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Wings of Gold: Leadership and Management

Former North Island aviator teaches leadership at Annapolis

Ethics chair prepares future naval leaders for 'human factors of combat'

The chair of the U.S. Naval Academy's Department of Leadership, Ethics and Law and a permanent military professor of leadership at the school, it's Capt. Steve Trainor's job to teach midshipmen a quality that is often believed to be inborn -- something you either have or you don't.

Capt. Steve Trainor, chair of the U.S. Naval Academy's Department of Leadership, Ethics and Law, spent much of his career flying helicopters, and was stationed at North Island in Coronado for a significant portion of that time. Courtesy photo

"There is an eternal debate of: Are leaders born or are they made?" Trainor said in a recent telephone interview. "There's maybe a little bit of yes to both."

A 1983 graduate of the Naval Academy himself, Trainor spent much of his career flying helicopters, and was stationed at North Island in Coronado for a significant portion of that time. He said a mentor, Rear Adm. Leon "Bud" Edney, guided him toward teaching at the Naval Academy when his flying days were coming to a close.

Mentoring is encouraged in the Navy, and Trainor said that it's one example of leadership taught in the military that can be transferred to civilian life. Much of what is taught in Trainor's classroom is rather specific to the military, teaching future Navy and Marine Corps officers examples of how to conduct themselves -- and how not to -- in combat. But there are other elements that can be transferred to any walk of life, including business.

"Leadership is something that you can practice anywhere," Trainor said. "You have to really start to understand who you are. What your personality is, what your strengths are ... That's applicable in any domain of leadership, understanding yourself and leading yourself."

The Naval Academy designs its program to help midshipmen analyze themselves in their first year at Annapolis. Most of the students accepted in the highly competitive school are by nature motivated, ambitious people who want to succeed, but channeling that drive into good leadership skills requires a lot of self-examination.

In later years, the midshipmen are given opportunities to lead their peers, which Trainor said is the most difficult form of leadership. Since there is no real rank or order requiring their classmates to listen to them, peer leaders must earn that respect. It also teaches midshipmen to manage leadership styles within a group, which Trainor said is vital.

"You're always going to be part of a team, even in business," he said.

While Trainor has been with the Naval Academy since 2004, he said he is aware of a shift in leadership training that has taken place in the last 10 or 20 years, and that is a focus on human behavior. This means understanding the roots of leadership and group dynamics, and why people respond to certain tactics and not others, and also an infusion of moral and ethical studies into the leadership training curriculum.

"We have a unique course that we teach here at the Naval Academy; every sophomore takes a class in moral leadership for leaders," Trainor explained. "It presents two basic questions: What is right? We have them wrestle with that. And, how do I decide?"

Trainor said that the inclusion of ethical components to naval leadership training began to build steam in the mid-1990s, but was ramped up over the last 10 years as the military was put on a war footing with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Linking leadership and character together is new," he said. "In the last 10 years, there has been an understanding that we need to prepare these leaders for combat. That includes the human factors of combat, like stress and other challenges."

Part of this training has also involved teaching midshipmen the moral and ethical quandaries of different cultures around the world, including the places they could be fighting.

"Leaders are all about groups, societies, cultures. These things have culture as their life's blood," Trainor said. "The culture of the Navy, the culture of your unit, that's one thing certainly as a leader you have to understand in order to lead. Besides that, the next step is that we work in a much more dynamic situation. Today our graduates are training for an operation where they will be interacting with cultures and peoples who are very different from us, and we do include that in a multitude of courses talking about culture in a general sense."

Naval Academy midshipmen are encouraged to serve not just on U.S. ships as part of their training, but also with foreign navies. There are study abroad programs that expose cadets to other military and civilian cultures, in part to broaden their horizons on what they could face as a leader in the future.

Trainor believes getting Naval Academy graduates ready for their lives as officers will help them in other fields as well.

"Essentially, that's what the service academies are all about," he said, "developing leaders."

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