“A good officer always has a pen with them” is one of the first lessons I remember from my time at Naval Officer Candidate School. Since I was fresh from college and pretty confident in my ability to remember everything I needed to remember, I initially ignored the lesson.
While I managed to avoid getting caught without a pen in those first few days in the Navy, I did watch many other officer candidates receive a verbal assault of ridicule and criticism when they were not so fortunate.
I quickly took note of the ridicule, and I began to make sure that I always had a pen so that I could avoid that fate. At the time, I thought the whole situation was rather ridiculous and arbitrary. Still, I did not want to bear the brunt of a verbal assault from one of my superiors, and I always had a pen with me.
It has been 28 years since my summer at Naval Officer Candidate School, and I still carry a pen nearly everywhere I go. In fact, my “pen compulsion” sometimes becomes a small joke in my family and with my friends. I almost always have a pen in my shirt, in my pocket, or in a bag. I work to have a pen with me at all times.
Even though I initially thought the “A good officer always has a pen with them” statement was a little silly, I now see it as a vital leadership learning point. I eventually realized that the point was not about the pen. The point was about personal responsibility and accountability.
As a young engineering officer, I frequently received more requests, tasks, and information than I could possibly remember. Nonetheless, I was expected to remember it all, keep it all straight, and to complete every task. Without a pen – and paper as I eventually learned – with me at all times, I could not remember it all. My pen and paper eventually became my “paper brain” that allowed me to keep track and to act responsibly. They became my personal accountability system.
Now, as I work with my many business partners, colleagues, clients, potential clients, and family members, I still have far more to remember and to act upon than I can effectively hold in my mind. I continue to rely on a pen and paper to keep me on track, to live up to my commitments, and to meet my responsibilities.
It’s a simple concept with big implications for leaders.
Leaders have too much to do and too many responsibilities to cover to miss important details or to overlook commitments they have made to their team, their peers, their customers, and their families to try holding it all in their heads. Get it on paper so that you can remember, and then act on your commitments.
Always having a pen with you is not about the pen. It’s about having a way to make sure that you are both accountable and responsible for your commitments.
Remember: A good leader always has a pen.
Your Now Step: Think about your system for living up to your commitments and responsibilities. Is it working? If not, find a way to fix it.