The Leadership Opportunity We Normally Miss


I had just finished my senior year in high school. I was 18 years old. My friends and I were busy making plans for where to attend college. The world was full of possibilities and options. One afternoon that spring the phone rang. It was clearly an adult on the line but he wasn’t asking to speak to my mother or father. He wanted to talk to me.

“I have some questions for you about Axel Spens,” said the voice on the other end.

Axel was a good friend of mine. We’d become close while playing high school basketball together. We’d spent countless hours in cars and buses going to and from games and practices.

The voice was that of a Navy ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corp) interviewer. Axel was applying for a ROTC scholarship in college. The interviewer wanted to know what I thought of my friend.

I remember the last question the interviewer asked. It was a stark and serious question; the type rarely asked of an 18 year old.

“Do you believe the country will be a safer place if Axel is defending it?”

“Absolutely,” I said without hesitation.

26 Years Later

Three weeks ago I had the honor of attending the change of command and retirement ceremony of Commanding Officer Axel Spens. Axel has spent the last 22 years of his life serving the citizens of the United States in various roles within the United States Navy. Those roles included numerous trips for many months at a time to locations disclosed and undisclosed on nuclear powered submarines.

It was an honor to be invited to attend the ceremony. I wanted to be supportive of my friend but, as I put on my coat and tie, I had no idea what I was about to witness.

I entered the ballroom to find hundreds of people gathered. Never in my life have I been in an environment that was so permeated with protocol and clarity. It was as if the very air we were breathing was saying, “What is happening here is official. It is clear and intentional. It is profound and important. Pay attention.”

A Phrase to Remember

Early in the ceremony, as command was officially being transferred from Commanding Officer Spens to his successor, Commanding Officer Steven D. Maxwell, there was a phrase that fully caught my attention. The moderator said that this ceremony was to mark the transfer of “Power, authority, and accountability.”

When I heard the first two words – “power” and “authority” – thoughts of recognition and applause flashed though my mind. Both Axel and his successor, Steven, were being lifted up and celebrated. Both leaders were being acknowledged as the baton passed from one to the other.

But it was that third word that gave me pause. “Accountability.” That word gave the whole moment a different feel for me. That single word placed exactly where it was told me that this wasn’t merely a ceremony to celebrate 22 years of service by my friend and the promotion of his successor; it was also a sobering transfer of responsibility. “Heavy is the head that wears the crown” goes the saying. So it was in this moment.

“Power, authority, and accountability,” came back to my mind later in the proceedings as the last three years of accomplishments of Commanding Officer Spens and his subordinates were read aloud. I don’t recall a single metric that was below 100% for all three years of Axel’s leadership. One mark even eclipsed 200%. This wasn’t merely a promotion for Axel’s successor, it was a challenge and burden for him to shoulder.

Many in the room that day were uniformed military personnel who had been under Axel’s command either directly or indirectly. By the time the ceremony finished it was 100% clear to them and everyone else that not only was Steven Maxwell now the ranking Commanding Officer, but that Axel Spens no longer was.

For the Rest of Us

Most would not term their employment as a matter of life and death as the military does. Some might argue that the transfer of leadership within non-military organizations is not all that serious. I disagree. We have only a finite number of hours in our lives. We spend an enormous number of those hours at work. Leaders hold extraordinary power to make our lives futile or fulfilling. They are primary players in how much actual life is in our day to day existence. In a very practical sense, then, all of leadership is a matter of life and death.

Axel’s ceremony has caused me to think about how we transfer power in the non-military world. Unless someone is fully retiring, there is rarely anything but an email announcement. Yes, those emails usually say nice things about the people involved, but is that enough? Is that enough to fully place the honor and burden of leadership on the incoming leader?

I’ve watched the transfer of power at all levels within organizations. Committees debate who will be best to succeed leaders who are being promoted or retiring. We argue the merits of the candidates and the timing of the moves. But rarely do we toil about the moment in which the torch is passed.

What if we in the non-military world were as clear as the United States Navy in moving power, authority, and accountability from one leader to another? What if there was a moment to not only recognize the service of the leader moving on and applaud the merits of the incoming leader, but to acknowledge the successor as the person who now owns the responsibility of leading well those under his/her charge? Is it possible that we would be well-served to more consciously mark the transfer of power, authority, and accountability as we seek to make our organizations great places to work, lead, and live?

Epilogue: I can’t end this post without publicly thanking my friend, Commanding Officer Axel W. Spens, and his family, for their service to our country. Myself and my family are safer for having had you on the watch for the past 22 years. It’s an honor to know you and to be called your friend.

Share Your Thoughts: Have you ever witnessed or been a part of a formal transfer of leadership moment in a non-military environment? If so, what did you experience and what did it tell about the people and organization involved? Tell us about it.  We'd love to hear from you. Join the conversation by clicking here.

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