Next Generation Leadership
by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Melissa E. F. McKenzie
April 2, 2022
How do you define leadership? When you envision a leader, what does that person look like? If you’re like me, your idea of leadership is ever evolving, influenced by lived experience and a revolving door of leaders: good, bad and everything in between.
Currently, my vision of good leadership is 5’1” with short black hair, dark, attentive eyes and a welcoming demeanor. She may wear the insignia of a Coast Guard captain on her uniform, but that isn’t what leaves a lasting impression: It’s how she made you feel. Not what you expected?
Then you’ve never met Capt. Leanne Lusk, commander at Sector Anchorage.
January 26, 2022 - Capt. Leanne Lusk, commander at Coast Guard Sector Anchorage, in her office. She leads more than 600 active duty, civilian, reserve, and auxiliary personnel and exercises operational control of three 110’ Patrol Boats, a Small Boat Station, an Aids to Navigation Team, a Sector Field Office, a Marine Safety Unit, and three Marine Safety Detachments. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Melissa E. F. McKenzie)
After nearly 24 years in the Coast Guard, Lusk has cultivated a leadership style all her own. A strong advocate for inclusion and diversity, she promotes collaboration, authenticity and a sense of belonging. When the day arrives for her to remove the blue uniform one final time before tucking it away in a box on the closet floor, she will do so knowing she leaves behind a lasting legacy. In her wake lies a trail of people she’s influenced, each with a long list of leadership traits they want to emulate.
“I have a different leadership style than some of my peers,” said Lusk. “My leadership philosophy, which I use as my command philosophy, is Trust + Emotional Intelligence + Communications = Psychological Safety. For my teams, I want to create a psychologically safe environment where everyone feels they can be themselves.”
Lusk’s leadership style is a textbook example of inclusive leadership. Honed over time, it is a reflection of her own personality traits and positive leadership traits collected from leaders who have impacted her throughout her career. True to her word, her authenticity is put into action by modeling the very values she projects onto others.
“Her qualities of selflessness, inclusion, empowerment, intention, and genuine concern are inspiring,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Joseph Zrelak, Sector Anchorage’s command senior chief and senior enlisted leader. “Her command philosophy is not a ‘check the box’ product or initiative. It is used in our everyday staff collaborations and decisions. We practice what we preach.”
She works hard to foster an environment where members are judged by the quality of their work, not by something outside of their control. She remains true to herself in how she presents herself to the crew so they feel comfortable presenting their authentic selves. Her goal is to create a space for the team to reach their top potential, understanding that they can make mistakes as long as they treat those mistakes as growth opportunities.
“It’s my responsibility to grow the future leaders coming behind me,” said Lusk. “That means allowing them to have ownership in the decision-making process so that when they’re sitting in my seat they know how to do it.”
Lusk is an empathetic leader who has a genuine interest in her team members’ lives. She makes an effort to understand them and their life experiences. She puts people first - in practice, not just lip service.
“She has a hybrid servant, empathetic leadership style that I feel is becoming rare among our senior leaders,” said Zrelak. “I feel like I’ve always known what a leader’s priorities should be, but it is refreshing to see them in action. My experiences with her are a definite highlight in my career.”
The most valuable lesson Lusk has learned during her time in the Coast Guard is that there is no need to assimilate. Her commitment to inclusion and diversity is more than a demonstration, especially for those marginalized and underrepresented team members under her command.
In 2021, Lusk led the charge to establish the Northern Lights Chapter of Coast Guard Spectrum, an affinity group that advocates for marginalized members. She also empowered Sector Anchorage’s Leadership Diversity Advocacy Council (LDAC) to take positive action toward improving the unit’s workplace climate by implementing the Commandant’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan through regular leadership discussions, relationship building, and diversity and inclusion training.
January 25, 2022 - A collection of memorabilia sits in the office of Capt. Leanne Lusk, commander at Coast Guard Sector Anchorage, a visual reminder of where she has been and the people she has met along the way. Centered is a photo collection of members at Sector San Francisco, a previous unit, who shaved their heads in solidarity with Lusk as she battled cancer. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Melissa E. F. McKenzie)
“When I came to Captain with what I could offer as a change agent, she immediately began brainstorming ideas on how I could be utilized to support and cultivate her leadership philosophy," said Lt.j.g. Rachel Burchill, a change agent at Sector Anchorage. Change agents are Coast Guard members trained and equipped with knowledge and skills to build common ground for meaningful dialogue about civility, equity, diversity, inclusion, and cross-cultural relationship building.
"With great support of the command, I was able to administer Diversity and Inclusion Awareness training to all members of the unit, which directly supports the Commandant’s Guiding Principles and the 2019-2023 Diversity and Inclusion and Action Plan," continued Burchill. "I feel that through training and awareness, we can continuously work to create a workplace that is inclusive and welcoming for all members. I am genuinely happy and excited to be working for Captain Lusk and her command team. I believe that with more leaders like her, our Coast Guard will be a better place for all. Her leadership philosophy is very unique in that it is people-centered rather than mission-centered, because when we take care of our people, they get the mission done," continued Burchill. "One of the many things I admire about her is her genuineness and strong emotional intelligence. She constantly adapts to the needs of the members and utilizes different leadership skills to ensure that her people are taken care of first.”
If John Maxwell’s Law of Buy-In is correct, then people must first buy into the leader before the vision. Lusk must be doing something right, because people have definitely bought into her. This became evident when, at age 30, Lusk was diagnosed with cancer. Her team at Sector San Francisco rallied behind her, so much so that they shaved their heads in solidarity. The support was top down.
“Admiral Jody Breckenridge was the D11 commander [Alameda, Calif.] at the time I was diagnosed,” said Lusk. Five days after my diagnosis she called me into her office. I did not want to go. But I walked into her office and she sat me down and closed the door. She talked through it with me as a human, not admiral to lieutenant but human to human. My mortality was looking me in the face. I was worried that I wasn’t going to be there for my family,” reflected Lusk. “I was 100 percent all she was worried about at that time. She was a two-star admiral, and she gave that to me. I went back to my office feeling a thousand times better. It was one of the most important and impactful conversations of my career.”
Lusk, who has a growth mindset, doesn’t proclaim to be perfect. She believes challenges, mistakes, and regrets all serve to initiate growth, if only we are receptive to it.
“Do I have any regrets? I do,” said Lusk. “My initial inclination is to say I don’t have any regrets because they’ve all helped me develop into who I am right now, but I do have a couple of regrets. I gave too many passes in a couple supervisory situations and that could impact all the people those members supervise in the future, because I wasn’t brutally honest with them, in a kind way,” added Lusk. “In the position I’m in now, I understand the levity of those decisions, and I think I could have helped mature some officers earlier in the process.”
Lusk offered the following three pieces of advice for the next generation of leaders:
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Put people first. Value everybody as a human, and make the human the most important aspect.
Don’t let the Coast Guard be your everything. Your family is permanent. The Coast Guard isn’t. When you leave the Coast Guard, you need something else to sustain you.
Her experiences have molded her into the leader she is today, an inclusive leader who not only promotes inclusion, authenticity and collaboration but models it. Can we say the same?
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