Chance Second Chances

By Lieutenant David A. Adams, USN

It is not difficult to identify instances in which an officer's willingness to admit error contributed to battlefield success. One instructive event occurred during the Battle of Coral Sea in May 1942. Despite Japan's vastly superior carrier strength, Admiral Nimitz made a strategic gamble. To stop the Japanese advance toward Australia, he concentrated his forces and took the fight to the enemy in the Coral Sea. What many do not know, however, is that the outcome of the battle may very well have turned on the moral courage of a single scout-plane pilot, Lieutenant (junior grade) Smith.

On the morning of the battle, Smith spotted elements of the Japanese fleet steaming south and radioed back their position. 12 Without waiting for independent confirmation of Smith's report, Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, the commander of Task Force 17, ordered a full air attack launched from the carriers Yorktown and Lexington . 13 When he returned to the Yorktown , Smith discovered that he had made an unfortunate coding error. 14 What he had spotted were two cruisers and two destroyers, but his message mistakenly relayed the location of two Japanese carriers. Smith immediately reported his mistake and faced the wrath of Admiral Fletcher: "Young man, do you know what you have done? You have cost the United States two carriers!" 15 In fact, however, Smith's willingness to admit his error saved the day and compensated for both his own personal failing and Admiral Fletcher's haste. 16 The strike was redirected, the Japanese carrier Shoho was sunk, and despite heavy losses, the U.S. Navy claimed its first strategic victory in the war. If Lieutenant Smith had followed today's zero-defects philosophy, his instinct would have been to cover up, rather than admit error—and the United States probably would have suffered another crushing defeat at the hands of the Japanese.

To avoid disastrous political and military consequences, the naval service must regain its moral compass by ridding itself of this zero-defects mentality. To that end, every naval leader must work diligently to foster a command climate that underwrites honest mistakes, values candor above political correctness, and discards careerism for a collective commitment to Navy and nation, which has guided all our truly great naval leaders.

Underwriting Honest Mistakes

The zero-defects mentality feeds off a skewed conception of accountability. Entrusted with the nation's sons and daughters, the naval profession is one in which all must be held accountable for their actions. John Paul Jones reminds us, however, that in determining the nature of accountability, it is extremely important to distinguish between honest mistakes and incompetence: "He [a naval officer] should not be blind to a single fault of any subordinate, though, at the same time, he should be quick and unfailing to distinguish error from malice, thoughtlessness from incompetency, and well-meant shortcoming from heedless or stupid blunder." 17 As a country and a service we must remember this, or we will breed an officer corps of risk-averse bureaucrats, ill-suited to the aggressive demands of combat.

Admiral Leighton "Snuffy" Smith warned that to maintain the warrior's edge, "We must stop making a national sport out of destroying their leaders." 18 This also is true at lower levels in the chain of command. Downsizing, grade inflation, and the speak-no-evil fitness report system have resulted in promotion and selection boards that have proved less and less forgiving of documented mistakes. It is quite unlikely that in today's Navy, Ensign Nimitz's career would have survived his grounding of the Decatur ; under the present system, the nation never would have benefited from his valiant service.

Having been given the opportunity to learn from his mistakes, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz understood the importance of second chances; thus, he established a reputation of tolerance of honest errors. When ordered to take command of the remnants of the Pacific Fleet after the devastating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, his first priority was to renew the confidence of the Fleet's leadership. "Rather than making heads roll, he made them think." 19 Rather than emphasizing their mistakes, he convinced his staff and commanding officers that through an ambitious pursuit of victory, they could overcome the past. 20 His results speak for themselves. When it comes to dealing with mistakes, the Navy —as an institution—would do well to follow both Jones's advice and Nimitz's example.

Exchanging Candor for Political Correctness

Candid, face-to-face discussions of performance help leaders ensure that their subordinates understand their mistakes, while coaching them to succeed. 21 Giving sailors the benefit of the doubt if they are honestly trying, and the guidance to learn from their mistakes are the best ways to stamp out the zero-defects mentality. 22 But candor is a two-way street. Leaders must be willing to admit their own mistakes and to learn from them. They must listen carefully to the input and concerns of their subordinates. Candor on moral issues is the most difficult. In a society enamored of moral relativism—the notion that there is no absolute right or wrong, but only a series of conflicts of opposing views—leaders must rely on tradition and strong convictions to explain moral judgments. The best way to kill morale is to cause subordinates to believe that their leaders are seeking politically correct—rather than morally correct—answers.

Candor is essential at all levels of the chain of command. A lack of candor on the part of our senior leaders has clouded the moral climate in today's Navy. A recent survey indicates that more than 50% of the officers leaving the Navy today cite a "loss of confidence in the leadership" among their top reasons for submitting their letters of resignation. 23 One surveyed junior officer summarized a widely held sentiment: "The current Navy leaders are reaping the rewards of politically centered shortsightedness. Can't someone just say things are very wrong without worrying where the next star is coming from?" 24 What would make junior officers in the fleet bring forward such an accusation? It is difficult, on one hand, to find comments made by the Navy's senior leadership that smack of political correctness. On the other hand, the silence is deafening. The fleet is longing to hear from the Admiralty on some of the most troubling issues confronting the Navy: careerism, readiness, integration, sexual harassment, and suicide, among others.

A cursory mention of honor, courage, commitment or a "just don't do it" approach is not enough. If a thoughtful and candid discussion of important issues brings down the wrath of the politically correct crowd —in the military, Congress, or the media—so be it. For the good of the nation and the Navy, we must find the moral courage to stand up to the scourge of political correctness.

The alternative to candor too often is dishonesty and disaster. During the build-up for Vietnam, for instance, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) stood silent while President Lyndon Johnson misled the U.S. people about the level of commitment he was making in Vietnam. Johnson's Vietnam policy decisions were based on domestic political expediency, to preserve his stature and his Great Society programs. 25 Too many senior military officers went along with this politically correct strategy. By failing to speak out or even resign, the JCS allowed the country to be maneuvered and manipulated down the path to bitter defeat.

Candor and moral courage go together. An officer's responsibility in the policy-making process—whether in the wardroom or advising the President —entails total candor. Once a final policy decision is made, he has an obligation to support that decision as if it were his own—with a huge exception. On matters of deep principle—duty, honor, country—there can be no compromise. Duty demands that a naval officer speak out. General George C. Marshall explained that "It is hard to get men to do this, for this is when you lay your career, perhaps your commission, on the line." 26 But any officer truly willing to give his life for his country must also be willing to give up his job.

Replacing Careerism with Commitment

Commitment, then, is the critical underlying issue. Underwriting honest mistakes and candor can go a long way toward a renewal of institutional integrity. But as long as careerism is allowed to take precedence over collective commitment, the Navy will continue to be plagued with the adverse consequences of the zero-defect mentality. Admiral Burke noted that a careerist—someone whose service to country is motivated by personal gain—"is more likely to fall into the zero-mentality syndrome, to be someone who would choose to cover up those things that might draw discredit to his own unit."

Careerism in today's Navy seems commonplace. A selfish, self-centered individual who uses other people for his own personal gain and fails to share the credit effectively has abdicated his leadership responsibilities. For example, I once overheard a submarine executive officer scolding the ship's navigator for making a charting error. "I'm glad I caught this," he screamed, "you could have cost me my chance at command." By emphasizing himself, that XO instantly undermined the collective commitment to unit, service, and country that must underpin successful leadership. Naval officers would do well to remember that the real measure of career success is not just the position you attain, but the difference you make along the way.

Careerism sometimes is strengthened unwittingly by Navy programs that overemphasize individual incentives at the expense of shared values. Low-order enticements—bonuses, improved housing, and better pay and benefits— are essential to retaining a highly professional force. But they are not a substitute for a high-order commitment to duty and country. It is important to remember that "mercenaries don't win wars or maintain deterrence: people committed to their country and bound by a common duty do." 27 Any quality-of-life campaign must include a primary emphasis on the characteristics of the naval profession that give it a quality all its own. No civilian institution can match the honor of serving on board the world's greatest warships and the responsibility of leading our nation's sons and daughters in harm's way to protect and defend democratic values. To ensure that every officer understands this unique quality in the naval profession and the magnitude of commitment it requires, we must study history.

The Importance of Institutional Leadership

Combat leadership is best learned from the wise men who have endured its dilemmas, pressures, and responsibilities in earlier conflicts. Unfortunately, however, the new naval leadership continuum is long on situational ethics and process improvement but short on history—a balance that must be reversed. Core values take on true meaning only when placed in a historical context. Only naval history can instruct about the heavy price in American blood that was paid for victory and valor to become institutionalized.

Naval leadership is the process of influencing individuals to accomplish their missions. Institutional history and tradition establish the shared values and standards that exert a profound influence on professional behavior. 28 For a naval officer, it is impossible to walk the grounds of the Naval Academy, the Naval War College, or naval bases such as Pearl Harbor without being overcome by a sense of history. It is impossible to get under way on a U.S. warship without being touched by our naval tradition. Deep down, every time we allow the careerist, zero-defects philosophy to influence our actions, we violate the sacred trust of all those who served and sacrificed before us. Institutional renewal will come if naval officers embrace our history and tradition—to discover why and for what principles our predecessors were prepared to fight and die.

As their Navy struggles to regain its moral compass, it is likely that civilian society will remain lost—in a sea of relativism. Admiral Arleigh Burke identified the problem clearly: "The integrity of society is approximately equal to the lowest common denominator of its people. If developing individuals observe that people with known moral defects, or people known to be crooked or liars, are accepted by society without penalty, they may conclude that integrity is not worth their effort." 29 Today, popular athletes and politicians who demonstrate unbecoming conduct offstage are widely accepted—for perceptions of their superior on-the-job performances. No wonder some consider the Navy's traditional standards arcane and backward. On the other hand, it is hard to deny that the naval profession—at its best—is the embodiment of the values that are most deficient in society—honesty, loyalty, duty, self-restraint, and the surrender of the self-interest for the common good. 30 Thus, despite our recent troubles, society still has more to learn from its naval tradition than the Navy can from the current social condition. 31 By rediscovering our institutional ideals, we can serve as a beacon of hope—that some day, the American people may discover for themselves the secret of our success.

Lieutenant Adams is the prospective weapons officer in the USS Santa Fe (SSN-763), and is a recent strategic planning graduate from Naval Postgraduate School. He previously served as a division officer in the USS Tennessee (SSBN-734) and as an associate fellow on the CNO's Strategic Studies Group XVI. Lieutenant Adams won the Naval Institute's 1997 Arleigh Burke Essay Contest. He would like to thank Sandra Adams, Ken Knittle, and Jim Wirtz for their support in this endeavor.

   1. Paraphrased from Vice Admiral William P. Mack and Lieutenant Commander Royal W. Connell, Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1980), p. 17; and Michael T. Isenberg, The Shield of the Republic (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), p. 23. back to article
   2. Ibid., p. 5.
back to article
   3. Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale, A Vietnam Experience: Ten Years of Reflection (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1984), p. 111. back to article
   4. Ibid., p. 51. back to article
   5. Ibid. back to article
   6. Ibid., p. 122. back to article
   7. James Webb, "Defending the Navy's Culture," speech delivered 25 April 1996 at the U.S. Naval Institute's 122nd Annual Meeting and Sixth Annapolis Seminar. See the PBS Frontline web site for the full text version of Webb's speech. back to article
   8. Admiral Arleigh Burke, "Integrity," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (October 1985), pp. 116-118. back to article
   9. Editorial staff, "Of Following and Leading," Navy Times , 6 June 1996. back to article
  10. Lieutenant David A. Adams, "We Are Not Invincible," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (May 1997), pp. 35-39. back to article
  11. Ibid. back to article
  12. Samuel Eliot Morison , History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1967), vol. XVI, p. 48. Thanks to Dr. James Wirtz for bringing this incident to my attention. back to article
  13. Rear Admiral Edwin T. Layton, "And I Was There" (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1985), p. 398. back to article
  14. Ibid. back to article
  15. Ibid., p. 399. back to article
  16. Ibid. back to article
  17. Mack and Connell, p. 356. back to article
  18. Quoted in Otto Kreisher, "Has U.S. lost the 'warrior's edge'?" San Diego Union Tribune , 21 September 1997, p. A-4. back to article
  19. Remarks as delivered by the Honorable John H. Dalton, Secretary of the Navy, U.S. Naval Academy graduation, 31 May 1995. back to article
  20. Ibid. back to article
  21. A point made by General Dennis Reimer, U.S. Army, in "Empowerment, Environment, and the Golden Rule," Military Review (January/February 1996), p. 8. back to article
  22. Ibid. back to article
  23. Bradley Peniston, "They're Getting Out," Navy Times , 19 January 1998, p. 12. back to article
  24. Ibid. back to article
  25. This is the well-supported thesis of H. R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty (New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 1997). back to article
  26. General Matthew B. Ridgeway, "Leadership," in Military Leadership: In Pursuit of Excellence , edited by Richard L. Taylor and William E. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1984), p. 27. back to article
  27. Stockdale, p. 106. back to article
  28. Mack and Connell, p. 3. back to article
  29. Burke, p. 116. back to article
  30. This is an adaptation of the idea expressed by Samuel B. Huntington in The Soldier and the State (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957), p. 466. back to article
  31. Ibid. back to article


Lieutenant Commander Adams is executive officer of the USS Honolulu (SSN-718) and a frequent contributor to Proceedings.

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