Leadership Forum: XO Axioms for Excellence

By Commander James R. Nault, U.S. Navy

Axiom 1-Get out of your stateroom . Executive officers who spend the majority of their time in their staterooms are doing their ships a major disservice. Make time to inspect the ship every day. Initiate corrective action for deficiencies that you find. The crew will be impressed that you take the time and have interest in their work space (they know how much paper is in your "in" basket), and they will be embarrassed when you find a deficiency and will want to correct it. As you tour the ship, take an especially close look at the ship's damage control gear; in an emergency, the life of the crew may depend on it.

Vary the ways you inspect. Sometimes I just zipped through the spaces; at other times, I would talk to all the watchstanders; and still other times, I would make detailed lists and give them to the duty chief and engineering duty petty officer. This helps both with material readiness and in keeping in touch with the crew. In addition, inspect behavior as you wander, and correct it when it is deficient. A sailor displaying unprofessional conduct on watch should find out in no uncertain terms that such conduct is unacceptable. Make your standards known and enforce them, so they will be followed.

Also, monitor training. Effective training is the lifeblood of operational readiness. There is still some substandard training going on; root it out and fix it. Training needs to focus on something that contributes to increased operational excellence, to be taught by a knowledgeable, dedicated instructor, and be attended by non-sleeping trainees. Here you can make a great contribution to your ship's performance. You will be amazed at how your level of interest and enthusiasm will be shared by your crew.

Finally, get out of your stateroom and talk to people. Make yourself available as often as you can to shoot the breeze with the crew. This accomplishes several things, over and above the pleasure of talking to the dedicated people who serve under you. First, there is always a lot of uncertainty among the crew as rumors get started or word makes it down the chain incorrectly. You can and should set the record straight. Second, talking to the crew lets them know that you care enough to stop and talk. Sharing your concern for the ship and crew will have a profound effect on morale and subsequently on ship's performance.

Making time to inspect, monitor, and talk with the crew requires innovative approaches to administration. Corollaries 1, 2, and 3 provide you with some more ideas on ways to reduce the administrative burden.

  • Corollary 1 to Axiom 1—Get rid of your computer . Unless you can prove that your computer saves you a significant amount of time, get rid of it. If you must use it for certain things, stay on just long enough to get your work done. A computer can be a horrible time waster, and your stateroom is not where you should be.
  • Corollary 2 to Axiom 1—Draft nothing . There isn't one document that I can think of that the XO has any business drafting, except for sensitive correspondence that the captain personally has asked to have drafted. If something needs to be drafted, get your yeomen or a department head—anyone but you—to draft it. This saves you time and makes for a better document, because you are more useful chopping a document than drafting it.
  • Corollary 3 to Axiom 1—Be an administrative god . You must develop topnotch administrative skills. Look for ways to streamline your ship's office operations, and if your yeoman has an idea, let him run with it. When something comes into your in box, act on it, have your yeoman file it, or throw it away.

Axiom 2—Judge and then act on your judgments . You should let no good deed go unrewarded, no misdeed unpunished. These rewards and punishments can be as simple as a pat on the back, a word of congratulations, a word to a supervisor—or a negative equivalent. They can be as involved as a medal or a letter of commendation—or captain's mast. If you do not act on everything you see or become aware of, the crew will think that you are indifferent. Thus, positive behavior will become less likely because the crew will see little incentive for doing it, and negative behavior will become more likely, as they do not expect immediate and certain adverse consequences.

Axiom 3—Become an expert at things only you can do . There are certain tasks that are XO-specific. It is essential to master them quickly and perform them superbly for your entire tour. In these areas your performance can elevate the quality of the ship's performance directly, set a solid example for the crew, and increase your level of respect by officers and sailors alike.

  • Administration . As noted previously, you must become the ship's administrative guru. Failure to get fitness reports, evaluations, and awards out on time can seriously damage morale. Letting correspondence full of mistakes make its way to the captain for him to chop is dereliction of duty. Your goal should be for the captain never to need to use his pen except for his signature.
  • Radiation Health . Only you can ensure that the right things are happening in the radiation health arena. Sorting out your ship's radiation health program is time consuming and tedious, but absolutely necessary, both for your ship's performance and for the Navy.
  • Casualty Drill Scene Leader . You must develop your own skills as a scene leader for major casualties if you want the ship to do well during inspections—and in case a major casualty occurs. Take charge at the scene during major casualties and personally coordinate the response of fire or other casualty-response teams. Keep control and maneuvering informed of all casualty-response actions. Finally, make casualty drills as positive as possible for everyone.
  • Fire Control Coordinator . Become an expert at tactics and obtaining firing solutions. Go to the attack center and practice as much as you can. Determine well in advance with the wardroom, the CO, and the senior weapons department enlisted supervisors exactly which watch-stations will be manned during battle-stations and by whom. If someone comes up with an unconventional idea in this area, try it and see if it works. If it does, use it. The tactical readiness evaluation team does not expect any particular setup or response to any given tactical problem. As long as you perform well, even if you do it in an unconventional manner, you will get credit for it.

Axiom 4—Give and ask for help when necessary . Although you are expert at many things and have more experience than anyone else except the captain, you are not all-knowing. There will be many times when you get stuck on a project or on a piece of correspondence. Ask for help. People will usually jump to help the XO if he is sincere in asking for their expertise. That person could be a department head, a squadron member, or any other expert capable of helping you solve a problem. Similarly, if asked for help by someone, drop what you are doing and help them. If someone asks you for help, it means that your experience and knowhow are respected. Don't let that person down.

Axiom 5—Be a good example for the officers and crew . Although you may not know it, and if you do know it you may not like it, everything that you do will be scrutinized by the officers and the crew— everything . You must set a good example if you expect your subordinates to behave well. Concentrate on the following areas:

  • Punctuality . You cannot expect training or meetings to start on time if you are late for lunch or other "unimportant" events. Be on time—or early—for everything.
  • Stateroom Appearance . You cannot expect the ship's cleanliness and stowage to be topnotch if your stateroom looks like a bomb just hit it. You may not realize it, but everyone sees your stateroom: messengers, below-decks watches, the career counselor, and others. Keep it neat and clean.
  • Drinking . Your command will have a program to deglamorize alcohol use. The best way for you to undermine that effort is to drink excessively at wardroom parties or ship's picnics. Of course, never drink and drive. It's a good way to become an ex-XO.
  • Military Bearing . You don't have to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but make sure you always have a good haircut and a clean uniform, keep your weight down, exercise, and keep your language clean and professional.

Axiom 6—Be a good second in command . There is much more to being a good second in command than what is contained in Navy regulations. Your captain will have certain strengths and perhaps some weaknesses. Identify those and work to compensate for them. Everyone is different, so it is impossible to give any specific advice in this area.

There are a few rules of thumb, however, that may serve you well. Never denigrate the captain in front of anyone. Try to anticipate the captain's wishes and accommodate them in advance. Try to help your CO be as productive as possible. One way is to have a daily schedule for him on his desk when he arrives every morning. This will help you manage the extensive training and operational requirements that require the CO's direct involvement. Some commanders may not like this approach, but I found it to be extremely useful for getting a lot of work done.

In the course of your XO tour, you will undoubtedly develop your own axioms for excellence. Taking the practical advice offered here might be a good place to start, as you strive to become the best XO you can be.

Commander Nault is the Prospective Commanding Officer of the USS Toledo (SSN-769). He recently graduated from the Naval War College, where he simultaneously served as an associate fellow with the CNO’s Strategic Studies Group.


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