Elements of Leadership

Owen Casas speaks candidly about path to leadership

Wed, 01/16/2019 - 9:45am

The Penobscot Bay Pilot’s series, “Elements of Leadership,” features leaders in local communities who reflect on the motivations and challenges faced by those in leadership roles. 

For the third installment of the series, South Thomaston Town Administrator Owen Casas responded to six questions, in his own voice.


What do you wish you knew about leadership in high school and college?

The time period between high school and college was filled with my years in the U.S. Marine Corps. Because of that, I knew little or nothing about actual leadership in high school and a lot more when I went into college. In high school I wish I knew that leadership grew out of experience, hard work and doing the right thing, regardless of how popular any of those might be. “Leaders” rarely just happen, they are grown and cultivated with mentorship and making a lot of mistakes.


What are the keys to developing the next generation of leaders?

Leaders will always emerge from a crowd, however smart or ignorant the crowd might be, so my primary concerns about the next generation of leaders are twofold: One, technology over-reliance/overuse, and; Two, limited ability to cope with failure.

This is obviously not true for all young folks but there is a distinct trend being created.

When you learn to do more with less (less technology) then increased capabilities can be added overtime, making one more effective. Using the example of hiking through the woods, if you know how to use a compass and map, then adding GPS devise will surly help with effectiveness. However if you only know how to use a GPS and your batteries die… you get the point.

Also, being glued to a screen means you will be less likely to observe that a friend or teammate is having a bad day and won’t step in as a leader to help solve any issues. Emotional awareness is important for leaders.

On failure, young people absolutely need to learn how to lose and lose with dignity. How to lose and make the most of it.

Most of the successful “leaders” you read about have a string of failures they can put their name to. Failure is completely normal, especially for folks trying to do big things, so the ability to fail and immediately pick yourself back up is called resilience.

Resilient leaders thrive in uncertainty and pass these traits onto the folks that will eventually take their positions.


What steps can the next generation of leaders take to put them on the right path to leadership?

Read a lot of books: History books, math books, science books, books about other people, books about the unknown.

Find out where you are weak and find systems to mitigate these weaknesses. Find your strengths and align them in such a way that your weaknesses become almost irrelevant.

Find mentors you look up to and learn from their success and failure.

Also important, try to take yourself as far outside of your comfort zone as is safe because this is where personal growth comes from.

I have had a range of mentors who all learned and taught differently, so to keep up with their thinking I had to go way outside of my “hands on” comfort zone and learn to do tasks I struggle with… like building a municipal budget (which is way scarier for me than swimming 5K across the bay to Islesboro).


How important is networking for successful leaders? How can the next generation of leaders best network right now?

I’m kind of “meh” on networking as something to actively work on. If you look for events that are of interest to you and attend them, conferences, committee meetings, fundraisers, lectures etc, networking just kind of happens. If you have a mentor and they attend with you, they typically go out of their way to introduce you to folks that you will see again.

For me, it is more about simply being there (wherever “there” is for you) and the connections just seem to happen, especially if you keep showing up. Being there shows commitment and folks usually want to network with someone committed, not someone just passing by.


As a leader, how do you ensure your vision becomes reality?

Turning a vision into reality rarely is done just by the “leader.”

By definition a leader leads others, changing this into a conversation about “the team.”

As a leader, you need to ensure that those below you know exactly what you want accomplished and as much of the “why” behind it as you have time for.

In the military, we called this “commanders intent.” As long as a leader has given their team the tools and knowledge to be successful, clearly lays out their end goal and why this goal is important, empower those below you to make it reality, then get out of the way. After that, the leaders job is to scan the horizon for the next goal while providing those in your team with all the tools necessary to complete their current task.

This is also important when cultivating those who will eventually take your job: the next generation leaders. Empowering those below you to thrive and be successful is one of the best objectives a leader can have.


What’s the best advice that has been given to you?

I’ve been given a lot of good advice. “Make something out of nothing”, “Hire hard, manage soft” and “Have team members smarter than you are” are all good ones. However, my grandfather gave me the best advice. He was very accomplished and could see that some of his grandchildren (me) were a bit on the ragamuffin side so he once told me: “Owen, it is fine if you want to be a ditch digger. The world needs ditch diggers. But you be the best ditch digger that you can be. Whatever it is you choose to do, be the best that you can.”

I love this saying because not only does it stress that, in the grand scheme of things, all jobs are important, but that I didn’t necessarily need to try and be the best “ditch digger” the world has ever seen. Rather the best that I could be.

As such, I don’t measure myself against others, I measure myself against me. Did I do it better today than yesterday? Did I learn something new? Am I making progress to my goals?

Reach George Harvey at: sports@penbaypilot.com