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An Educational Journey in Emotional Intelligence: Holistic Leadership with LGBT Service Members

28 June 2022

From Chief Mass Communication Specialist Xander Gamble

This feature story shows the educational journey of a service member who developed the emotional intelligence to become a more holistic organizational leader by overcoming his ignorance of the LGBT community.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” said Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching.

According to the 2020 Demographics Profile of the Military Community, the latest report available, nearly 90% of first-term Sailors and Marines are under 25 years old and more than 95% have a high school diploma or some college. As a 20-year-old with an associate degree showing up to Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes, there were already expectations put upon me to lead within the division – leadership starts at the most junior levels of naval service.

The idea of emotional intelligence first appeared in 1985, but didn’t become a popular term until 1995 when Daniel Goleman wrote ‘Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ’ and formed how the concept should be used in organizational leadership. Studies have shown that those with high emotional intelligence tend to be better at servant leadership.

Servant leadership and emotional intelligence are part of a holistic leadership approach – the holistic leader is constantly working on improving their skills, talents, and processes as well as their values, character, and mindset. This holistic leadership approach also inspires the Sailors and Marines around them to do the same. While the Navy and Marine Corps provide many opportunities for training – an effective way to develop the hard skills required to do the job – experience and education, both formal and informal, help develop the soft skills that make a person thrive.

As a young Electrician’s Mate attached to USS Charlotte (SSN 766), I started off my Navy career in an environment exclusively available to men. This was also during a time in the Navy when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was the official policy of the Department of Defense – a policy that prevented LGBT service members from serving openly at the risk of separation from the military.

First impressions form how we view a person and it’s not different for young service members understanding the service. Our first command has a huge impact on forming the foundation of the rest of our time in service. Transitioning from the submarine force to the surface force was a culture shock, but the lessons learned from this experience as well as my educational journey has helped develop my emotional intelligence in a way that would not have been possible without such a drastic change in careers.

Before DADT was established as policy in DoD Directive 1304.26 in 1993, service members would receive either a dishonorable or undesirable discharge if they were gay.

My grandfather, R. Wayne Griffiths, joined the Navy during the Korean War. He enlisted as a Personnelman on July 8, 1953, and 19 days later the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed which ended hostilities between the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. He spent his four years of naval service on an aircraft carrier before leaving the service as a Personnelman 1st class petty officer. In February of 1960, he was commissioned in the U.S. Air Force.

For his third tour in the Air Force, he was stationed in Turkey with his wife – my grandmother – and his four kids. My mom, the youngest, was born in Mississippi, but she spent her first couple of years living in Turkey. However, for my grandfather, this would be his last tour in service.

Shortly after he arrived in Turkey, his command discovered he was gay. Griffiths was facing a dishonorable discharge, but my grandmother – a tenaciously persuasive woman – spent many meetings fighting for him to finish his tour and leave the service with an honorable discharge. Many gay men at the time did not have the same privilege my grandfather did.

While I suspected for many years this was why his time in service ended prematurely, it was not until I began to research this story that this was confirmed. However, making the connections, this was one of the first steps in my journey of emotional intelligence. The next stop would be after my stop passing through Turkey on the way to Afghanistan.

When I joined the Navy in 2004, the country was still recovering from the shock of the attack on September 11, 2001. Increased security checks at air terminals were still developing and the practice of profiling at airports was still allowed despite the practice being outlawed for most law enforcement officers in 2003. I was taught by the media I consumed and the people I surrounded myself with that most Muslims wanted to destroy all Americans and anything reminiscent of Western culture.

By 2012, this was my constant worldview. A decade or more of constantly surrounding myself with the misinformation about Islam had hardened my views of people whose beliefs were different than my own.

When I had not been selected for a commissioning program that year, my department head called me into his office and had a conversation with me about my credentials. Lt. Cmdr. Ohene Gyapong looked at me and said, “You haven’t done anything in your career to show leadership.” At this point, I had been disqualified from the submarine force for medical reasons and worked as a broadcast journalist in Crete, Greece. It had been fun, but I hadn’t been operational. My short time on Charlotte had been during a drydock period – he was right. However, as a second class petty officer with just shy of eight years of service, I didn’t see it that way. In my hubris, I felt more than qualified.

“You know what would be good for you?” he said. “A tour in Afghanistan.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, with no intention of volunteering. “It would be.”

The next week, my leading chief petty officer walked up to my desk and said, “I heard you volunteered to go to Afghanistan.”

In shock and disbelief, I said, “I guess I did.”

After multiple training schools leading up to my deployment, with a promotion to first class petty officer during the training, I landed in Afghanistan shortly after the new year of 2013. I didn’t expect to see snow on the ground – my vision of Afghanistan had always been confused with Iraq. Where was the sand and blistering heat? This was in the Hindu Kush mountains nearly 5,000 feet above where most Sailors work. When my expectations met reality, my understanding of the world started to crack.

Bagram Airfield was the largest military base in the country boasting five dining facilities, a detention facility, two hospitals – one for service members run by the U.S. and another run by the Egyptians and open to the public – and an airport, among other services. There were also two Afghan marketplaces, an Afghan restaurant, and a mosque on base.

There was also a school.

I volunteered on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the school teaching young Afghan children, both boys and girls, to read English and perform math. These were kids usually between the ages of 5 and 8 years old, so these were the fundamentals. However, seeing these children twice a week helped me to see them as people no different than the young boys and girls back home. They had the same struggles, the same desires to play and be silly, the same desires to grow and learn, and the same interests in colorful books and activities.

On a mission, I was taken to the other side of the base where there was an old brick oven bakery where they made naan. They were preparing for their sabbath, and I remember watching the process and tasting the bread. I can still remember the fresh warmth as it was taken out of the oven and the taste with a splash of melted butter and sprinkled salt. The bakers invited me to join them for a meal at the mosque following their service. This was an opportunity I took them up on.

Lunch in front of the mosque consisted of rice that had been cooked with carrots and raisins as well as a chicken dish and the naan that was baked that morning. As I sat there interacting with the Muslims fellowshipping and eating, it reminded me of home. It reminded me of the activities at my own church where we would occasionally gather after a service to mingle around food. The people I was having lunch with had the same concerns as anyone else I knew – they wanted their family to do well, they wanted friends to share a meal with, and they wanted to be happy. 

“You came back from Afghanistan a different man,” said Gyapong. He was my reenlisting officer, and during the ceremony, he talked about the qualifications I had earned during my deployment, about the accomplishments I had done, and generally talked about my professional growth.

“I threw down the gauntlet,” said Gyapong, “and you picked it up and pimp-slapped me with it.”

I had come back as a different man, and not just professionally.

The next year I spent studying motion media production at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York, as a part of the pinnacle of training as a Mass Communication Specialist. Only eight Sailors a year are selected for this program and this was my opportunity to hone my craft.

During a photography course with Professor David Sutherland, he showed us a picture of a family. The mother, the father, and the two children were each wearing a set of white hooded robes while standing in front of a burning cross. This picture shocked me. We had a discussion with Sutherland about how pictures can evoke emotion, but they can also tell a story. This was the story about how people grow up in a world colored by the lens of their parent’s views – and even hate continues on because this is the only thing these children know.  

Sutherland showed us another photograph. This one was a picture of Daryl Davis, a Black musician, hugging a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Davis went on to befriend 200 Klansmen who would go on to give up their robes. By having conversations with these men and developing relationships with them, Davis was able to change the minds of men who had a worldview that men like Daryl were unequal.

For one of my final projects, I had teamed up with a couple of the younger students in the class. The short film project we were working on was a love story between two college students, and my team wanted to change the script so that the story was about a gay couple. At this point in my life, I was uncomfortable with this. What I was brought up to believe was that this was forcing an agenda on people. My first child, my daughter, was born around this time and I was wrestling internally with what I had learned from my faith, my upbringing, and the media I chose to consume, and how would my child compare my involvement in this project to the worldview I had surrounded myself with – and would likely bring her up with.

Again, my expectations were meeting reality and I did not handle it well. We ended up changing the story to a lesbian couple – for some reason, mentally, I was more open to this than a gay couple – and we shot the project. However, I spent the weeks working on this project with the teammates I chose actively begrudging them. This was a relationship I sabotaged out of a combination of hubris, self-righteousness, and a lack of empathy. I still had a lot to learn, and our group grade reflected that – we barely passed this project in large part because of the toxicity I brought to the group.

With a newborn daughter and two dogs, my wife and I set off on a cross-country trip from Syracuse to San Diego where I would report to USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) just before its homeport shift to Yokosuka, Japan. On the transit across the Pacific, I went through my initiation to become a chief petty officer – a humbling and life changing event in any Sailor’s career.

My initiation into the Chiefs’ Mess was a process meant to change my thought process from selfish leadership to servant leadership. This process meant learning to lean on others for help, realizing I don’t have all the answers, and putting myself and my group into the bigger picture of the mission and the Navy. During the process, my sponsor gave me a mirror with an anchor on the back. He told me that this represented that everything I do is for myself. If I wanted to be the chief, I would need to turn the mirror around and put the focus on my Sailors. It wasn’t about me anymore – it was about making the next generation of Sailors better.

I knew I had work to do. As a leader. As a father. And as a husband.

Halfway through my tour, a position opened up where the command master chief was looking for a chief to mentor the Gay, Lesbian, and Supporting Sailors organization. One of the Sailors in my department had grown up in a faith background similar to mine; however, he never really accepted the faith because he felt like the faith never really accepted him because he was gay. He was a part of the G.L.A.S.S. organization, and I felt a need to connect with these Sailors in a way that many on the ship wouldn’t. I volunteered.

DADT had been repealed in September 2011, nearly five years earlier. However, changing policy does not change the way people feel about the policy or the people for which it is meant. When I volunteered as the G.L.A.S.S. mentor, I was honest with the Sailors. I told them that I was a supporting Sailor, but my grandfather was a gay servicemember who had his career cut short because of the policy at the time. I wanted to see them succeed, and I was there to provide support and advocacy in any way I could. They accepted me, flaws and all.

I still felt an internal conflict, though. I was both the mentor for G.L.A.S.S. and the lay leader for my faith facilitating two services every Sunday and a religious text study every Wednesday. I had to wrestle this cognitive dissonance.

During that tour, I also dealt with an experience that would further turn that mirror from me to my Sailors. I developed PTSD. While it would be years before I was diagnosed, it took my attention even further away from developing myself and investing primarily into the development of the next generation of Sailors – especially those that worked for me.

During my tour in Hawaii, I spent less time imposing my ideals as “the chief” on my Sailors and more time listening to their concerns. I wanted to hear their ideas, learn from them, and see where I could help mentor and coach them instead of remaking them in my own image. The failures as a leader on Reagan were opportunities for me to do something different in Hawaii. There seemed to be a kind of magic in digging deeper into the servant leadership mentality. This shop of seven Sailors was winning more awards and receiving more promotions and accolades than the shop of 24 Sailors I had before. Their work was recognized so much that the shop was named the best media team in the Navy one year because of the number of awards they won – they were outperforming the largest media teams across the Navy.

The key to their success was leadership with emotional intelligence. My concern was for their total well-being. It wasn’t just about how well they performed at work, but I focused on helping them as people. The total Sailor package.

And this is when I noticed something else. As Gyapong had said upon my return from Afghanistan, I was changed. But the change didn’t stop. It was gradual. It kept going. As I would seek to learn more, I would continue to shift and adapt and change my worldview.

When I found out one of my family members was transgender, there was no longer a question in my mind. I had given up those mental robes. She needed love and care for who she was. And my wife and I were there for her, even when others abandoned her. I watched the depression slowly fade away over the next couple of years as she was able to be her authentic self. She knew she was loved and accepted by some family members for who she was, and this lifted a cloud that had been with her during her teenage years when she would present as a boy.

A peer-reviewed study published in 2021 found that transgender youth with access to gender-affirming hormone therapy decreased depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide rates. Several other studies have shown that supportive families have been shown to decrease depression and suicide rates among LGBT youth.

Our Sailors and Marines need to know that they are supported. As leaders, we need to ensure we are educated in emotional intelligence so that we can be better holistic leaders. When we do this, we are able to create a more successful team that can better complete the mission and thrive as a cohesive unit.

The educational journey to a higher emotional intelligence and holistic leadership begins with a single step.


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