Building Leaders in the Navy

By Lieutenant Will Spears

Throughout history, one of the most important functions of warships has been developing the next cycle of commanders. The Prebles, Farraguts, Halseys, and Stockdales of our future are on the deckplates today; they might be delivering a mission brief, spot-checking preventative maintenance, writing a training schedule, or navigating a ship through a high-traffic strait. While the circumstances of future conflicts may never elevate their names to public consciousness, they will ultimately inherit the helm of our country’s maritime forces.

Every warship is an assembly line for these future leaders. Raw materials are fed through years of high-pressure, high-temperature processing. They emerge as semi-tempered products, works-in-progress that continue in refinement throughout their service. Evaluative systems identify the flawed products, and failures in quality control prove to be nothing less than catastrophic.

Yet despite its importance to the greater service, no ship is assessed for its leader-building operation: the time horizon is simply too long. Like the best financial investments, great leaders produce impressive returns upon maturity but take many years to develop. Ships and their evaluators necessarily concentrate on those efforts that have immediate and tangible benefit—inspections, repairs, training, and operations. Shortcomings in these areas can sabotage any opportunity for long-term success, so the pressure is to focus on short-term perfection. Commands that give in to this pressure demote their leader-building process from a timeless duty to a noble hobby.

All ships have to deal with the apparent primacy of near-term objectives; indeed, all organizations face this challenge. And yet high-performing ships tend to produce high-performing leaders. It follows that these ships do not achieve their greatness by sacrificing leader development. Possibly their performance stems from an unusual collection of junior-leadership talent, but this would imply that the high-performing ships are simply lucky. The more likely case is that greatness is the natural result of a culture that prioritizes the leader-building process.

Leadership As a Process

Defined as the ability to influence a group toward the achievement of a vision or goal, leadership is a very complex skill that proceeds from a wide variety of personal qualities. A few of these can be improved directly through training—management seminars have been shown to improve organizational skills, for example, and advanced courses or certifications can enhance technical expertise. However, most of the traits critical to leadership don’t improve this way. One cannot learn charisma in a classroom any more than one can create initiative in a seminar or find integrity in a book. These deep qualities become intrinsic to the leader over decades of personal development.

That doesn’t mean it is impossible to improve the deep qualities. They are all essentially functions of maturity, and though this takes a long time to develop by definition, the process can be accelerated with the catalyst of constructive adversity. The military has long employed it in training; a challenging indoctrination phase separates new recruits from their civilian dependencies, just as combat teams learn to perform cohesively in chaotic environments through rigorous simulation. The intentional exercise of adversity has potential for abuse as a rationale for dysfunctional command cultures, but it remains no less fundamental to preparation for war.

The most constructive form of adversity that an aspiring leader can endure is the burden of responsibility. In other words, leaders learn by leading. Its compulsory exercise tests all the attendant personality traits simultaneously, quickly revealing deficiencies and areas for improvement. While uncomfortable, this process prompts introspection and fuels the steady building of deep leadership qualities. Theory is taught in the classroom and makes excellent fodder for analysis of organizational dynamics. But real naval leadership is too complex for that, and can only be learned through experience on the deck plate.

Take Risks Judiciously

For the burden of responsibility to tangibly benefit leader development, it has to be legitimate. Simply being in charge of something is not enough; without significant consequences for failure, a position of responsibility is little more than a superficial title. Prudence demands that untested leaders prove their worth through minor accomplishments before undertaking greater obligations, but conscientious management of this growth process is in the interest of both the aspiring leader and the organization at large. The risk-averse command that assigns sensitive jobs only to its most proven leaders tends to provoke long-term failure. The trusted leaders quickly become task-saturated, and those remaining suffer stunted professional growth, ultimately to the detriment of the greater organization.

If experience is the currency of leader development, then trust is analogous to the financial concept of leverage. With leverage, returns on investment can be magnified through the judicious adoption of risk. This practice has received much public criticism due to the consequences of its abuse, but it remains a fundamental element of business. Likewise, trust is a fundamental element of leader development, and the highest levels of success will elude the command that does not take chances on potential leaders. Such an organization is too preoccupied with avoiding mistakes to achieve long-term excellence.

Junior leaders need to have meaningful opportunities to fail. In his blog Connecting the Dots, Commander Sean Heritage illustrates this concept with an anecdote about a minor-league baseball manager whose objective was not to win every game, but to build the most capable team possible. He considered his primary responsibility to be “player development,” and Commander Heritage expands the point:

I must admit that I take great satisfaction in watching others rise to the occasion. I sincerely enjoy witnessing others step up to the plate, bat in hand, and ready to give it their all. Sure we may go down swinging periodically, but it is the opportunity to strike out today that prepares us to hit home runs tomorrow. It is the opportunity to fail only to be picked up by a team that builds the requisite trust. It is the opportunity to act authentically that determines whether or not we have what it takes to succeed at the next level (30 June 2012,

For the strategically oriented command, a well-trained and highly empowered cadre of middle managers is the first line of defense against catastrophic failure. Truly prioritizing leader development requires acknowledging that not all malfunctions are catastrophic, and that some hits are worth taking—not just for the experience they provide, but also for the insight. The assumed strengths and weaknesses of individual “players” amount to little more than conjecture until validated through observation.

Manage the Paperwork

Most new division officers understand that presence among the sailors doing work in the spaces is desirable. Unfortunately, this presence doesn’t get the CASREP drafted, the training plan formatted correctly, or the PowerPoint slides prepared. Division officers learn early that shrewd time management is necessary for survival, and sometimes leadership ideals must take a backseat to immediate deadlines. Hours are finite, but the paperwork never stops.
The natural progression of this line of thought is the common but misguided notion that officers should handle the bureaucracy and chiefs should handle the sailors—a relationship that benefits neither the officer nor the chief. For naive division officers, having more experience with word processors and spreadsheets than with sailors and their gear, and focusing on the paperwork can seem like the most logical means to exert influence. Officers who fall into this trap find themselves marginalized to the stewardship of irrelevant administrivia, and their chiefs do not experience the essential role of shaping a future commanding officer.

Observers and victims of administrative overload disparage the morass of clerical obligations that distract warship operators today. Controlling rampant paperwork is a serious concern for all bureaucratic organizations, but especially the Navy. Little can be done about it at the unit level; individual commands and departments can do their part to avoid contributing to the problem, but the administrative burden will be an unavoidable condition of the sea services for the foreseeable future. What is completely avoidable, however, is the mismanagement of that burden and the familiar leadership failures that ensue.

At the division level, the most effective antidote to the primacy of paperwork is appropriate guidance. Administrative tasks do not come to the division officer with a label that discriminates the vital from the trivial; they only come with a deadline. Satisfied with a steady stream of tasking completed properly and on time, department heads and executive officers may not stop to consider at what price their excellent paperwork comes. Division officers require guidance as to which tasks must take priority over immediate leadership concerns, and which tasks can wait.

In addition to discriminating priorities, many division officers need help to realize that paperwork can and should be delegated. The era of “officers handle the paperwork” is long gone; indeed, given today’s knowledge-based economy, failure to develop administrative skills in a capable sailor is a crippling disservice. But unfortunately, the delegation of appropriate administrative work may be met with resistance and incredulity by a division not accustomed to it, and delegation is hard enough without pushback. Coaching from trusted superiors can encourage the most effective distribution of the administrative burden.

Distinguish Leading from Managing

A common complaint among junior leaders is that they are not really expected to act as leaders at all, only as managers. The distinction is subtle but important. Leaders must be people-oriented: constantly communicating a vision, acting on behalf of their subordinates, and uniting the group toward the achievement of a common goal. Managers, on the other hand, are production-oriented. They leverage manpower as the primary resource for the achievement of an externally generated list of objectives. The results of successful management are immediate and tangible, while the outcome of successful leadership is long-brewing and difficult to measure.

The complaint is not entirely unjustified. Among the armed forces, the naval service is uniquely industrial in nature, requiring an incomparable subjugation of the individual to the welfare of the machine. Above all other ambitions looms the schedule, and any threat to it is nothing less than a threat to the mission, the core purpose of the organization. In times of difficulty, protection of the schedule often requires a superlative commitment of manpower—the forte and patriotic duty of managers.

Defending the interests of subordinates, on the other hand, is the responsibility of leaders, and is among the most gratifying of a leader’s duties. Facing a threatened schedule, the junior leader can become conflicted over disparate ideals of management or leadership. The issue can be complicated further if sailors have developed cultural pride in working beyond the limits of health or safety—exactly the scenario in which the intercession of a forceful leader is most necessary.

With only the demands of superiors as a guide, most junior leaders default to management when faced with a perceived conflict between delivering results and representing the interests of their subordinates. Those who consistently deliver are compensated with approval from senior leadership and a reputation for getting the tough jobs done. In the direst of circumstances, they may even receive praise or awards. Junior leaders who perceive themselves to be in this situation may harbor feelings of guilt and betrayal—guilt for failing to defend their subordinates, betrayal for being put in an impossible position.

Unrealistic workloads should be identified from well above the deck-plate level. But layers of bureaucracy, triumphant optimism, and detachment from procedural difficulty tend to obfuscate the reality on the deck plates. No leader wants to say “we can’t do it,” so when a division officer or chief petty officer stands up to say that expectations are unreasonable, this  is a strong indicator that they have been that way for some time. When this happens, proceeding forward without reassessing the conditions is an invitation to disaster.

That said, expectations must be well developed and well communicated. Leaders on the deck plate may have unrealistic expectations of their own, and only deliberate communication can resolve disparities between what is expected and what is achievable. To be effective, the communication effort must be frequent, must be a sincere two-way exchange of information, and must facilitate a reassessment of plans when necessary. By taking an active role in developing and refining the plan, junior leaders are able to act in a legitimate leadership capacity before shifting to the managerial role that is necessary for execution.
The leader-building process presents a variety of challenges, but it is a fundamental element of any healthy organization. The effort it demands and the risk it incurs are immediate, and the rewards it yields are distant and uncertain. Prioritizing leader development is especially difficult due to the sometimes overwhelming array of demands and uncertainties that befall our ships today, but it is no less critical a duty. The future of our service rests with those commands that take it seriously.

Lieutenant Spears, an active-duty submarine officer, is attending the Naval Postgraduate School in pursuit of a Master’s of Business Administration with a specialty in financial management. He will return to sea duty upon completion of this program.


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