Admiral Paul Zukunft has been the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard since May 30, 2014, leading 41,700 men and women on active duty, 7,800 reserves, 8,300 civilians and 31,000 volunteer Auxiliarists. In an interview with Tom Fox, Zukunft discussed the times that have tested his leadership skills, the lessons he has learned during 40 years of service and his 4:30 a.m. exercise routine. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you describe an early experience with the Coast Guard?
After I received my commission, I was put in command of a patrol boat during the Mariel boatlift. It was an opportunity to lead and be a captain of a ship at the ripe old age of about 25. From that point on, the Coast Guard became part of my DNA.
How has the Coast Guard changed since you graduated from the academy in 1977?
When I graduated from the Coast Guard Academy 40 years ago, the word terrorism really wasn’t in our vernacular. Even the counter drug movement hadn’t become par for the course. The Coast Guard was doing mostly fisheries and search and rescue. On my first ship, we would go toward the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean with meteorologists and would try to track where tropical cyclones might be forming by launching weather balloons every 12 hours. We didn’t have space-based technology. We had National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration buoys. Today, there is a rapid pace of change with technology and the world is much more complex.
Have there been times that tested your leadership skills?
The biggest one was seven years ago with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I was the federal on scene coordinator. The spill impacted five states, we had nearly 50,000 responders, and thousands of boats and hundreds of airplanes. But locals viewed us as outsiders from Washington, D.C. Some communities were still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, and they didn’t have the best memory of a federal response. Job one was to earn the trust at the local level. I came to recognize that we were not just managing an oil spill. We had to be in front of the camera to tell our story. We had to work with the governors and provide accurate information and do town hall meetings. As a leader, my responsibility was to help bring back that trust.
Did you ever make a leadership mistake that taught you an important lesson?
After the Mariel boatlift, I got a call from my boss who wanted me to tow an inland boat from southern Florida to our home port in Savannah, Georgia. My boss said do it and I followed orders. Three days out, we hit a storm and this 30-foot Coast Guard boat I’m towing capsized. I thought, “There’s the end of my career.” Sure enough, I became the scapegoat. I should have said no. You could put this boat on a trailer and drive it up I-95. They thought they could save a few bucks by making me tow this thing back. I learned from this experience when to say no.
How did that experience come into play later on?
I was the commanding officer of a much larger ship and we’re getting ready to pull into the Dutch harbor in the Aleutian Islands. About 45 minutes before we made our approach to the pier, the barometer plummeted and the wind kicked up to about 45 knots with gusts of 50. Things were going downhill fast. I turned the ship around and everyone was looking at me like, “Hey, we are supposed to be here at this time, at this day.” I said, “We’ll come back another day. I’m not going to tie the ship up because we will destroy it.” We came back the next day and it was calm. We tied it up and it was an uneventful morning. Another ship held themselves hostage to the daily schedule and tied up under those conditions several months later. They literally did several million dollars in damage to the ship.
Have you conveyed the lessons from these experiences to your officers?
I like to share with our junior officers that it’s okay to make honest mistakes. You know, don’t cross the line in terms of ethics and conduct, but if you are learning along the way, it is okay to make mistakes. In fact, I attest that if you don’t make mistakes along the way, then you’re really not pushing yourself to your limit.
Who is your role model?
I have always looked up to Jim Loy, our 21st commandant. When he was a vice admiral and I was a captain, I had just taken my ship back on a trial run from Virginia to the Bering Sea and I had to brief him. I was waiting outside his office and he was having a telephone conversation. Whoever was on the other end of the phone was getting a tongue lashing. He then made a second phone call and this time he was very contrite. When I came in afterward, I said I couldn’t help but overhear your conversations. He said, “Well, my first phone call was to an admiral from a foreign navy. I gave him a chewing out. I then called a petty officer who had been on his foreign naval ship for two months.” Loy said the petty officer was an African American, and when he and his team came aboard the foreign vessel, this foreign admiral said, “Darkie, are all of your people here?” Loy told the admiral he would never ever send another element of the Coast Guard to his service until he showed proper dignity and respect to the men and women of our service regardless of race, religion or gender. Loy, a three-star admiral, then called the petty officer and apologized to this young man. The young man had found himself in that situation and felt that he had nowhere to turn. Loy told him, “You can always turn to me.” This is a story that would never see the light of day. I happened to be privy to the phone conversations. And I said to myself, “That’s the leader that I’d like to be some day.”
What would people be surprised to know about you?
People don’t see me at 4:30 in the morning on my bicycle. I keep a mileage log. Since I have been commandant, I have bicycled the equivalent of the equatorial circumference of the earth. Over 25,000 miles. I don’t expect everyone in the Coast Guard to go bicycle around the world, but I’ve actually done that in about three years.