The Philosopher Captain

When Captain Samson C. Stevens (Executive Leaders Program Cohort 2201) was the Captain of the Port and Commander of Coast Guard Sector Virginia, one of his favorite presentations was an informational brief, or Sector 101. At the end of the PowerPoint slides, he featured 40, quarter-sized seals of different organizations to represent “this massive coalition of interagency groups that allowed us to work stronger together.” It was one of his most proud and humble moments, he said, “to realize that none of what happens in the port happens by any one agency alone, and that rather we succeed individually when we all succeed together.”

Stevens currently serves as Chief of Atlantic Area Intelligence, and has been with the Coast Guard for nearly 32 years.

“I believe in service, leadership, and humility oriented towards self-reflection, but also externally, toward guidance and direction,” says Stevens, who published articles on these philosophies with the U.S. Naval Institute.

In his 2022 article, he shared the story of now-retired Vice Admiral Dean Lee, who shared with Stevens that he kept a nameplate on his desk with only his name, William Dean Lee, on the front and “Serve First; Lead Second; Be Humble” inscribed on the back. “And that inspired me personally to be better,” Stevens says, “but then also [to] provide a direction to the unit.”

Captain Samson C. Stevens presenting at APEX 2024

Stevens aims to combat the apathy which has taken hold of so many people, and hopes for a resurgence of becoming a service-minded professional. If people see that it’s rewarding, then the country can regain some of the ground lost, he believes, as many people do not see service as a place they want to go or jobs they want to do. Stevens hopes for a re-commitment to serving others, being positive, and keeping hope. He thought about this extensively while working with first responders, “where there’s just a nonstop onslaught of really hard problems to solve.”

To solve the hard issues, there must be a foundation of trust; Stevens believes in personal interactions, because “as human beings, we’re still very basic in how we connect and interact with one another through nonverbals, speech, body language, and all those things.” This was hard during COVID, he says, as one of his favorite things to do is visit interagency partners inperson and introduce himself, his team, and what they do.

“There’s so much power in meeting people,” says Stevens. “And then after maybe 5 to 10 minutes of a brief overview of our visit and some introductions, I say, ‘The real purpose of my visit is to learn from you. What we can do better? Do you have any feedback for the Coast Guard in your area? Do you have any feedback for how we do operations?’”

This is the magic of feedback, he says. “When you show vulnerability as a leader to say, ‘What don’t you like about how we’re operating? How can we be better?’ People see that as a door; ‘wow, this person genuinely wants to do something, even if they can’t do it on the turn of a heel.'” These types of interactions (“inevitably, 99 times out of 100,” says Stevens) lead the other interagency partner to also ask about feedback for their institution and how they can do better as well.

Stevens calls these “blue sky planning days” because “when the sky is blue and there’s nothing going on, get out and meet people and figure out how you can develop more trust.” Later on, he explains, when there is a real work to do, an agenda or proposal, he’ll follow-up with the blue-sky meeting, acknowledging how great it was to meet everyone individually, and introduce the initiative.

He uses the example of working together to make the port stronger for hurricane resilience. In the situation of a hurricane destroying the port, “each and every one of many, many port partners has a distinct role in putting it back together from rail and roadways, to waterways and channels, to whatever contingencies must be addressed like oil spills, search and rescue, grounded and destroyed vessels, and ensuring the U.S. Navy is able to return to port.”

Samson C. Stevens with Ellen Gordon

The next step, he says, would be to get everyone together for a meeting as a group and to be comfortable knowing that the meeting will probably not solve any big, long term issues at the first engagement. “The solving is going to be 5 years down the road and it’s having that long haul approach to say we trust each other. We’re committing our time here to memorialize our trust and we’re spending energy with one another to have respect-based conversations on how we’re going to do it.”

“It’s just very labor intensive,” admits Stevens. “But I think there’s high communication equity to doing that. And sometimes I think that’s where maybe we’ve lost a little bit of that because so much of what we do is transactional. It’s very much responsive and we just do what our job is, and we don’t take the time to know the people who are working side by side with us.”

This is how we serve each other beyond the status of self or agency, says Stevens. “I’m here. I wear the uniform, I’m compelled to act in accordance with the rules and regulations of the Coast Guard I’m leading.” But there is more needed to build trust, inspire hope and positivity; to set the premise, Stevens often tells this story: As he walked down a corridor one day, he passed a petty officer and asked about his day. “Amazing, Captain!” the petty officer replied. Stevens paused, turned around (this was not a sentiment he heard often), and replied, “Amazing? Why are you amazing?” The petty officer said, “Captain, every day I’m up and about is an amazing day in the Coast Guard.”

Stevens said he was caught off-guard by this; was the petty officer just saying that? What was his reasoning? “All right,” said Stevens, “You got my attention. Tell me a little bit more. Why is every day in the Coast Guard amazing?”

The petty officer replied, “Well Captain, before I joined the Coast Guard, I was an EMT. I rode in a lot of ambulances and I saw a lot of folks who were having the worst of days. And I use that experience to realize that if I’m here at work—two arms, two legs, doing a job that I love to do with other people—then it’s an amazing day.” That story has stuck with Stevens as a metaphor for how one person can have a ripple impact. Even though he was several pay grades by rank below Stevens, he still considered the petty officer to be an employee of equal basis.

Sector Virginia, under Stevens, had over 1,000 active duty, civilian, reservist, and auxiliary members of the Coast Guard. The area included Hampton Roads, the Lower Chesapeake Bay and Ocean entrances, the Eastern Shore of Virginia, Virginia’s major rivers and inland lakes, and extended offshore from the MD to NC state line. His experience with the first responders in the port was a unique experience: “whether it’s mariners in distress, people who are in the water who need rescuing, or it’s boat fires, or oil spills or some sort of maritime disaster. Just so many people come to the table; you get a call at 2 in the morning and you’d get a bunch of people on a phone call and you’d work through the problem set, and then maybe you’d get on a vessel launch or you’d go to a command post, and you would be there working on this problem,” says Stevens.

“And I realized the pay is certainly enough to make a living,” he says. “But there’s probably a lot of other things that people could do than waking up in the early hours in the morning to go respond to the various incidents that inevitably happen when the port never sleeps. This is not necessarily first on anyone’s list, but everyone was there and there were no egos with regard to ‘Who gets credit for it?’ It was more about sharing the credit for working stronger together and making a difference.”

These events under his leadership were reflected upon in “Thank You For Your Service,” a 2023 article which began with a reflection on how to accept people publicly saying “thank you for your service!” Instead of feeling unsure of how to reply, Stevens now says, “Thank you for your kind words. I will pass your thanks along to my team, my crew, my command,” which he adopted from a colleague.

His wish is for this kind of thank you to not only be for members of military, but also government and civil service members, including first responders and public health officials, and for this gratitude to be “woven into our national consciousness and conveyed to all those who serve our country,” Stevens wrote.

Stevens, who won the Ellen Gordon Award from his cohort class, said he remembered just really admiring all of his colleagues there, because they were not just government or military personnel, but also included members of the corporate, private, and local sectors. “It’s interesting,” says Stevens, because “you think of corporate is maybe not public service, but there are hard-working people who work in corporate and the private sectors who also do jobs to try to make people safer [and] contribute toward the greater good.”

The Executive Leaders Program, says Stevens, “was definitely kind of a crucible of self-reflection that came at a time that I couldn’t have asked for more. We were coming out of COVID. It was really hard to lead during those times and it was the first in-person kind of cohort that met after some time. And so I think our cohort was just ready to be together and have some really good conversations and to step away from each of our organizations and think about these big, difficult problems.”

His favorite element of the ELP were the incredible discussions, especially pertaining to the return to civics and civic-mindedness. “If more people could recognize that local, city, municipal, federal, state governments and institutions like schools and community services and local politics are actually the place where we come together to try to work on the hard thing. We might step out of some of this polarization,” he says.

“We’ve over indexed on personal ego and personal success so much that we forgot how to say, ‘I don’t know. Can you teach me more? Help me to understand?’” He plans to continue to write and engage with these ideas. Stevens spoke at the 2024 APEX Conference on the power of a vision and a return to civility.

INQUIRIES: Heather Hollingsworth Issvoran, Communications and Recruitment | hissvora@nps.edu, 831-402-4672 (PST)

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