There Is No Gray Area

By Lieutenant David S. Kemp, U.S. Navy

A 1959 text entitled Naval Leadership defines leadership as "the art, science, or gift by which a person is enabled and privileged to direct the thoughts, plans, and actions of others in such a manner as to command their obedience, their confidence, their respect, and their loyal cooperation." It goes on to explain that a naval officer's basic philosophy of leadership "must be based on an impeccable foundation of high moral values and character integrity.... Personal integrity has always been demanded of U.S. officers, and in this age of rapid scientific and technological development, the leader must never forget that this is still the prime ingredient of the Naval Officer." Although the book was written almost 40 years ago, its insightful comments still are applicable today. 2

Unfortunately, we have strayed from this noble concept of leadership. Today's junior officers are faced with a staggering responsibility when they report to the fleet. Although they have received leadership training during their entry pipeline, the real fleet is a shock. They immediately are confronted with a complex bureaucracy that they must master to survive; they must qualify, stand watch, manage complicated supply, maintenance, and personnel organizations, conquer collateral duties that often are more time-consuming than their primary jobs, and on top of all this, learn how to lead the men and women working for them. It is a daunting and often overwhelming task.

It is at this point in their careers that junior officers are tempted to start making decisions that can erode their personal integrity. At first, these compromises seem like small transgressions committed merely to survive. Consider, for example, the all-too-familiar situation of fictitious Surface Warfare Officer Jones:

It is Friday afternoon after a week of 12-hour days. Ensign Jones has just reported on board his new ship and is swamped. He is in a three section in-port duty rotation and during his duty day, stands port and starboard watches as the officer of the deck (in port) under instruction. There is a major inspection scheduled for next week and the ensign is trying valiantly to make all of the necessary preparations. With all of the activity, Ensign Jones has not completed a minor administrative detail—his weekly damage control (DC) planned maintenance system (PMS) spot check. His division's DC maintenance man has been waiting all day to perform this check. It is almost time to secure for the day, so the DC maintenance man knocks at his ensign's stateroom door.  "Sir," he asks, "do you have time to get this battle lantern spot check out of the way?"

The ensign has totally forgotten about the spot check, intended to study for his officer of the deck (in port) qualification this afternoon, but is still getting ready for the inspection coming next week. He doesn't think he can possibly find the 30 minutes required to perform the spot check, but then he remembers having heard of other officers "talking through" a spot check—he has found the solution to his dilemma. He takes five minutes, glances at the PMS card, asks a few questions, never leaves his stateroom to look at a battle lantern, and signs the spot-check form. He rationalizes that he will do this just this one time, because the major inspection is such a high priority and he doesn't want to keep his maintenance man around any longer on a Friday afternoon.

This harried junior officer has just compromised his personal integrity by signing a spot-check form without verifying the maintenance. He does feet bad about it, and later discusses the spot check with a similarly overworked junior officer. They complain about the captain, the executive officer (who will "kill" them if they don't complete their spot checks by Friday afternoon), and the department head, and decide that the abbreviated spot check is not going to ruin Ensign Jones's divisional PMS system. They decide that what Ensign Jones did was in that gray area between right and wrong.

Wrong! This is how a naval officer's personal integrity lapses start. There is no gray area between right and wrong.

Our fictional Ensign Jones has just taken the first step on the slippery slope toward the erosion of his personal integrity. The next time he is in a similar situation, which in all likelihood will be soon, it will be even easier to make the same erroneous decision—the third time, easier still. Soon, he will progress to signing PMS boards without verifying them because he just can't find the time. Maybe he'll backdate a personal qualification standard sheet that he forgot to sign the week before. Each time he compromises his personal integrity in a small way, it becomes both easier to continue to commit small transgressions and more likely that he will commit a larger transgression later in his career, like signing a weapons inventory that he never performed or making a false report to the captain to avoid getting in trouble.

The results of these integrity lapses are detrimental not only to the readiness and safety of the command but also to the morale of the crew. In Ensign Jones's case, the young enlisted damage control maintenance man, who has spent hours preparing his spot check for his new ensign in an attempt to earn some recognition and praise, now feels misled and has lost respect for his division officer. He has performed a lot of work for a program that appears to be of little importance to Ensign Jones. The next time, the maintenance man will invest less time in ensuring that he has done quality work.

This disease of eroding personal integrity also is contagious. Other junior officers on board, who are similarly overworked, are going to notice that Ensign Jones always seems to be able to complete his work on time. They will discover his methods and be tempted to follow him into the mythical "gray area" between right and wrong, so as not to get too far behind this golden child. Of course, the example of Ensign Jones has been slightly stretched, but one can see that the erosion of personal integrity starts with small transgressions. The little things do count.

How do we combat this erosion of personal integrity? The solution is not as evident as the problem, but there are several actions that can be taken by the current generation of naval leaders to counter this epidemic.

First, we need to continue the leadership training that currently is provided in the various commissioning pipelines. The Navy's emphasis on the core values of honor, courage, and commitment is a step in the right direction. We also need to give our junior officers a stronger foundation in time-management skills. A junior officer who feels less pressured and less overwhelmed by his workload will feel more in control and will be less likely to compromise his personal integrity through shortcuts.

We need to set aside, especially in the surface warfare community, dedicated administrative time each week, during which paperwork can be accomplished without constant interruption. If inefficient or outdated administrative practices are still in use, the executive officer needs to encourage his people, not to ignore them, but either to try to change them or to request a waiver for the ship. This could be the perfect occasion to use the total quality leadership process, which, if managed correctly, will earn praises from the ship's chain of command. The fleets seem to be receptive to this type of administrative review, as shown by the initiative under way in the Pacific Fleet to redefine administrative requirements to allow frigate-size ships to expand from three or four section in-port duty to five or six.

The commanding officer, executive officer, and department heads need to insist on attention to detail. This is different from micromanagement. When the New York City Police Department, in the early 1990s, started paying more attention to minor crimes that used to be overlooked—such as littering, begging, and jumping the turnstile on the subway—they found that the rate of major crimes, such as theft, murder and rape, dropped significantly. We will have similar results in the Navy. If we concentrate on demanding excellence and honesty in the little tasks, the rate of large personal integrity compromises will drop.

There needs to be more time spent together among the commanding officer, the executive officer, and the junior officers. Daily or weekly junior officer training sessions usually are scheduled during the Planning Board for Training, but it is easy for them to be brushed aside because of time constraints or higher priorities. This has to stop. This type of training and mentoring needs to be set as the priority for junior officers. The commanding officer must demonstrate that he is interested in the professional development of his junior officers. As then-Captain Kevin Green noted in his July 1996 Proceedings article, "Give Her All You Got," the crew will accept as important that which seems important to the captain. 3

We also have experienced a real loss of wardroom etiquette, ceremony, and tradition in the U.S. Navy. This has become especially evident to me since I started my current tour as a Personnel Exchange Program officer stationed on board a French guided-missile destroyer, where wardroom customs and traditions still are rigorously enforced. This gives a young French officer a real sense both of belonging to a special organization and of the importance of honor and courtesy.

Traditions and ceremonies, according to Naval Leadership , "lend an air of dignity and respect" and "give to the officer corps its highest incentive to carry on." When you couple this with the manners, conduct, and pride that junior officers will acquire in a good wardroom setting (calls, dinings in/out), young ensigns will truly feel like officers and gentlemen and will conduct themselves as such.

Unfortunately, ironclad integrity and superior leadership are not as contagious as poor leadership or bad example. But if we adopt measures to guard against the erosion of integrity among our junior officers, we can attain the standards of excellence that always have been—and still are—expected of a naval officer. If the U.S. Navy concentrates on integrity in all facets of its mission and at all levels, including the little things, we will rise above our current predicament and once again be recognized as a breeding ground for the heroes of the United States.

1 LCdr. Lori Melling Tanner, USN, "Do-As-I-Say Core Values?" U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 1997, p. 68.

2 Naval Leadership (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1959).

3 Capt. Kevin Green, USN, "Give Her All You Got," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, July 1996, pp. 2832.

Lieutenant Kemp is the Personnel Exchange Program Officer, Toulon, France, stationed on board the French guided-missile destroyer Duquesne , where he is serving as a division officer in the operations/combat systems department. He also has served as antisubmarine warfare officer, ordnance officer, and combat information center officer on board the USS Reid (FFG-30).

 

 
 

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