Lessons from Making Coffee in the Mornings

Like most people, I enjoy a cup of coffee each morning. While my experience with the brewed drink won’t inspire me to write a book about coffee any time soon, it has left a profound impact on me. In some ways, it has shaped me as the military communications professional and leader I am.

Here is my coffee story.

The date was October 1, 2013. The government had shut down for the first time in nearly 20 years. Our command group’s support staff was bare since our secretary had been furloughed, and our military reservists could not get new orders.

My former supervisor and commander’s executive officer recommended me to help fill the gap at the front office. I was a sergeant first class at the time serving as the PAO NCOIC in charge of public affairs operations across Central and South America.

I felt overqualified to be office assistant. I had a bachelor’s degree in communications, working on a master’s in international relations and served as the military affairs consultant for an international documentary. I was not thrilled with my new role, but as a professional I soldiered on.

Ready for duty at 6 a.m. the next morning, my first task was to make the coffee. So I cleaned the coffee pot, placed the filter and added the coffee grounds. When the unit command sergeant major arrived 15 minutes later, he poured himself a cup, took a sip and quickly turned to me and said “El café esta flojo” which translates to “the coffee is weak”.

At this point, it was safe to say that my post-Army career did not involve me working as a barista.

I made a fresh pot and left a mug on the general’s desk. Later on that morning, the general came up to me and asked how I liked working in the front office. I simply told him “it’s a learning experience Sir.”

He then said something that left an impact on me “Anything you do can be a learning experience.”

In the weeks that followed, I learned eight aspects of leadership while working for the commander and brewing the morning coffee.

Here they are:

Mornings are valuable.  The morning hours were his time to be effective and plan his day. With meetings most of the day, office calls or preparing to hit the road, those couple of hours in the morning needed to be free of interruptions.

The importance of servant leadership. The concept of servant leadership is an approach when a leader puts the needs of his people before his or her own. The servant-leader values contributions from others and encourages teamwork.

Making a difference in and out of uniform. The commander embraced working with local communities. He even established a military assistance program to help mentor underprivileged and low-income teenagers in a JROTC program at a local high school to teach them the value of citizenship and service.

Trust. He believed in people. Whether the person was a senior officer or a low-ranking troop, the man believed everyone’s intentions were good. Trusting people was key to his leadership style.

Humility. I never met a more humble general officer. As a former enlisted Soldier himself, the commander always gave credit to his troops. He didn’t seek special treatment and took care of his people who he called “his peeps.”

Dealing with Stress. Two things I observed from the commander is that he would take stress breaks. He would either walk around the headquarters building or take a moment to watch the news. It taught me the value of taking a step back.

Loneliness. Sometimes in order to be successful, you have to give yourself up to loneliness. Yes, the commander was surrounded by people all day. Either he was attended meetings and consistently traveling. At the end of the day, however, it was just him alone in his office. It can be isolating at the top.

Bonus lesson. More than anything, the biggest lesson I learned during this experience is never underestimate any job no matter how mundane you think it may be. Doing something outside of your discipline can sometimes be rewarding. For me, doing something as simple as brewing a pot of coffee and working as a commander’s aide became a life-changing experience.

Follow me on Twitter @alexlicea82 (The opinions expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.)

– MSG Alex Licea