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A Junior Officer’s Perspective

By Lieutenant James Bates, U.S. Coast Guard   

Written works on the art of leadership have been penned, published, taught, tested, reviewed, and reframed by generations of scholars and practitioners who have served or studied the U.S. seagoing services. There is a widespread desire to tailor this complex idea into something relevant and useful. As today’s leader branches out from the strong trunk of general moral principles and military-service core values, she ventures into situations where one-size-fits-all leadership tactics simply do not exist. Stories of the good, bad, and ugly must be retold, and they are fashioned every day in every Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard unit, crew and team. An eternal conversation on leadership is indeed necessary for the betterment of the current or future leader. True leaders crave all the knowledge and experience that has any chance of improving mission accomplishment, serving people better, and contributing to a legacy of excellence in their parent service. This broad topic is both gauged and served by a similarly comprehensive term—perspective.

Junior officers (JOs) have a special viewpoint on leadership, and it matters because they are the future of our services. Those who commit to a career will have the most influence on their service’s legacy, but for many, the decision has not yet been made whether to remain beyond the initial commitment or to separate from active service. The leadership they witness, and how it does or does not reconcile with their expectations, will weigh heavily on that decision.

Early on, they work to apply lessons in peer leadership (a convenient but not ideal preparation for leading enlisted men and women) from their service academy, Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or Officer Candidate School to the challenges of leading their first division, platoon, boat, aircraft crew, etc. This period is often riddled with the necessary hard knocks associated with rudder inputs from senior enlisted personnel and the young officer’s realization of a role in the greater unit mission. As JOs test and refine their own skills, they have both the time and need to keep their eyes wide open to ways in which their peers and superiors lead. They have the perspective of both observing various styles and directly feeling the effects of others’ leadership. They witness character-in-action, learn from their commanders’ focus, and develop as commanders themselves.

The Importance of Character

In a leader, especially regarding his or her relationship with JOs, this is eminently important for a numbers of reasons. A discussion of all would be lengthy and off-scope, but one critical point is that while JOs arrive at their first unit with significant deficits in tactical proficiency, they have a sense of character that is much more developed and an understanding of core values. In short, they know enough to adequately assess the same in their peers and superiors. During an officer’s indoctrination into the service, topics such as honor, courage, and core values as a whole are often extracted from the amazing stories of prisoners of war and Medal of Honor recipients, especially the few who are members of both groups.

The challenges and expectations of impeccable character and steadfast adherence to an ethical life is often gauged and illustrated by what one does while no one else is looking. The loftier examples provided to us by former prisoners of war are illustrated by how they maintained honor, respect, courage, commitment, and devotion to duty and country when faced with exceedingly more complex challenges than lack of supervision.

All are expected to combat natural, undesirable temptations with core values; heroes weather torture and certain death with core values. That is the standard. Any Marine graduate of The Basic School remembers the motivational lessons ingrained each time an instructor broke out what was commonly referred to as “The Book” and read a Congressional Medal of Honor citation. The clamor of fists pounding tables, barking, and screaming at the beginning and end of each reading signified the excitement in knowing how admirably those who had gone before had acted in such tests of character. JOs “get” character and core values in their earliest months of service. The next step is to hone it and see it tested in the Fleet.         

Integrity and Ethics

Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale is credited with having said:

The military ethic comes naturally to people of many personality ‘cuts,’ many ‘cuts of their jib.’ The idea is not to hammer everybody into one mold; the services are rich in the diversity of leadership styles of their better officers. It’s just that the people under them are our most precious asset, and how they are treated must be above board. We insist they deserve trustworthy leaders of integrity.1

Many who wear the uniform will accomplish a difficult, confusing, or unpopular mission, based only on his or her personal commitment to duty. A JO who has not yet developed the guts to question a senior leader’s order knows this as well as anybody. If the only redeeming value of the order is its legality, then duty will fuel action to a point. It is far better, though, for that sense of duty to be respected and supported by a leader with character. With respect to the risks, dynamics, and time constraints of the missions that seagoing military forces engage in each day, a culture of ethical leadership is paramount. Without it, leaders have no framework for measuring the risk of the missions they assign. Distrust slows progress, and the unit is sub-optimized.

The character of a senior leader is judged on a daily basis, and the subordinate JO is a ready and able judge. While it takes time to learn the platform, people, and missions, the JO already has a base of knowledge in service core values. Young officers stand by to witness where theory meets practice, that is, how their superiors apply those values in the Fleet. JOs expect to see leaders with impeccable character. But with high expectations, their inclination won’t necessarily be to catalog each example of solid character in action. They are looking more for lapses. At best, they will remember a senior leader’s slip as something to avoid emulating. They may wonder if the senior applies service core values only when convenient and by exception, and they will be more alert and sensitive to future lapses. At worst, the senior may cause irreparable damage in a wardroom where JOs historically share all the good and bad they know about their commanders. Equally bad is the JO who respects the leader despite a suspect character and is prone to repeat what he or she has learned in a future command position.

Subordinates also study their leader’s scope of character. Tight units, especially deployable ones, afford the JO the opportunity to witness a senior’s moral fiber in various places and situations: deployed, at home, during social events with and without spouses, and so on. He or she may not support a commanding officer who preaches honor, courage, and commitment around the squadron spaces in garrison, but dishonors his unknowing spouse by his actions at the ship’s first port call. One of the biggest honors and risks of leadership is the public display of judgment—which is itself judged in the junior wardroom. Every assessment made by a senior invites scrutiny and is often graded on a pass/fail scale in which there is likely no room for partial credit.

Borrowing from Stockdale again, “People of integrity under a common danger coalesce into a unity that surpasses friendship. It is not a willful change of heart; it happens as a function of human nature. And I’ve seen it happen.”2 The willful change of heart is not necessarily a change, but a revealing of the leader’s true heart. Origins of the word “character” include terms such as engraving, impression, and brand. They suggest something with permanence, even though it can be covered or clouded by outward appearances or periods of time with no public testing. Equally permanent is the impression that a senior leaves by his actions in the “real fleet.” The primary principle of learning applies here. It is of the highest priority that what is taught first be taught right. Correcting or erasing poor initial exposures can take exhaustive effort with varying degrees of success. First impressions of embodied uprightness have lasting effects on JOs and the future of the service.

Learning about Focus

One can spend quite a few years as a JO, so that perspective on military leadership is bound to become more refined over time. It may be safe but certainly accurate to agree with the famous Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Bill Leftwich’s notion that leaders are not born into existence. They instead are forged and shaped. With solid and improving integrity in place, a leader’s focus is highly telling. Time and energy are finite, so where vision and resources are concentrated says a lot. Again, JOs witness this focus.

Some see command positions as the most desirable and exciting times of one’s career, and it shows. Others see them as mere stepping stones toward higher goals, and this also shows. The emphasis on the former and the latter, the present and the future, is of the highest importance to the command as a whole. The upwardly mobile leader sometimes gets a bad rap, especially from the rest of the wardroom. I have been among such criticizers. But after all, unless we believe there is too much focus on the future, what right does a similarly goal-oriented JO have to be disapproving of peers or seniors just because they may have higher objectives at particular points in their careers?

One of my best commanding officers in the Marine Corps was a man who had an excellent balance of focus, and the results our CH-46E “Battle Phrog” squadron reaped for him were exceptional. Our morale was the envy of the base, and our daily aircraft availability (a true mark of excellence for a maintenance department) always hovered around maximum. Though burdened with much more than aviation concerns, as all squadron COs are, ours was still one of the best pilots (which is not always the case in a squadron). He was a motivator, teacher, fair judge, and mentor.

Mentoring, highly valuable in leadership development, is also a measure of a superior’s focus. Mentoring requires effort. Leaders who concentrate too much on their own future have less time to invest in the junior wardroom. Our CO led by walking around, showing up in offices often with no particular agenda but to stay in touch with his people. While he certainly had responsibilities to engage with his higher chain of command, he always gave the impression that he was most happy in the hangar or aboard ship with us. If that command was not one of his most cherished times in his career, then we were all fooled.

Our squadron was slated to support a combined-arms exercise (CAX) in 29 Palms, California, for two months. On one of our cross-country legs, four of our aircraft punched into the clouds inadvertently, and a fifth narrowly avoided that situation by turning around and flying to an alternate field. The four in the clouds, all dealing with some level of an emergency, eventually received air-traffic-control handling and recovered at the airport one by one. There was significant delay in confirming the whereabouts of the fifth, during which time we thought we had a major problem on our hands. But after learning of that aircraft’s safe landing, all the pilots from the second flight received a dressing-down from our CO. We deserved it. There is no doubt we made mistakes, put ourselves in a bad situation, and damaged the trust of our passengers. Hours later, the CO pulled all the pilots together again for a more somber, emotional, and edifying debrief. We had put him in the position of a father having to witness his children’s near-death experience. His concern was not for the potential loss of expensive aircraft, or the risk of arriving late at CAX. His focus, if it had ever been in question, was on his people.

A leader’s focus is also tested when decisions affect personal or professional gain or loss. In 1939, U.S. Coast Guard Warrant Officer Garner J. Churchill led a lifeboat crew that saved four from the capsized yacht Reta in daunting weather conditions. “The U.S. Coast Guard planned to award Churchill a Gold Life Saving Medal for the rescue,” writes Dennis Noble, “but his crew was to receive the Silver Medal. Churchill refused the Gold Medal, saying that ‘he had done no more than his men.’”3 In this case of a JO in command, common in many small Coast Guard units today, imagine how much that gesture meant to his crew. Churchill’s emphasis on his men surely reaped future successes. On a later rescue mission in World War II, his crew bravely evaded a Japanese submarine while, some say, Churchill tried to lure the sub aground in shallow waters.4 A selfless leader is a followed leader.

To JOs it is evident that centering on people leads directly toward unit optimization. A public that funds a military does not want just “happy” Marines, sailors, and Coast Guardsmen; the results should be outstanding. When a commanding officer gives first importance to people, outstanding results are exactly what follows. JOs who experience this are likely to embody such focus when they themselves take command.

Developing Leadership

JOs need to be selective sponges for leadership skills. They are watchful of those beside and below them, but especially above. They come to the Fleet with some leadership education and varied experience, but this can stagnate if a lifelong approach is not adopted. They are spring-loaded to a “receive” mode, their minds wide open. The people around them must know what the JOs’ deficits are and fill them. The current premium on advanced degrees, which JOs often pursue in disciplines that are sometimes unrelated to proficiency-in-craft or leadership, is no substitute for mentoring and the tests of the operational environment. This is like the relationship of the lecture to the laboratory.

How might a pre-teenage Midshipman David Farragut find himself at sea and serve the Navy through flag rank without a master’s degree? Granted, it was the War of 1812, and today’s joint-professional-military-education options are profession-focused even if most civilian degrees are not. What other than mentorship at sea and ashore nurtured this leader to become one of our first rear admirals? David Porter was his initial commanding officer and among his first naval mentors. Farragut would later honor him by adopting his first name in place of his own given name, James.5 Porter and others were not a part of any formal program like some services and units have today, but the premise was the same. There is vast worth in committing to relationships that further the growth of others. JOs are sub-optimized without this, and the service’s legacy improves because of it.

Many officers, by virtue of their job specialties, are tested in extremes. JOs are often front-line personnel leading men and women in harm’s way. While mission accomplishment is paramount in any operation, almost none is completed without encounters with hazards (both foreseen and not) and the associated errors of skill, judgment, and perception. Lessons learned in the operational environment reinforce education and training and sometimes unearth new concerns or spur tactical innovation. Young officers cannot be exposed to risk and expected never to commit an error. In the development of a JO and the improvement of a service, it is not good enough for a leader to set up the young officer only to emulate what he has done well. In such cases, the JO can only break even or fall short. True leaders who desire better for their subordinates freely discuss their own past errors. This is how the heart of a service improves over time. For some this requires a withdrawal of pride, but JOs will likely respond with more respect and gratitude.

Generations of JOs have answered calls to the American seagoing services. Some have served a few years, and some have achieved flag or general-officer ranks. Regardless of tenure, many view the experience as life-changing and as having defined their careers and personal lives. Arriving raw and unrefined to the Fleet, JOs strengthen their character and choose a leadership focus based on all they have learned and seen. They fill their toolboxes. Lessons are best shared with those who follow; this is how the cycle continues, and a service’s legacy is continually improved.

1. K. Montor, Ethics for the Junior Officer: Selected Cases from Current Military Experience (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994), ix.
2. Ibid., x.
3. Dennis Noble, Rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard: Great Acts of Heroism since 1878 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005), 107.
4. Ibid., 108.
5. Meredith Hindley, “The Making of Rear Admiral Farragut,” 14 August 2012, Opinionator, The New York Times, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/14/the-making-of-rear-admiral-farragut/?_r=0.


Lieutenant Bates is an instructor and the Coast Guard’s representative to the Navy School of Aviation Safety in Pensacola, Florida. He spent his first 11 years of commissioned service as a Marine Corps officer and aviator, in 2006 accepting a commission in the Coast Guard via the Direct Commission Aviator program.


 
 

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