Today marks the 16th anniversary of an event that fundamentally changed my life forever. On October 12, 2000, two Al-Qaeda operatives navigated a small boat, lined with 1,000 pounds of explosives, directly into the United States Naval Destroyer, the USS Cole while refueling in Port Aden, Yemen. In a suicidal attack, they blew themselves up, leaving a 40-by-40 foot hole that took the lives of seventeen sailors and injuring 39 crew members. My 22-year old brother, Signalman Seaman Cherone L. Gunn was one of the seventeen sailors killed in this unimaginable terrorist attack.
As much as I would like go into greater detail about my experiences as a victim of terrorism and as a Gold Star Family member, I won’t do it on this anniversary of the USS Cole attack. Instead I will use this day to honor my brother and his service to a grateful nation. Cherone was a great leader. He was a great leader not because he achieved lofty success or achieved some big goals. He was a great leader because of the qualities he possessed inside of him. These were leadership qualities that he demonstrated throughout his 22 years of life. They were particularly most exemplified in his last nine months, while serving in the United States Navy. There is a lot I will remember about my brother, but none more profound than the qualities he shared with those around him. To be clear, I believe these qualities are what separates extraordinary leaders from those who just lead others. These qualities are personal to me. They have also become essential to how I lead in my professional life as a healthcare executive. These are qualities I coach and train in workshops and keynote speeches across the nation. Whether it was getting elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives, serving as a senior official in the Obama Administration, lecturing at Harvard University or being a great son, brother, husband and father, I have made these qualities a hallmark of my leadership journey. These qualities are important for all leaders in every setting. In honor of Cherone L. Gunn, these are the Seven Qualities of a Great Leader.
A great leader doesn’t wait to be told what to do. A leader figures out what needs to be done and gets it done. A greater leader recognizes that success doesn’t just happen you have make it happen. To make it happen you must do something. Cherone was full of initiative. He always stepped up and was never afraid of big assignments. There was no bigger assignment than stepping up to serve your country in the United States Navy.
You cannot be great if you cannot stay committed to greatness. Staying committed to greatness means doing what you said that you would do, long after the feeling under which you said that you would do it has left you. This quality of commitment is reinforced by knowing your purpose, leading with passion and maintaining persistence in the face of adversity. Like many, Cherone had his challenges while in boot camp but he was fully committed to overcoming them. I remember after finishing basic training, he told me that he found his purpose and was excited about what the Navy was going to mean for his life. He was fully committed.
Leadership always brings challenges and opportunities. It is nearly impossible to overcome challenges and maximize opportunities if you don’t have a mindset focused on preparation. Great leaders prepare themselves by gaining diverse experiences, reflecting on those experiences and applying the lessons to new situations. Leaders who seek out new experiences and learn from them will build their knowledge and skill faster than those who don’t. My brother was a master of new experiences. There wasn’t a job or role that he didn’t want to try while in the Navy. His job started with visual communications as a Signalman and while mastering that he began to learn the job of ship navigation as a Quartermaster. He prepared himself every day to be of service to his shipmates.
The highest quality of any great leader is recognizing that their job is to serve first and lead second. Service is having deep fulfillment in helping others achieve their goals and dreams even if it means your own goals become secondary. There is no greater demonstration of service than the oath Cherone took in January of 2000 to solemnly swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. His role was to serve the President of the United States and obey the orders of the officers appointed over him, so that we all can live free to celebrate and protest the complexity of our imperfect union.
Great leaders always acknowledge that regardless of their role, position or skill set that every individual has value and should be treated with dignity. Great leaders recognize that how we treat one another sets the tone for how we build a culture of achievement. After a US Navy memorial service, some of Cherone’s injured shipmates returned home to Norfolk, VA and I met with them. There were no less than a dozen sailors who told me how much they loved and respected “Gunn” (as they called him) because he loved and respected everyone on the ship. I still get emotional thinking about the impact Cherone had on others.
Great leaders have the ability to avoid the emotional roller coasters in life. They put victories and setbacks in equal perspectives. They never let their “highs” take them up too high nor do they let their “lows” take them down too low. They recognize that balance is the key. Cherone was a huge Chicago Bulls basketball fan. Former Bulls head coach, Phil Jackson had a quote that described this quality that Cherone inherited from our mother, Mona Gunn. “Don’t let your success go to your head and don’t let your failures go to your heart.” That was 100 percent Cherone. He always took the good with the bad and to him, everything was good.
Great leaders have the mindset that failure, hardship and fear are temporary conditions that are overcome with faith, fortitude and commitment. Great leaders don’t just go through adversity. They grow through adversity by attacking their fear of the process with faith in the outcome. My brother wasn’t afraid of much. He clearly wasn’t afraid of the military, Navy ships, being at sea or being away from loved ones. He had courage like our father, Lou Gunn who served 21 years in the United States Navy. Neither of them were afraid of what a dangerous world might bring. For me, on Thursday morning, October 12, 2000 at 11:18am, the failure of senior military leadership, the hardship of a terrorist attack and the fear of death was something that I had to face. I did not know what adversity this would bring into my life for 16 years. However, it’s Cherone’s life and his leadership qualities that have given me the faith, fortitude and commitment to continue to develop myself as a leader. I am proud to share these qualities with my younger brother and share his story with the world.
Whether in fact a person is born a leader or develops the skills to become a leader, is a conversation for another time. What is clear to me, if you call yourself a leader, you should exemplify these seven qualities. This is what Signalman Seaman Cherone Gunn exemplified each day, this is what our family exemplifies and this is what our country exemplifies when we are attacked by terrorists. It’s my sincere hope that if you believe yourself to be a great leader, you will exhibit these qualities to yourself, your family, your team and your organization.