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Stop-sign leadership: 5 L’s for success

A retired admiral shares her leadership lessons from 40 years of experience.

5 min read


Stop-sign leadership: 5 L’s for success

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Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by Sandy Stosz.

Leaders who take on a new job or responsibilities during these tempestuous times may feel pressured to hit the deck running to solve problems, improve outcomes and meet expectations. The last thing they want to encounter is a stop sign they believe will slow their progress. 

But leading in uncharted waters requires a steady hand at the helm. There are obstacles to navigate and shoal waters to avoid. Speed increases risk.

Wise leaders look over the horizon to anticipate challenges. They stop to fix their position and take a strategic pause to assess the environment. They stop to look, listen, learn, leverage the information they’ve acquired. Only then do they set a course to lead their people and their organization to success.


Make time to walk around and see what’s going on outside your office or workspace. Visit the factory floor, check to see who’s working in the team spaces or dial in to see how your people are doing if working from home. I always made it a goal to catch people doing something good, then recognize them on the spot. It’s a great way to build trust and motivate employees at all levels.

After being installed as the new commanding officer on a Coast Guard cutter, I walked around after hours to learn more about the ship and crew. In the engine room, I found a young crewmember sitting on the deck plates performing a menial task. He was one of the most junior people on the ship and was standing overnight duty. 

I asked him what he was doing. He replied in a disheartened voice that he was just cleaning a filter. I could tell he didn’t feel like what he was doing mattered, so squatted down next to him to show interest. I then told him his job was incredibly important, and necessary for the ship to perform its mission. 

I went on my way and thought nothing more of the incident. Arriving at work the next morning, I learned the crew member had told all his co-workers that he had the most important job on the ship! My small act of noticing and valuing his contributions had reframed his perspective. 


Ask people for their thoughts and opinions. At meetings, be sure you hear from every person in the room, not just from those who always have something to say. Often, the ones who are too quiet or lack the confidence to speak out have the most value to add. You need to invite them to contribute, then ensure they’re heard. I’ve found that frequently, the junior people in the room offered me a diverse perspective I couldn’t get from senior leaders.

Don’t be afraid to listen so well that the silence becomes slightly uncomfortable. How many times have you been in meetings where there is no silence? Everyone is competing for the opportunity to speak, barely listening to what’s being said. The leader sets the tone. Ask people questions, and then really listen to what they have to say.


By looking and listening, you’ll learn more about your organization and your people, and what they need to succeed. Strive to understand what motivates each person. Recognize that what works for one may not be the best fit for another. As a rather shy introvert, I had to learn to advocate for myself. That experience taught me to reach out and advocate for others as I moved into senior leadership positions.

Learn about the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing the organization. Asking the right questions of the right people at the right time is important. There are people you’ll want to speak with one-on-one at times, while other times you’ll want to sit down with a team. Think carefully about the best way you can glean from your people what you need to know, not just what they think you want to hear.


Use what you’ve learned about your organization and your people to develop a vision and mission, goals and objectives, and/or a plan of action and milestones. Make sure your planning efforts are actionable and the results measurable. If people don’t see progress after you’ve looked, listened and learned, they’ll lose trust in you. 


Congratulations! Now you’re ready to move past that stop sign. It’s time to put the engine in gear and steam full speed ahead!

Look in the mirror. Have you stopped lately to look, listen, learn, leverage, and then lead?

Retired Adm. Sandy Stosz served for 40 years in the U.S. Coast Guard. Her book, “Breaking Ice and Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters” (June 1, 2021, KoehlerBooks) is filled with leadership lessons learned as the first woman to command an icebreaker on the Great Lakes and to lead a U.S. armed forces service academy. 

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