People You Should Know – Admiral Robert Papp

Papp 1After nearly 40 years of public service, the average person would be ready for a well-deserved rest. However, our latest person you should know wasn’t satisfied with a 40-year career culminating in his service as United States Coast Guard Commandant from 2010 to 2014. Upon retirement in 2014, he transitioned directly into his appointment as United States Special Envoy to the Arctic where he continues his service to the United States, through a career that began in 1975 when he was commissioned as an Ensign at the United States Coast Guard Academy.

Admiral Papp’s legacy as a leader, and his commitment to the practice of leadership is well documented. In addition to his service as Commandant, he has served as Director of the Coast Guard’s Leadership Development Center, been awarded the Naval War College’s Distinguished Graduate Leadership Award, and served as Commander, Atlantic Area. During his time as Commandant of the Coast Guard, he emphasized the practice of leadership and made it a specific focus of his tenure.

“People ask these leadership questions all the time and there’s a lot of people who make a lot of money writing fancy books talking about leadership theory. To me it’s all seemed very simple. You’re given a job and you’ve got to get a job done through people. Some people are very good at it. Some people are marginal at it” – Admiral Robert Papp


Papp5At The Jersey, we are often on the lookout for examples of the leadership ethos recommended at this site. Admiral Papp is an excellent example of how great leaders understand that accomplishment in public service is a team sport.  Admiral Papp’s context is even more interesting to behold, considering that he was the 13th Gold Ancient Mariner of the Coast Guard, an honorary position held by the  person within the Coast Guard whose qualifications as a Cutterman date back the longest, with at least 10 cumulative years of sea duty. A ship captain is accountable for everything and everyone, and in that world, are a larger than life figure amongst the crew. Even in that arena, the Admiral clearly understood how the success of the ship would be tied to the success of the crew.

“You’ve got to work through your officers, through your chief petty officers. You need to make sure they are all aligned with your philosophy and your goals and objectives, and then use them to manage the crew and your resources to get the job done so it’s sort of working through others. Even though that was formed through a career of going to sea and looking at it as a ship captain”. –  Admiral Robert Papp

Papp4Working through your teams is the prime directive for a leader. Leadership by definition is accomplishment by and through the collective efforts of others. Oxford defines leadership as an “action” which should tell you all you need to know about whether it is magic, or in the food, or a dream. It isn’t. It’s a noun. Leadership, and action, is by definition a thing, or a the fact or way of doing something. Leadership has been described as an art, or a process. While leadership is most often used to describe the effect on a group or organization, the effects can also be upon one’s self as well.

“I sort of use those simple theories because that’s sort of the way I was raised. All I wanted to do when I joined the Coast Guard was to go to sea and be a ship captain. I was fortunate to be able to get that opportunity, for I spent a major segment of my career serving on six ships and commanding four of those. It sort of formed my view of life and how things worked because when you’re on a ship if you’re a captain, you quickly realize you can’t get the job done by yourself.” – Admiral Robert Papp

Papp3Ultimately, the leader assumes accountability for the efforts of the group. Leadership cannot function without accountability.  It is not something to delegate. A ship captain can delegate responsibility for the helm, or engine rounds, or deck operations, but never the accountability for the whole.  A ship captain, and good leaders, are always accountable for the actions of their team.

“Most people can get the job done but it’s all a matter of how motivated your people are, how well do they do it, so I think those are sort of the basics of leadership. Every leader should have clearly defined responsibilities, the authority to carry out the job, and then be held accountable either if the job is not done well and given the appropriate praise and measure of success if the job is done well”. – Admiral Robert Papp

Papp4Admiral Papp’s views on the most important career advice he could give to junior leaders is illustrative of his approach to team building.  Every voice on the team needs to be valued, and it is often the leader’s responsibility to make that happen. Whether the voice is being drowned out by the more confident or needs to be coaxed into being, leaders must spend as much or more time listening than they do directing and speaking. The information is usually available to drive the team to the right place, if a leader is willing to invest the time to hear it.