced a degree of unreliable information through the pandemic. As I said, one of the key elements of any kind of disaster or crisis response is being able to trust information. We rely on so many scattered information sources as a nation, and we often lack ways to validate what we see, hear and read. We have far more opinions and far fewer reliable facts. Tracking Covid across time and place requires multifaceted perspectives and data. We had a saying in the Coast Guard … “if you've been to one port, you've been in one port.” Port-au-Prince Haiti is not the same as Honolulu Harbor. When you think about leading people, I always say that I favor equity over equality. Trying to treat people equally assumes that everyone is the same — which they certainly are not.
I think leadership in crisis is a constant quest for balance — a balance between the dynamic tension that often exists between competing principles, i.e. “I want to keep you safe, but I do not want to infringe upon your individual rights.” Leadership is a matter of influence. Influence comes from strong personal relationships and those relationships come from trust. Trust comes from truth and transparency. There's your leadership equation. We need more trust and for that we need more truth and transparency.
4. You’ve led people in the hierarchical environment of the US Coast Guard and in the volunteer and donor world of the Red Cross. What are the commonalities?
I think that when you come to believe you’re a great leader, it’s at that moment that you probably are not a good leader. You have to lead with humility and a good awareness of what you don't know. Curiosity — looking, listening and that everyday willingness to learn — that’s key.
Through my 35 years in the US Coast Guard, I was given more and more responsibility. When I left the US Coast Guard Academy and stepped aboard my first ship, I realized that I knew much less than I thought I did. I was fortunate to find people, enlisted and officers, who saw in me someone willing to work hard and someone who could be mentored. People took me under their wing. At every step, I allowed others to lead me and help me become a better leader. If you want to be successful in any endeavor, you must possess a strong work ethic and have a positive attitude. Try to be the kind of person people enjoy working alongside and teaching. I think you can identify the people who seek to be truly servant leaders. If you're honorable, and humble, then you’re more likely to be trusted in a leadership position.
The best legacy that you can leave as a leader is the readiness and quality of the people that succeed you in leadership. Great leaders check their egos and invest in others — in building the skills and confidence of those that will follow. That’s how organizations and people grow.
5. What encouragement do you give to the Boler MBA students that you interact with in your role as Executive in Residence?
As young people, we don’t always see our vulnerability. It’s easy for all of us, as young people, to dismiss learning opportunities with an attitude of, well, “that doesn't apply to me. That's not going to happen to me. I can do it on my own.” We can all gain knowledge and experience from our own mistakes. Or if we’re a little more open, we can gain wisdom from people who've already made the mistakes. I encourage students to actively seek somebody who's able to mentor them. Experienced people will, in most cases, share their experiences. All it takes is a little humility and curiosity. Ask, “Hey, do you have a minute?” My favorite response when I meet someone new is, “Tell me more.”