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Admiral Linda L. Fagan on U.S. National Security and Leadership Lessons

March 14, 2022


The Pallas Foundation for National Security Leadership recently hosted a moderated discussion with Admiral Linda L. Fagan, Vice Commandant of the United States Coast Guard (USCG). The Admiral discussed the Coast Guard’s mission in relation to U.S. national security, the state of geopolitical affairs in the Arctic, and leadership lessons gleaned from her 35+ years with the Coast Guard. Check out three highlights from the conversation below.


With a wide ranging mission set, the USCG plays a critical role in advancing U.S. national security issues. These missions range from ensuring the sovereignty that the U.S. enjoys as a maritime nation to engaging with international partners to enforce their own exclusive economic zones. Admiral Fagan shared several ways in which the USCG advances the United States’ national security objectives. As a small service of approximately 42,000 active duty Coast Guardmen and women, the Service has both the benefit and challenge of reacting and moving at a greater speed and urgency than other Services. In particular, Admiral Fagan highlighted the Western Pacific, a region of significant geopolitical importance and rife with small island nations. This region is an ideal example of the Coast Guard’s leadership, value proposition, and ability to demonstrate collaboration, commitment to a rules-based order and good governance—countering threats to our national security far offshore before they reach U.S. shores. In the region, for example, the Coast Guard participates in a sustained, coordinated effort to counter illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing through the promotion of fisheries management and regulation. USCG is often known for their focus on disaster and humanitarian response in the homeland, but, on the international assistance front, if the Service’s cutters are on patrol in the affected region, they are often the first to respond..


The evolving geopolitical state of affairs and the impacts of climate change make the Arctic an increasingly dynamic environment for the Coast Guard. Admiral Fagan noted the need for a broader conversation on the investments needed in the Arctic to enable the U.S. to ensure and protect U.S. interests in the region. As one investment, she noted that forums that allow Arctic nations to collaborate on shared interests are essential to preserving peace and cooperation in the Arctic. Recent geopolitical events, however, have made this work more challenging. For example, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has disrupted international cooperation in the region. China’s declaration as a “near Arctic nation” and the nation’s recent research trips to the region further complicate the geopolitical reality of the region. The Coast Guard is moving toward increasing the nation’s heavy icebreaking capacity to generate an enduring presence in our own Arctic waters. On climate change, Admiral Fagan said we are already seeing the impacts around the world, with the pace of change much quicker than anticipated. In the Arctic, specifically, she noted there is now water where there used to be ice and increased human maritime activity as a result. As fish migrate to follow the cooler temperatures, she expects we will see increased fishing pressure in the region.


Leadership is a journey you commit to everyday. In closing, the Admiral shared several lessons on leadership learned over the course of her career. First, she encourages a daily leadership journaling habit to jot down things emerging leaders like (or don’t like) about the leaders they meet, in order to develop one’s own leadership principles. One of the paradoxes of leadership, said Admiral Fagan, is “it’s not about you, but it is all about you.” It is important to practice self-reflection, develop skill-sets to lead your peers, and be present for yourself, your organization, and the work you are doing. Second, emphasizing leadership as a team sport, the Admiral noted that it is critical to be both a compassionate and empathetic leader. As a final piece of parting advice, Admiral Fagan stressed the simple importance of having fun. “If you are not having fun,” she said, “the people you are leading are definitely not having fun.”


Admiral Linda L. Fagan assumed the duties as the 32nd Vice Commandant on June 18th, 2021. As the Vice Service Chief and Chief Operating Officer, Admiral Fagan executes the Commandant’s Strategic Intent, manages internal organizational governance and serves as the Component Acquisition Executive. Admiral Fagan has served on all seven continents, from the snows of Ross Island, Antarctica to the heart of Africa, from Tokyo to Geneva, and in many ports along the way. Operational tours include Commander, Sector New York, more than 15 years as a Marine Inspector, and sea duty in USCGC POLAR STAR, a 399ft heavy polar icebreaker. Admiral Fagan is the longest serving active duty Marine Safety Officer, which has earned her the distinction of being the Coast Guard’s first-ever Gold Ancient Trident.