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Gulf Oil Spill Renders Leadership Lessons

Sherri Brown is senior vice president of American Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces. She heads a worldwide network of Red Cross employees and volunteers who serve and support members of the military, veterans and their families.

Brown also has a part-time job, as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve.

Brown says she is able to balance her responsibilities because at their foundation both the Red Cross and the Coast Guard are humanitarian organizations. She also finds that her skills are easily transferable between the two.

Jumping Into Something Different

“Reservists are volunteers for the military who are called upon to make personal sacrifices, to leave their day-to-day jobs behind and jump into something different,” says Brown.

This summer Brown was called into Coast Guard service to respond to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. She spent two months in New Orleans supporting the Unified Area Command.

Trained as a lawyer, Brown typically works as a Coast Guard legal officer. But things were different this year—Brown was assigned to Coast Guard communications, a field in which she had never worked before.

Being in unchartered territory suits Brown just fine; she likes to have her adaptability tested. Balancing the two careers builds confidence, especially when the unexpected challenges her. “I’ve learned to know that I can figure things out as I go,” Brown says, “To rely on the people around me, and to trust my instincts and training no matter what the situation.”

Brown learned more than tactical communication skills in New Orleans. She underscores how important it is to allow people to get out of their comfort zone and try something totally different.

Pushing Boundaries

Brown also experienced the exhilaration of being part of a team that broke new professional ground. To tell its story, the Coast Guard embedded members of the media on a U.S. Coast Guard cutter complete with 24/7 living quarters. The public saw live news feeds from the cutter, unprecedented until this summer.

Talking about the once in a lifetime experience, Brown recalls how the Coast Guard’s decision to enable live news transmissions from sea pushed the boundaries. She says the effort paid off, providing verification that Coast Guard communicators did the right thing.

“Big outcomes happen when you are confident enough to try,” Brown says. She encourages leaders to be confident enough to go for the big opportunities.

The Value of Stepping Away

Now back at the Red Cross, Brown says she grew from having walked a mile in the shoes of colleagues who work in disaster services and in public affairs. “I’m a better Red Cross person because of this summer,” she says.

Brown’s experience demonstrates that when an employee steps away from their work, they come back to it with fresh eyes and a new appreciation.

Soon Brown will be using the leadership lessons she learned this summer to manage the Holiday Mail for Heroes program. For the fourth year in a row, the American Red Cross is partnering with Pitney Bowes, a mailstream technology company, to collect and distribute holiday cards to American service members, veterans and their families in the United States and around the world.