Leadership: Retired Lt. Cmdr. Karen Cagle
Posted by PA2 Prentice Danner, Friday, March 9, 2012
So, what makes a good leader?
That question can be subjective. Different things matter to different people. Some of the names that come to mind when asked who exemplifies a good leader are also varied. Some may mention well-known leaders of our time, such as Dr. Martin Luther King. Others may suggest someone closer to home, such as a parent, grandparent or sibling.
I recently had several members of Coast Guard Air Station Houston mention a particular person to me, and it made me want to know a bit more.
In the days leading up to Lt. Cmdr. Karen Cagle’s retirement ceremony, I heard several people talking about her leadership reputation. Her reputation clearly preceded her. Personnel at Air Station Houston talked about Cagle in a way that could be summed up as this; people that were already stationed with her were glad they had the opportunity, and people elsewhere that were on their way to report to the air station were excited to work with her.
Cagle retired from the Coast Guard, after 24 years of service, April 29, 2012. I recently caught up with her to ask her to reflect on her experience in leadership. I wanted to know how she got to be so revered and what her philosophy was. She made it clear that she cared about her co-workers. Below is my interview with Cagle.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Prentice Danner: What does being a good leader mean to you?
Lt. Cmdr. Karen Cagle: Being a good leader is 100 percent about taking care of your people and providing them with the tools and knowledge to be their very best. Great leaders must practice and truly believe in what they preach. If you don’t, your subordinates and peers will see right through you.
PD: Who were some of your early, pre-military leadership influences? What about them stood out to you?
KC: I joined the military when I was 17, so I would have to say any “pre-military” influence came from my mother. My mother was a very independent and strong woman, God rest her soul. She instilled in me the importance of always being the absolute best in whatever you take on in life, and to never forget that each person you come across in life, no matter what their beliefs or lifestyle may be, is unique and special.
PD: What about influences throughout your military career? Who stands out?
KC: The absolute biggest influence was Capt. David Walker. His leadership guided me throughout my career as an officer. He taught me the true meaning of sacrifice and dedication to your people. It is important to never forget where you came from or the struggles you may have overcome to get to where you are today.
PD: What advice would you give to a junior person with aspirations to advance into a command position?
KC: One of the things that truly angered me over the years was when I saw people take on projects or help people for the sole purpose of boosting their performance reviews. I don’t think being a great leader is not about you, it’s about the people who work for you. If you genuinely do things for them, you do not have to worry about your evaluations, they will write themselves. I have seen terrible leaders who make it through the ranks because they look good on paper. Then there are those who are known as great leaders and still look good on paper. The latter is what I think you should strive to be.
PD: What are the most important attributes a leader should have?
KC: I believe that people are born leaders. So much of who you are and how you were raised will mold the type of leader you end up being. I do agree that there are those out there that do not realize their leadership potential and can be given the tools to bring it to the surface, but I would argue that they were still born leaders.
To me, the most important attributes of a leader are respect for those below you as well as above you, loyalty to your people, true conviction and pride in your profession, and motivating all around you to be the very best they can be, not only in their profession, but in life.
PD: As the Operations Officer for Air Station Houston, what was your mantra, or what philosophy did you adopt to manage your staff?
KC: When I was coming up through the enlisted ranks as well as the officer ranks, I always saw a divide between the engineering side of the house and the operations side of the house. It was my goal when I became an operations officer to make that division go away. Air Station Houston has one goal and that is to provide a service to the public. In order to provide that service, we have to be united as one team. My philosophy was that it didn’t matter if you were facilities, administration, supply or maintenance, we all have an equal and essential part in the successful completion of not only for the mission but for the air station as a whole. I would like to personally thank Lt. Cmdr. Mark Lay, the engineering officer at Air Station Houston, for his leadership, compromise and friendship. Without it, my goal of destroying the division would not have happened.
PD: If you left one impression as a leader in your career, what would you want to have left?
KC: Without a doubt, I would want to know that I took care of my people. All those I crossed paths with throughout my career had a true impact on the leader I became. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Cagle emphasized people as the number one concern for great leaders. Ensuring that, as a leader, you lead by example and inspire others to believe in the goal that you’re trying to attain, is what makes a good leader a great one.