On Navy Leadership

My Father Never Knew

In the Navy Reserve nobody was ordered to bite the biscuit and hold on for dear life. They could always walk away with either a fare thee well or a request for transfer. In the hard core units it took genuine leadership to get them to stay. In the active units, staying was simply a fact because they didn't leave until higher staff ordered them to leave.

It amazed him. He was so used to the FACT that no soldier ever had a right to transfer out from under poor command and leadership.

It was amusing to disabuse him. Some people join and join because they like to fight but they want a choice in who they fight for. I know, it hardly seems fair and you might think it flies in the face of my earlier Get Rid of Them perspective. In fact, it is the opposite of fair when you look at it from the leader perspective and yet every single one of us hopes that we will be granted that grace, at least once in our new job. Everyone screws up. Some of us screw up monumentally and can only hope that our leader will overlook that one lapse and let us try again. I always did. My rule was that everyone who worked for me, who came to my attention, got a freebie; unless it was a felony.

In these early lessons I am trying to lay out the rules that will build a successful leader. A successful leader has got to accept that people really do make egregious painful stupid errors. You accept that, you use those errors as a teaching moment and you MOVE ON. Yes, you make a note of it because, realistically, your subordinates are supposed to learn from such errors and not make them anymore. Believe me, when they make an egregious painful error and you are left explaining it to your boss, they had their one shot at your ass. You need to convince them that they only had that ONE shot. You will not go to the limit for them again. One and only one shot.

I didn't take this to any ridiculous expense but it was one I learned as a first tour Division Officer working with the best Navy Chief Warrant Officers, Limited Duty Officers, hyper experienced and worthy line officers and it served me very well. I learned that you go to the limit for a good man who made an error so bad it came to the attention of the Commanding Officer or even, the Ambassador. You gain enormous credibility for standing up for your sailor and ALL successful leaders understand that you must do so if you are to enjoy any credibility with the men you lead. They will give you the room....

But that doesn't happen anymore in an atmosphere of zero tolerance. I saw it again and again throughout my career but service on the destroyer poisoned the rule when the CO decided, unilaterally, that he was going to implement a zero tolerance policy for THC and administratively separated all sailors who failed a command urinalysis. There was nothing to be done at the Division or Department level since he had decided that if he could not impale otherwise good sailors who made a mistake, he was, by God, going to separate them from the Navy.

He made everything worse. He ruined worlds by not allowing anybody their single bite and screw-up. I think he left the navy to teach and train teachers and administrators.

None of us are angels, but each of us once had the saving grace. Nowadays, I'm afraid that grace has to come before official recognition is allowed to shine on the guilty, and that involves a massive violation of the rule about conspiracy.

How did the Navy get to the point where the only way to save a good sailor was to conspire?

Don't forget the rule. Nothing and nobody is worth conspiring. When it comes to the 10%, consider. Are they worth it? Do they confirm the rule or should you extend your hand to save them from themselves? It's a judgement call. The interesting thing I've noticed over the years is that people who screw up and fail you? They do it again and again and again. If you do it right, they get the one chance and are gone the second time they try it.

In the worst commands, you will run across those people who observe no regard for the rules. They got a 'leadership award' from their school and believe that they are God's gift to the Navy. You can tell them usually by the utter contempt that they enjoy with their subordinates. Don't descend to that level. Learn from them. They make/made ALL the mistakes of leadership. You see them everyday now that we have the internet. They think nothing of trashing the command and carrying on under the guise of 'loyal subordinate' but you know how they feel when any of their subordinates trashes them using the same tools. You need to be consistent.  Always. The rules are not the same for all, but they exist for all. Abide by them.

I know it has its admirers. Think how wrong most people are most of the time and reconsider it as a method for leading anything. It doesn't even work for parents who face teenagers every single day who, in the name of fairness, insist that parents mustn't ever drink or smoke either since you won't allow them to. Nevertheless, this silly mantra is all over the place as the be-all-end-all of Navy Leadership.

Command and leaders need to get over the desire to treat everyone the same in some Quixotic quest to enforce an idiot level of intolerance on mature responsible adults and separate them from the vast majority of young men and women who, cannot, in any locale, even consume a beer in the Continental United States without breaking the law.

The very worst leaders we have, enact a total proscription and ban on any given behavior at all venues (EVEN YOUR OWN HOME) because 18 and 19 year olds screwed up 22 years ago and last week. They demand a zero tolerance for any and all behaviors that don't matter and which 90% of the Adults in the command can safely do forever without harm.

Remember, 10% of your people are 90% of the problem. Don't fuck around with the 10%. Get rid of them. You can try rehabilitation but that is no longer the Navy way. It also, is not the Navy way to say that 10% of your people are a problem well deserving of being thrown out. There's that beautiful prestigious honor of the Golden Anchor for 100% retention or some such idiotic campaign to make leaders suffer and endure all the slings and arrows of fate and misfortune guided to them like a Tomahawk missile because jackasses with stars on their collars decided that there is, "no such thing as a bad sailor." Yeah, there is. There's lots of them.

Get rid of them. In my younger days as command legal officer, the XO of ship gave me orders that no defaulters would ever appear in front of him at XOI unless there were a minimum of three charges on the charge sheet. I asked why and he told me. "Three violations of the regulations and I can state and attest that this sailor exhibits a pattern of misconduct and we can administratively separate him immediately without bothering real legal officers. I was OK with that. Of course, the 3 times the First Lieutenant and Bosun wrote me up on charges of violating regulations on that ship over the next 10 months, they were unaware of that fact...they were also vicious low-down-dirty-rotten scoundrels who didn't know any better.  Maybe we'll address the idiocy of zero tolerance and collective punishment next time.


Never Conspire

I know, it almost seems like a no-brainer doesn't it? Who in the Navy would conspire and why would anyone conspire? This may be more of a personal philosophy than a naval leadership guideline.

I was, for a long time, way out front at the tip of the spear. Support from above was almost non-existent. I'm not talking simply about from the CO above me but more particularly, from the echelons above command that failed to provide any level of support whatsoever unless they were properly motivated. It's difficult for a young department head to motivate the echelons above command. In order to accomplish the mission you sometimes find yourself engaging the enemy more closely than strict scrutiny will bear. You DON'T want anyone in a position to go and confess their feelings of doubt.

You don't go anywhere near the borderlines of ethics, legality and common sense without knowing the rules and being intimately familiar with the boundaries. That's the first order of doing business. YOU need to KNOW the rules and limits and thus be able to find the boundaries.

As an example. A young Army officer was held up to severe criticism because the thoughtless fool ordered his men to cannibalize parts from deadlined Army vehicles left behind when their owning units crossed the Line-of-Departure in the invasion of Kuwait/Iraq. He told himself that he was merely 'cross-decking' parts from one Army unit to his Army unit and that it was no harm-no-foul because, after all, all the vehicles involved belonged to the United States Army.

The Army broke him, sent him to prison and moved on. The thing is? I'd have done the same thing. At worst, he was sending more of his people into harm's way because he found parts that could be used to repair his unit's vehicles. He wasn't stealing for any personal gain.

If you ever find yourself taking anything at all from anybody that benefits you personally? You screwed up. Nobody pays any personal favor to an officer or senior enlisted who is just doing his job.

The danger comes when you open the door to things one might regard as mission support. I did not see at the time, the CO's point of view, when he refused the navy Commander who told him he could defuel the ship that night. What difference would it make I wondered? The ship is disarmed. Taking away 99% of the remaining fuel early couldn't affect the Cold War. On mature reflection, was the installation CDR telling the skipper that he had people standing by, willing to work overtime and thus, slyly, lining them up for overtime pay without telling the 'naive' navy Captain? Now that I think about it, that was probably the case. The Captain had a lot of experience though and found a way to politely invite the installation commander to leave for the night.

The lesson is that Operational Necessity is as real as you can imagine. If you decide it trumps the rules but not the law, do so at your immediate peril. You will go farther and last longer if you don't involve others in the decision or the process. It's like rule #6. Never ask the JAG.

Trust No One


There, in this way, we turn away from our aviation cousins and join our nuclear brothers in the business of making war. There are two fraternities in the life of naval officer and both embrace a trust that we don't expect or deserve. The truth of the matter is that neither aviation nor nukes make any spectacular show out of trusting the sailors who maintain.

They don't on a massive scale. My introduction to the nuclear navy was not pretty. They wanted me in the worst way but the lies that dribbled from their lips were easily countered by the tales spun by the junior officers leaving the navy unhappy with the overt manifestation of the simple, but true philosophy of leadership that demands that you trust no one. Nukes and airedales take that fact to the most extreme limit. You don't have to.

You give trust to only those you have reason to trust. You gift your subordinates with a coin that cannot be bought by anything except trust.  With most, the simplest and easiest and best solution; trust the ones you have learned to trust, but check. That is your job.

When it is life and death, you double-check. It's not hard. You  can ask reinforced questions of those you trust to ensure that both of you share a common understanding of the task and it was done in accordance with your desires.

When you get down to the killers, you need to verify that what you ordered has been done and you need to go there and personally verify it.

These are rules for department heads and division officers. They apply to Command only in the sense that you cannot trust your subordinates at any level to do their jobs of carrying out leadership in your absence unless you have made their role very clear and have given them that authority. Sometimes, you get to lead a sad and pathetic herd. We can discuss that kind of leadership in the next lesson.

Seriously, like Pie, good leadership will fix anything. An awful lot of people fail to understand that but you need to abide by the 3 rules and accept that your job is to check, double-check and verify.

Perhaps next we'll discuss the rule about, Never Conspire. It's worth talking about. Almost all JO's conspire.


No Man Is Essential.

There are any number of people who don't understand the rule about essential. They failed to see the empire builder in their midst until it was late in the game. It's not always a flaw in the leader to fail to detect this sort of weakness in the organization. Sometimes you miss it as a Division Officer and your Department Head is too busy to notice that you have evolved a cleft stick into which you have placed the division.

None the less, it is your job to notice when you get into this dilemma. Keep in mind, mostly the man who inhabits that narrow area of expertise didn't summon it to himself. You and the blindness of the command let things evolve to the point where that man appears to be essential. You don't have any idea what I'm referring to so, a few examples:

You have one gyro technician for both the Mk 19 and Mk 23 gyro. There is no other man on the ship that can fix or even trouble shoot a malfunctioning gyroscope. The gyro is the sine quo non of the ship's weapon system and navigation. Without it you might as well go home, if you can find it.

That guy arrived there through the policy of BUPERS. They figured one coded technician was enough for your type of ship. What is your back up plan?

On your second ship, the Destroyer, you rapidly tired of Fire Control personnel who told you that they couldn't troubleshoot a damaged system because they: hadn't been to school, didn't have that specific Navy Enlisted Classification, couldn't understand a wiring diagram or schematic of a foreign system to save their life. Once you get past the urge to kill, you wonder, what part of Basic Electronics and Electricity did these guys fail to grasp that they announce their inability to troubleshoot a system using nothing but Chapter 7 of the tech manual and a schematic?

So you come to the Essential Man Theory of Everything. The weak ones won't. Nothing will motivate them to exert themselves. As with any endeavor, 75% of the organization won't be pro-active unless you light a fire under them.

You now face the dilemma of most leaders. There's a guy you know. He could do it. He could tear into the guts of the machine and he could give you not just an answer, he could fix it. He's the guy you go to.

He's a good man to have. You are truly blessed to have such a man who is willing to use the training and knowledge he has to solve your problem. Of course, if you go to him too often? He's going to reconsider the deal unless you sweeten the pot. You've also found yourself in the trap of the essential man. You need to get beyond this one guy.

It is painful. Sometimes, it is almost humiliating. If the case is too advanced, that one guy thinks he can hold the command hostage to his knowledge. Would it surprise you if I said I knew one guy that tried that to the point of going AWOL? Didn't work of course. No Man Is Essential. That was poor leadership. I'm going to say, even though, it goes without saying, he didn't work for me.

On the other hand, you DON'T want a GO TO GUY, not even the Chief. We burn out those most able and willing to help us by constantly turning to them for solutions. We always come up with solutions. The goal is to grow subordinates to the point where they become the go to guy.

What you need to do is get that ONE person to TRAIN/advise, nurture, help, grow, assist the next generation of people who can fix the problems as they come up. They become somewhat rambunctious and independent at that stage. Riding herd on a crew of upstart, fix anything, cowboys?  They were never more trouble than they were worth. They were lightyears better than having an essential man.

Nobody has commented yet, so that's all good. I think next we will cover the trinity of leadership. Nobody else writes this stuff, so perhaps it's worth a review: There's really only two rules.

Rule Number One: Trust No one.

Rule Number Two: Check, Double check and Verify

Never conspire.

 We allow as how Rule Number One seems unreasonable. It won't be the first time you are left holding the bag. Rule Number Two is a lesson in three parts. You need to learn the things that you
must personally double check and those things that you must verify personally. It's like COMSEC, Enter that world and trust has fled.


OPSUMS next. Over-reach and a desire to know things that aren't their business. You need to curb that.
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Empire Builders

One of the most interesting things I noticed about naval leadership was the institutional empire building that went on at every level from Seaman to Admiral. I suspect most people confuse this behavior with leadership. It was always clear to me though that this was not a matter of leading but of ego and vanity.

It morphed as the builder achieved higher rank and a larger span of access to control. It was never anything but bad in my experience. There was never a single builder who convinced me and a handful of others that the creation of the wider empire was anything but an attempt to make a thing reflect the will of the builder himself. That's tolerable as long as the builder's will is aligned with mission and purpose of the empire under construction.

At the highest levels the empire builder was still trying to morph the navy to his desired shape. At times that took on an almost physical mania where the builder sees the Army and Marines concentrating on muscular physical fitness and decrees unilaterally that all Navy personnel must be in the same shape despite the fact that our duties don't require anything like that level of physical perfection. It resulted in the loss of serious talent; men who were pruned out of the Fleet and the Navy and tossed away because they didn't meet the idealized vision of the builder.

I can allow that this sounds like sour grapes or small potatoes but it never was never a personal issue with me, it was always a personnel issue. I was told on a number of occasions that 100% of the technical expertise in such things as Fire Control or A/C and R must be transferred off the ship within the week for transfer to a place where he could be separated from the Navy because he failed to conform to a physical standard that didn't even exist when I joined the Navy.

At the lower level of empire building one ran across things as simple and vicious as a Tool Custody clerk who was fully prepared to bring work to a complete halt until his own petty and meaningless forms were properly filled out and countersigned. That was bad but it was worse when a Department Head refused to allow anyone other than himself to approve internal ship's force work requests which were filled out as the first step in a paperless process required in order to then fill out other forms necessary to draw spare parts and supplies from the Supply Department. One of those empire builders left the ship on leave without passing approval authority to anyone else on the entire ship.

The empire builders were taking the first steps at becoming the "essential" man; convinced that they were the single key element in any particular aspect of the organization. That can be the working title for the next piece: No Man Is Essential.

When the Captains and Admirals continued to play empire builder, long after they should have learned that it was nothing but a trap, it got much worse. In my last duty station I watched as one man decided to tear apart a number of well-developed, self-deploying units with unique missions and try to meld them all together into one giant organization ruled over by officers and others who didn't have a clue what each of the various unique organizations did, but convinced that they knew how to run it better than the men and women who had been doing it for the last 40 years.

The empire builder had the power and made it happen. The independent units were destroyed almost overnight and reshaped into cogs which would be shaped into something he insisted upon calling an adaptive force package. None of these units was co-located, none in the same chain-of-command except that they shared a 2 star admiral at the top of the chain and none of them retained a functioning self-deploying capability which placed them at the mercy of distant staffs who didn't know what each force package's requirements were and so guessed that one size fits all.

As I suspected would happen, the empire was created by squeezing unlike units each performing unlike missions, using utterly unique equipment, resources and training and deployed to the minor empire builders who carried out the Admiral's directions all around the world. It didn't go as well after that as it had in the first 4 years of the War on Terror. Within 5 years, the structures created at the Flag level to mold and shape these units to work together overseas, even though none of them worked together overseas anywhere in the world, collapsed under its own weight and lack of utility.
The mission and mission requirements remain the same but the tailored, instantly deployable formations that used to perform those missions with little to no staff support from home are gone. They were scrapped by one of the Admirals who didn't feel any need to retain useless structures that had no purpose.

The Growth of the Daily Operations Summary can be the third topic. A simple one page update to higher command stating very briefly what each commissioned ship or unit had done in that 24 hours with a precis of what it intended to do in the next 24 hours grew into a 7 page message that almost defies belief.  I'll have to see if I can dig up an unclas one from the tubes.

2 comments:

  1. The author wrote these over the course of many months. They are not something that he sat down and hammered out in one go for this place. I'm no expert user and this was the only way to get sequential postings to a second page in blogger. I would appreciate comments. Other people have different styles and experiences. This place is simply a tool for laying out some of the basics of leadership as I knew it and my experience is now decades old.

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  2. As I reread that last paragraph, I see how we got the Riverine losers who let themselves be captured by the IRGCN. Riverines were the absolute bottom of the food chain of competent trustworthy sailors and it showed once they were enabled by the 2 star and his EOD friends.

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