By Guy Higgins
There was a recent news article on a lawsuit against the U.S. Government following the murder of two members of the U.S. Coast Guard on Kodiak Island in the Aleutian Islands. The essentials of the situation are that the alleged murderer displayed increasingly angry and threatening behavior over an extended period of time leading to the attack and murder. The plaintiffs are arguing that the Coast Guard should have been aware of this behavior and taken steps to de-escalate the situation, get treatment for the alleged murderer or remove the perpetrator from the island.
To provide a little background for the noble readers who are not familiar with Kodiak Island, it is the largest of the Aleutian Islands and lies just off the southeast coast of the Alaska mainland at latitude 57 degree 28 minutes north. The island has a population of around 7,000 and is subjected to some seriously nasty weather. The island receives about 75 inches of precipitation each year and experiences high temperatures sometimes soaring to 61 degrees Fahrenheit. While I have never been to Kodiak, I did spend several months operating from Keflavik, Iceland – a place remarkably like Kodiak. Fortunately, our operations tempo was very high and the ops themselves were both challenging and satisfying. That said, when we weren’t flying, there was very little to do in terms of entertainment and plenty of time in which to do it.
Back to my thoughts on the events described in the article. Leadership is about people – understanding them, motivating them, empowering them, helping them, rewarding them – taking care of them.
I have little doubt that the threatening or intimidating behavior of the alleged murderer was known to some of the Coast Guard leadership on the island. It should have been reported to and known by the Coast Guard Commanding Officer (CO) – in fact, it was. It is the responsibility of the CO to ensure that such information is passed on to him or her. In remote/isolated assignments, such as Kodiak, knowing about and acting on unusual behavior is imperative. Behaviors of concern may be indicative of inter-personal tensions or they may indicate serious emotional problems. Leaders must appreciate the importance of knowing about such behaviors and taking action to address those behaviors.
All of that seems pretty straightforward. There are factors that may (or may not) have impinged on situation:
- People sometimes have difficulty taking action that is or may be perceived as adversely affecting another person – discussing unacceptable behavior with the person exhibiting that behavior can be very uncomfortable and an easy way out is to defer the discussion or simply ignore the need.
- Taking action may incur a financial or operational impact – in the case involving the Coast Guard, arranging for the alleged murderer to enter treatment may have involved vacating his job for some period of time. Job vacancies mean that someone else has to pick up the load for the vacant job. The same is true for companies, not only military organizations. The cost is immediate and the benefit, if any is actually realized, will be in the future.
- There are also potential administrative “penalties.” Many organizations, particularly large ones, have detailed processes for disciplining or terminating employees. These processes are intended to ensure that the object of the discipline or termination is treated fairly and with dignity – but they may also require significant effort on the part of leadership and take a lengthy time period. Terminating a civil service employee can, from the very beginning, take two years or even more. Frequently, it’s much easier and quicker to “promote” the problem out of the organization – and kick the can to someone else.
I don’t know if any of these factors actually came into play on Kodiak Island, but they could have, and it’s important that leaders recognize their responsibility to address behaviors of concern and take action to resolve them before they evolve into more serious problems. Behavioral problems affect not only the person with the problem but also everyone with whom that person comes in contact – the behaviors exhibited by the person on Kodiak Island led to the ultimate impact for the two people he shot and killed. Leadership is serious business and problems, particularly behavioral problems are not like fine wine – they do not get better with age.