Eric Schuck: Extra large coffee an unexpected lesson in privilege

As I write these words, I am staring across my desk at a 24-ounce Italian-roast drip coffee with an 8-ounce side of half-and-half.

It is a positively Ron Swanson-esque dose of caffeine. And while most people who know me recognize my daily coffee consumption is probably sufficient to launch a moose into orbit, this is a lot, even for me.

That brings us to the chain of events leading to the arrival of this Herculean “cup of joe” — a story getting at the very heart of a captain’s power and privilege, and the care that must be exercised in using both, especially the latter.

Here’s what happened.

It’s my Navy weekend in Pearl Harbor. About 10 minutes prior, I started preparing for a long — and if I’m totally honest, achingly tedious — conference call with headquarters.

My XO ducked her head into my cubicle, letting me know she and some of the other officers were making a coffee run and asking if I wanted any. Faced with 90 minutes on the phone, I quickly said yes, fished $5 out of my pocket, and simply asked for a large dark-roast drip coffee with extra cream.

The next thing I know, one of my lieutenants is bringing me a drink carrier with the aforementioned mega-java and, literally, a half-pint of cream.

Seeing him holding what can only be described as a black hole in a cup startled me, but what he said next truly floored me: “We’ve got you, Skipper!” Even on a coffee order, my crew was trying to go above and beyond to ensure my wishes were met.

Part of me was deeply proud of his commitment. Cultivating a “damn the torpedoes” ethos matters.

Whether my coffee order warranted this level of attention and effort, though, deserves examination. Personally, I don’t think so, although my crew clearly did.

For me, the task now becomes how to encourage their enthusiasm while pointing it in a more mission-oriented direction.

This realization hit like a brick wall. Like it or not, I’d sent the wrong message.

Rank has its privileges. This is most certainly true.

The honors, however, exist to facilitate the job, not to aggrandize the person. As such, the duties of leadership precede the privileges, and without the obligations of command, there is no justification for the honors.

What this also means is privileges are an expression of a leader’s authority. As such, deciding when to exercise privileges matters.

Quite frankly, sometimes privilege is at its most powerful when it is least used.

It’s a truism in the military that leaders eat last. Seeing the crew’s needs met first sends a very clear message about how leaders value the welfare of those in their trust.

Conversely, choosing to exercise privilege judiciously can signal just how important something is. For example, my folks know me well enough to understand if I’m jumping to the head of the line — one of my privileges — it’s because the job requires it.

I didn’t intend my coffee order to be a use of my privilege. But the fact remains, it clearly became one.

So now I’m sitting in my cubicle, paying half-attention to my conference call, and trying to figure out how to tell my officers I’m simultaneously proud of them and sorry for my actions. Maybe I’ll say just that, then transition to something deeper.

As their captain, I can ask so much of them that I need to ask the right things.

My No. 1 job is to prepare them for war and my No. 2 job is to coach them to lead the Navy onward long after I am gone. I need to ready them for future success, and as much as I love my coffee, maintaining my caffeine level does not achieve that.

Slowly sipping from my cup — I’m not wasting good coffee! — I’ve settled on exactly what I’m going to say. I’m proud of them, but our jobs come first. We need to focus on their missions and development.

I promise to teach and train them in what they and the Navy need, both today and tomorrow. And to pull that off, we need time.

So from here on out, I’ll get my own darn coffee. Leading sailors is the greatest privilege I could have or need.


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