By Lieutenant Ryan Haag, U.S. Navy
Young men and women sign up to become naval officers with the vague idea of doing something greater than themselves, becoming part of an organization that has purpose and meaning they likely struggle to find in their own lives. Their desire to serve is nurtured by their superiors, especially commanding officers (COs). These older officers can just as quickly snuff out that flame and leave a junior officer (JO) disillusioned, disheartened, and ultimately disassociated from the Navy. Despite the poor economy, JOs are leaving the Navy in droves and citing poor leadership as a top reason for their discontent.
I experienced poor leadership firsthand as a new ensign on board the USS Hampton (SSN-767), where the CO for my first two years acted as a tyrant. Despite taking a ship out of the yards, through the Panama Canal, and onto a successful Western Pacific cruise, I was miserable almost the entire time on board, and eventually our CO (along with the engineer and entire reactor laboratory division) would be fired. I left the boat as an embittered lieutenant ready to punch my ticket for the civilian world.
While I don’t wish ever to repeat my experiences on board the Hampton, they taught me important lessons about what leadership, particularly when poor, looks like from the bottom. I’ve been fortunate since then to have worked for several good leaders at a variety of commands. Contrasting their styles has given me insight into what is needed to lead in the future.
Great Leaders Are Not Born
There are plenty of fallacies about leadership, but by far the greatest is that leaders are born. The notion that somehow people are simply born into the role is absurd. What ensign graduates from college with the skills to head into combat a complex warship, cyber-mission team, nuclear submarine, or aircraft squadron? If leaders were born, we could simply develop a genetic test, administer it during a periodic health assessment, and weed out those not destined to become part of the Navy’s aristocracy.
The problem here is that people have an idea of what this quality looks like, when the reality is that good leadership takes many forms and is highly dependent on where one is leading. The style used when heading a Navy cyber-mission team is radically different from that used in a Navy SEAL team, yet these differing approaches can be exactly what is needed for that situation. To say there is only one good style, applicable to all services and professions, is like saying a scalpel can replace all knives in the kitchen knife block.
On the other hand, some fairly constant threads are noticeable in almost all poor leaders. They focus only on themselves, micromanage, and are overly concerned with outward appearances, both of themselves and of their commands. While these traits are easy to list, they may be disguised by the poor leaders themselves under the guise of entitlement, insistence on standards, and pursuit of excellence. To understand effective leadership, each of these concepts must be broken down and analyzed in depth.
The Guise of Entitlement
The military makes it fairly difficult to not be rank-conscious. Naval officers openly wear shiny bars on their collars or shoulders. Commanding officers may call people by their first names, but his name is always Sir, Captain, or Skipper. More privileges, such as a better stateroom or having to stand less watch, come the higher one climbs in rank. The view commanders take about these privileges is a sharp indicator of how subordinates will view leadership.
On a fast-attack submarine, the head position of the wardroom table belongs to the CO. This gives him the best view of a large electronic display, so that he has complete situational awareness for his submarine. It even has a phone that can directly dial the officer of the deck. To my first captain, this chair represented the fact that he was on top, and everyone else worked for him. He appeared to believe he had earned that chair through his own merits, and he was not above telling us that we could only one day hope to sit in it. As a JO, I quickly became bored with hearing about how he had earned his spot at the head of the table. To me, that chair became simply a hated symbol of his authority over us. It made sense to have the CO sit at the head of the table, but it certainly did nothing for the wardroom to have it lorded over us on a daily basis.
After my first CO was fired, the new one took us out on a short VIP cruise; we had about 20 civilian riders from the local community on board. Eight of them gathered in the wardroom, and I had just gotten off of watch and stopped in to grab a cup of coffee. The CO was speaking with them when he suddenly looked at me and said “Ryan, how about you sit here and tell our guests about the boat. I’m going up to control for a bit.” I sat down in the very chair I had hated just a few months earlier and answered our guests’ questions for about 30 minutes. I felt compelled to represent the CO particularly well. He didn’t need a chair to prove he was the head of his submarine; he even managed to use it as a tool to improve me professionally.
Insistence on Micromanaging
All JOs are familiar with writing and routing message traffic. CASREPs, SITREPs, OPREPs, and other messages are written and routed through the chain of command. All naval messages have standard formats with required fields, codes, addressees, and a governing instruction to lay out these requirements. The fields are fairly routine, but the most dreaded is “Comments.” Here the releasing authority can add whatever remarks he feels are needed for the message.
Every CO has a particular writing style. Unfortunately, so does the executive officer and the department head, and too often they clash. I distinctly remember routing to the engineer a SUBS message for a piece of equipment; he changed it 20 times. After change number four, I stapled together the alterations in an attempt to point out the folly in the sheer volume of changes. Then the SUBS message went through two revisions with the executive officer and another five for the CO, who asked me what was taking so long. In the end, the SUBS message looked strikingly similar to what I had originally written.
The changes made by that chain of command consisted mainly of the “happy to glad” category, in which the meaning didn’t change despite the wording. Both the engineer and the CO said it was important for me to write messages to their exact standards so that I could learn to be a good CO someday. However, as I reflect on this with the benefit of hindsight, I believe it was simply micromanagement combined with a lack of empathy or regard for a subordinate’s time. The engineer and CO cared little that I spent hours rewriting the SUBS message. To them, I was a pawn in the wardroom that could be mistreated and abused at will.
This behavior contrasts sharply with my experiences as a communications-intelligence evaluator for Navy Information Operations Command, Georgia, where the CO designated me to release more than 700 SIGINT messages on his behalf. I trained for the proper formatting and wording of these messages, and was entrusted with the writing of the subjective Comments section. Not all messages were perfect, but after a few mistakes, the quality quickly improved. I readily passed down this training to the JOs behind me. That shop continues to receive accolades about its reporting and doesn’t make the same mistakes I did. From my SUBS message I learned nothing but frustration, but I still remember plenty about my SIGINT messages, because the trust my CO placed in me forced me to become steadily better at my job.
Pursuit of Outward Appearances
Instructions from both a submarine’s operational commander and the nuclear-power command, as well as the constant preventative maintenance required to maintain the equipment on board, keep a crew pretty busy. However, whenever a senior officer decides to pay a visit, all work stops and field day commences, only to have said senior officer stop by for five minutes, say some words on the 1MC, and leave. A more sadistic scheme is when we get to keep a senior officer for a week during an underway, so that besides the cleaning, the crew also spends the time entertaining him.
My first captain took this to the maximum. Our culinary specialists had tuxedos for serving senior officers, our supply officer bought great food, and the crew performed activities such as angles and dangles, in which the ship takes sharp angles to check for proper stowage. The reality was that these visitors never saw the real Hampton. They didn’t see the captain chew out watchstanders for minor mistakes, because he stacked the teams by burning out his best watchstanders, while stifling the rest of the crew’s qualifications during that period. The good food wasn’t for the entire crew; it wasn’t even for the wardroom JOs, who were simply trying to grab a meal before going onto watch. Many JOs ate on crews mess during these trips. While the captain and guest played a lot of cribbage, the rest of us were worn down.
Only once did I see a remarkable exception to this pattern, from then-Rear Admiral Cecil Haney. He emailed the captain asking that his week-long ride with us should include no extra bells or whistles, and that the crew simply perform routine operations. Our captain tried to put on the usual performance, but it was stopped after the first day.
During his visit, Rear Admiral Haney stopped by the engine room while I was the engineering officer of the watch. He asked to tour the room, so I took him around and showed him how I reviewed logs, and we chatted about what worked and what didn’t in engineering. In main condensate bay he and I jumped into the bilge and located discrepancies for after-watch cleanup. During this time, we had the only real conversation I had ever had with a flag officer. We talked about why he stayed in the Navy, how he balanced home life with work, and what his hobbies were. After he left the engine room, I received a frantic call from the executive officer, and only then realized the admiral hadn’t told the captain he was touring the engine room.
It was obvious that my first captain cared about outward appearances. The visitors he wined and dined never really knew the boat or crew. They never scratched the surface to see if what they were seeing went more than skin deep. Our captain always championed these visits as our way of being noticed. He said the extra work we put into these dog-and-pony shows would make us better and drive us to excellence. However, the visits were so superficial that they did exactly the opposite by giving outside leaders the appearance of greatness where no such thing existed.
Rear Admiral Haney got it right: a quiet look in the engine room with no fanfare meant more to the crew than the other admirals’ visits combined. It is good to see a man of such caliber now serving as Commander, U.S. Strategic Command.
Preventing the Slide
Character and mentorship are the best ways to fend off what I call “the slide”: the slow movement from good leadership principles to poor ones, often justified by a “git ’r done” mentality that values the ends over the means, giving short-term gain for long-term loss. The slide gradually destroys a command, embittering its JOs along the way, wrapped in the guise of a can-do attitude. When we bypass security rules, fudge numbers on a set of logs, or tell subordinates simply to “make it happen,” we are sliding into poor leadership.
Character prevents this when we question why we are performing an action. Giving a subordinate a counseling chit when he or she screws up may be the right answer, but it is character that determines how to deliver that chit, what the chit says, and when it is delivered. These choices make the difference between effectively changing a subordinate’s behavior and simply angering the person. Good leaders continually develop their integrity by making decisions, taking actions, and continuously evaluating whether the correct decision was made.
Mentorship takes this to another level by transferring good ethics. Counseling subordinates leaves behind a stronger Navy, whether at the division, department, or command level.
Mentorship makes us partially accountable for subordinate’s behavior because we had a hand in guiding it. Poor leaders don’t advise others, because all they care about is outward appearances and their own performance as measured against that of others. In fact, poor leaders prefer to not mentor others so that it is easier for them to say they have no responsibility for their actions. I never received any mentorship from my first captain. Occasionally he pulled me aside, but the conversation was always about his needs and wants, and he never listened to my questions. The CO who relieved him took the time, even when we were busy, to let me know where I had done well and where I was lacking.
Good leadership is a consistent application of honor, courage, and commitment to all situations to make sailors better. Poor leadership shifts the focus from others to oneself, and involves a selfish application of the Navy’s core values for personal gain. To the led, poor leadership manifests itself by the lack of development of JOs, the consistent decline of morale despite command accomplishments, and the inability to balance work and home life. Good leadership acts as a force multiplier that leaves behind better commands, well-developed subordinates, and a command pride that lasts long after the leader has left.
We who are led see through the guise of entitlement, the micromanagement of standards, and the fallacy of outward appearances. We know when we aren’t being developed and are consistently sacrificed to the desires of our superiors. We see our poor leaders apply honor, courage, and commitment when it suits them, and fail to apply it when it is inconvenient.
Likewise, we know when we are being led well. When leaders take the gains they have made in rank and selflessly give them back to us, we see that. When they trust us and give us support instead of micromanagement, we learn from that. When they care about what is on the inside and allow it to be what truly radiates on the outside, we grow.
Lieutenant Haag serves as the training and readiness officer at Navy Information Operations Command - Georgia. Previously he was a special evaluator on board EP-3E aircraft.