What can we learn from defence leaders responsible for delivering major capital equipment for whom VUCA is not just another acronym? Defence leaders are VUCA specialists who navigate the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity both inherent in and created by internal and external influences on their objectives.
Commodore Scott Lockey, the Department of Defence’s Director General Hunter Class Frigate is responsible for the delivery of the Hunter Class Frigate program. Commodore Lockey has developed a set of leadership qualities and practices that sharpen his capacity to manage major capital acquisitions in a VUCA world. From embracing open communication and behaving the right way regardless of whether someone is looking, to leading with authenticity and empathy, Commodore Lockey shares leadership lessons we can apply in our own lives.
How do you lead in a VUCA world?
In this interview, Commodore Scott Lockey shares his thoughts on leadership, the leadership qualities he cultivates and how he keeps his team on track with the mission and the vision of the organisation…
What memorable lessons have you learned throughout your career?
Scott: The most memorable thing is the impact you can have on junior people, just by a few words. The number of people that have come up to me later in my career and said, ‘I’m not sure if you remember me, but back on such a date, you said to me, x, y, z and that had an impact’. One of the people that comes to mind is a gentleman who’s now a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Australian Navy, who was a Leading Seaman in the Royal Navy back when I was on exchange to the UK in the late 1990s. He was an aircraft technician working on an engine repair line, and he was not feeling sufficiently challenged. I encouraged him to think about doing other things. And he’s now a Lieutenant Commander in aeronautical engineering in the Royal Australian Navy due to that discussion. At the time, I would never have thought that that would have such a significant impact. But he said the five or 10 minutes I spent with him had such a lasting impact that it changed his life, where he now lives, and where he’s raised his family.
How do you pass on the impactful lessons that you’ve learned?
Scott: I attempt to provide those lessons through mentoring, through short courses that I teach, and through facilitating leadership programs. Last week, I worked with the Navy Strategic Leaders Program doing three days of facilitation. And peppered throughout that sort of program are a bunch of stories you tell about your career. Passing on through storytelling is a powerful way of leaving a legacy.
Speaking of storytelling, what’s something you wish someone had told you early in your career?
Scott: To be authentic. It probably wasn’t until I started reading some of Brene Brown’s material on authentic and brave leadership that I realised, in my early days, that I tried to be someone I thought the Navy wanted me to be rather than being true to myself. So I encourage everyone to be authentic with their leadership style. And recognise that we don’t want a bunch of puppets. We don’t want a bunch of people who are subject to groupthink. We want diversity, which comes through being able to be your authentic self in the workplace.
How do traits like empathy and vulnerability play a role in your leadership?
Scott: I have been accused, particularly by my wife, of not being an overly empathetic person. But I do recognise it. Empathy has been something that I have worked on for probably the last two decades to try to see things from others’ perspectives. I try to throw down the rope into the well and help people out of that well without getting stuck in it myself. Empathy is one of the bottom corners of a trust pyramid. If you can’t demonstrate empathy, you’re not going to build trust with people.
Vulnerability is key to authenticity. If you can’t demonstrate that you are vulnerable to the human condition, you’re not showing the vulnerability of being a human. Therefore you can’t demonstrate authenticity to your people. I think empathy and vulnerability are very important to building trust in a team. Trust is the basis of leadership because you can’t get people to follow you unless they trust that you’re leading them in the right direction.
What other qualities do you cultivate in yourself as a leader, and why?
Scott: Integrity is my catch cry. You have to behave in a way that is right regardless of whether or not someone is looking on, and I think the ultimate test of integrity is described as ‘what I do, knowing that no one else is watching’. Because that is the real test, I don’t think you can live a life as a leader unless you have ultimate integrity.
The other quality is loyalty. Regardless of where you work or whatever you’re working on in the workplace, you should be loyal to the organisation. And if you don’t like the workplace and can’t be loyal to the organisation, then you can’t be a strong leader.
Can you describe when you overcame fear in your career and what you learned?
Scott: As a newly promoted captain, having never previously experienced the Canberra environment, it was daunting. I overcame that by surrounding myself with good people, recognising that I didn’t know everything, and being comfortable asking questions and saying, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out’. Up to the Commander rank, Navy officers are expected to be experts in their roles and wouldn’t be promoted into those roles without it. On promotion to Captain, you suddenly start working in the grey where often there’s no right answer. In many cases, there’s just the least worst answer, and being able to say, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find someone who does and get back to you’ is something you have to have the confidence to do.
How do you keep your team on track with the mission and the vision of the organisation?
Scott: I try to use the acronym SAR, which stands for search and rescue in aviation and maritime terms. The way I apply it is as Simplicity, Authenticity and Repetition. Understand your message and be able to express it Simply. Express it Authentically in your own words. Then Repeat it, repeat it, and repeat it.
By way of example, within the Hunter Class Frigate Program, we’ve got a date that we are working towards for preliminary design review. So I’ve got countdown timers that say how many days, hours, and minutes we’ve got to PDR. We will conduct a preliminary design review on this date. And I say it in my language, and my team probably hears it about two or three times a week. Similarly, they hear that we’re going to cut steel on our first frigate in June 2024. The team knows it and has heard it 1000 times now. It’s a simple message. I can deliver it authentically because I believe in it.
What thought-provoking questions do you often ask your team members?
Scott: It’s a simple, one-word question – Why? It’s a very powerful question. And if you ask it five times in a row, you start to get to the nub of a problem, issue, or belief. And it can be so powerful to ask why five times to unpack habits that people are falling into without understanding why they’re falling into those habits, beliefs that they hold without understanding, or processes that they’re following because we’ve always done it that way. So asking why is powerful.
How do you balance planning for the future while being present today?
Scott: Setting aside time for both. In this environment and in previous strategic leadership roles, I’ve made specific times for future planning in the calendar. For example, in a couple of weeks, I’ll be taking my directors off-site for a strategic planning morning, where we will set the goal 10 years from now rather than what’s happening this week. In contrast, I’ve also got a weekly directors’ meeting in my calendar where we look no more than six weeks ahead. But I’ll take people off site every three months, and we’ll look ten years ahead.
What are the best ways leaders can support other leaders, whether in the same industry or not?
Scott: Building trust amongst the leadership team before you need to draw on that trust. I encourage my directors and other leaders to meet with their peers or other stakeholders regularly for a 15-minute coffee or the occasional breakfast meeting. Not because you want something from them but because you want to build that trust. There’s a great essay I once read titled ‘you can’t surge trust’. It’s a great mantra to follow as a leader. You need to know that trust is there when you need to draw on it. So the weekly lunch I have with my counterpart in the sponsor shop, and that monthly meeting I have with my counterpart in contestability all go to building a level of trust. And when I’m knocking on their door, I’m not meeting them for the first time.
Leadership is a journey that never ends. If leaders reach a position where they think they’ve made it and take their foot off the pedal of continuous learning, they will lose their people. You need to keep learning; you need to keep refreshing. You need to keep looking for opportunities to reinvigorate your enthusiasm. You have to keep the learning going and, as a leader, never put the books down.
During the workshop I was facilitating last week, we spoke about the unconscious bias and the heuristics you fall into when you’ve done something for so long. You think or say, ‘oh, I’ve seen this problem before. I’ve seen a similar problem before. I know exactly how to react’. But what experienced leaders should do is slow down. They should be thinking ‘let me check my assumption to see is this really the same problem? Or is this a slightly different problem that needs a slightly different approach?’ I think the older you get, the more likely you will fall into the pattern of ‘I know what to do and I’m going to jump into it first and do it’ rather than giving some space and time to consider your position first.
Define and achieve your own leadership vision
Join Dr Kim Vella for the 1-day Achieve Your Leadership Vision Workshop. This will be held on 29 July 2022 in Canberra.
Together, we will:
- discuss the true meaning of a leadership vision and how it can change your life
- uncover some of the roadblocks that may be obstructing your vision
- define a clear and achievable vision you can aspire to
- use practical tools to set a roadmap for success
- address typical challenges you may face and how to overcome them
Seats are limited so register early to secure your spot.