Strong Leader Balances Empathy, Wellness, and Mission
by U.S. Coast Guard Seaman Josalyn Brown
June 20, 2020
As Petty Officer 2nd Class Reilly Burrus sat down, there was an air of nervousness around her. With her hair pulled back into what her recruits would call her signature bun, she seems shy and uncertain of how this interview would go, but as soon as the first question was asked, she lit up with excitement and intensity. She had a lot to say.
Burrus is a maritime enforcement specialist in the U.S. Coast Guard and currently a company commander at Training Center Cape May. She has been all over the country, from the Coast Guard Police Department in Kodiak, Alaska to Sector Delaware Bay, so she felt the experiences she had gathered over her career, combined with her years of service gave her a good sense of what leadership looked like.
U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Reilly Burrus stands in front of Sexton Hall with recruits behind her at Training Center Cape May in New Jersey on June 11, 2020. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman Josalyn Brown)
"I believe just being a maritime enforcement specialist puts you in a leadership role; leading law enforcement teams for vessel boardings and other types of missions," said Burrus.
"A good leader is out on the front line performing tasks with their team. If your team is struggling, then you are struggling, but you are the person that needs to come up with the solutions to mitigate the issue," she said passionately.
She made it very clear that her recruits were her biggest priority in the ever-changing COVID environment.
"I had a suitcase packed in my office in case something was to happen so I could stay with them,” Burrus said. “I didn't want them to think that if a case did show up their company commanders would just disappear. I was prepared to stay with them for the entire time they were here."
She had two assistant company commanders, Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Aulph and Petty Officer 2nd Class Ava Toliver, helping her with training Oscar 198.
Burrus explained how she relied heavily on her assistants while training the company.
"If I didn't have the team that I had, it would have been a lot more of a struggle. We had a very seasoned team," she said.
Aulph is on his second tour as a company commander and has lead multiple companies before, and he recognized the dedication Burrus had towards making the company as prepared as possible.
"She was approachable by recruits in more urgent situations,” said Aulph. “I believe she was sterner with her recruits than most. She was a real firecracker most days and was constantly ensuring that Oscar 198 would meet the high standards of our service. I believe her intensity was driven by the need to produce the high-quality non-rates the Coast Guard has come to expect from Training Center Cape May."
Burrus received support from not only her assistant CCs, but also her chain of command. Senior Chief Petty Officer Michael Lynch, a section commander at the Training Center, expressed his pride in her work.
"Having Petty Officer Burrus on the regiment has brought a different style of leadership that we needed. She relates to the recruits on a level that works with them, especially in the later weeks of training where she can show them what she's done in the Coast Guard and how she uses this job as a springboard to further her career," said Lynch.
Chief Petty Officer David Knapp, the assistant battalion commander at the Training Center, also offered his opinion of Burrus.
"She is an honest and transparent leader who compassionately took care of her people and fought to make sure they got the training they needed to be ready for the Coast Guard,” Knapp said.
Knapp was one of the many leaders that Burrus looked up to for leadership and sought out for guidance.
"Chief Knapp was my second-hand man. When I was stressed, he was the person I called and he would help me out,” said Burrus.
Burrus spent many long hours in the office trying to iron out a way to prepare her recruits for the demands of the fleet, while also getting their pre-requisites for graduation completed. The changes COVID-19 wrought challenged the company commanders in ways they never experienced before.
"Honestly, I don't think anything could have prepared us for this current environment, but CC school was very good training and it has made me into the company commander I am today,” said Burrus.
Many minute details go into training a recruit, from teaching them required knowledge to instilling the self-discipline required to be successful in the fleet. Many of the CCs at the Training Center have expressed differing opinions about how to train recruits on such an expedited timeline. Burrus however had a slightly different take on the subject.
“At first, it bothered me a little bit. Being a company commander for three years and then seeing all of these crazy changes happening, made me feel like I wasn't performing to the extent that I should have been for the sake of my recruits,” said Burrus. “Sometimes my recruits would see me struggle a little bit, but I didn't want to hide the struggle from them, because we're not perfect. I told them that this is a hard time not only them, but for us as well. All I could do was tell them that everything was going to be okay."
COVID-19 changed the way the training center trained its recruits. This change added an overwhelming amount of stress for the training staff. However, CCs like Burrus were able to complete the mission. Her team graduated 107 recruits with Oscar 198 and those graduates are now completing critical frontline Coast Guard missions across the country and around the world.
"Typically a lead company commander is an E-6 or E-7. It's nice to see that the command trusts their people, their varying leadership styles, and the judgment of those E-5s to lead a company. Their support made me realize that I am a good leader," Burrus said with pride.
Now that Burrus has endured and overcome this wildly chaotic episode in her career, she can forever use it to help steady the service and continue to grow herself as a leader ... wherever she may go.
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