When I was a young Special Forces “Green Beret,” I often wondered what it took to be exceptional in an environment where everyone was deemed great. I’m certain I was not alone in my thinking, and many individuals in today’s workforce may ponder on this very subject in their quest for advancement.
Years have passed since my days in uniform, and I have been fortunate to have many opportunities to experience, engage with others and study the subject of being an exceptional leader. For me, understanding expectations and being able to measure performance was a part of the equation. Another concern I put forth today is the ability to perform at the next higher level, with associated responsibilities, in a mature and quantitative manner. I have learned that in many environments, being exceptional is not operating on a lateral scale; it is more of an inverted pyramid in terms of scope and frequency. One’s knowledge and application of such knowledge spans outward.
I will use a personal example to demonstrate the lessons of this article. As a member of the U.S. Army 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, I not only had to understand the individual and team standards, but I had to know the success criteria for the organizations in core areas of administrative and operational readiness. I had to think of my actions and lack of actions. I had to know when and where critical expertise was required and how to apply such skill sets. In short, I had to broaden my knowledge to that of an administrator, logistician, operator, security manager, budget analyst or so on.
In the process of performing more effectively, I often asked my superiors (evaluation rater and senior rater) what they saw as exceptional performance within a defined scope. I learned to shape the question for a more effective response. Once I knew their standards and philosophy, I performed accordingly. To the end, I was mindful of how I performed as an individual and as a team member.
I looked at regulations and policy guidance and sought to excel there. I made better use of my time in the office (team room) as well as on the range or during deployments. I worked to be the solution to a problem or set of problems by putting in the long hours to be exceptional in my foreign language abilities. Furthermore, I knew I had to be in the best physical and mental conditions, so, in addition to gym workouts, I sought emotional balance through meditation.
Over the years of maturing as a professional and advancing in rank, I grew fond of grooming others to be exceptional. To me, being a teacher is a treasured mark of an exceptional leader. I wanted those to my left and right to be critical thinkers, visionaries, and transformational conduits. I wanted my program and the teams which support the program to be great for years after I was gone. I wanted others to be much more successful than me, but in a shorter time. To this day, I seek to be of greater value to individuals and organizations through guiding and empowering others. Mentorship, empowerment, and support of others are some noted virtues of exceptional leaders.
At the end of the day, when I sit and look out the window at the setting sun, I take comfort in knowing that today’s scholars and leaders in my areas of influence are prepared to be exceptional. Daily, I can see them embracing opportunities and greater responsibilities. With their advancement, I am confident that many of them will transition into being great mentors or advisors for others. Exceptional leaders build the next group of greatness within the ranks.
About the author: Joe Shakeenab grew up in the historic Mound Bayou, MS. Upon graduating from high school in 1982, he joined the U.S. Army at the age of 17. This decision became a colorful career in Special Operations where he served as an Army Ranger with the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment and later as a Green Beret with the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne). Joe served in combat during the first Gulf War (1990), Somalia (1993), and Afghanistan (2001 – 2002), all with the 5th Special Forces Group. Joe retired from the U.S. Army in 2010 as a Chief Warrant Officer Four (CW4). Joe’s professional career is complemented by immeasurable experience in planning, directing, and advising in support of military and civilian organizations, at the international, national, and community levels. In addition to supporting various charitable endeavors in Clarksville, TN Joe enjoys hiking, reading on the subject of personal development, and writing about influences and impacts. Joe is a published author and his works can be found at www.shakeenab.com.