One Special Ship

By Lieutenant Commander Bryan McGrath, U.S. Navy

If my retention were all the evidence of the unique nature of that wardroom, my story would be unpersuasive and unworthy of publication. But eight years later, the continuing successful service of so many of the officers in the Thomas S. Gates argues for the existence of an atmosphere in that ship that could be useful to study in view of today's retention problem.

The retention success of the Thomas S. Gates can be attributed to two sets of factors: those beyond the control of the ship's leaders, and those within their control. The most obvious external factor was that this wardroom made an extended (a week short of eight months) wartime deployment together—one in which we were able to put aside some of the more mundane tasks associated with our jobs and concentrate on planning, operating, and watchstanding. It was a surface warrior's nirvana. Sweeping restrictions on message traffic meant less routine messages to write, and the tense operational environment dictated that all other pursuits were subjugated. We stood largely port and starboard watches; when we weren't on watch, many of us engaged in significant tactical planning.

I don't mean to suggest that all of the routine business of the ship ceased. On the contrary, we still had a very full plate, including the most thorough commanding officer's zone inspection program I've ever seen, and a zealous pursuit of crew qualifications and advancement. What was different from any experience I've had since was the decline in external administrative requirements. We had a relevant mission, we were operationally engaged, and there was an obvious purpose to our labor.

The second external force worthy of mention is the economy of 1990-91. While the Gulf War temporarily bumped the economy from the front pages, its weight was felt in the months after the war as we saw the President's phenomenal poll numbers slip. The civilian job market was nowhere near as inviting as it is today. I mention this only because I foresee others raising this factor to an uncalled-for level of importance. To be honest, the officers in my cohort in the Thomas S. Gates did not talk about the economy much. Call it the arrogance of youth, but as bad as things were, most of us felt that if we were to leave the service, we probably would do fine financially. To me, today's economy is at best a tiebreaker when it comes to making a "should I stay or should I go" decision, just as it was in 1991.

The Leaders

Far more important in keeping so many officers in the Navy was the working environment created by the captain of the ship and its senior leadership. I have never been associated with a more professional, collegial, and supportive group of officers; I often refer to that wardroom as the greatest gathering of men since the Second Continental Congress. It started with the captain.

Simply put, he made being commanding officer (CO) of a ship look like the best job in the world. To paraphrase Admiral Snuffy Smith's line about how the world's navies view the U.S. Navy, the junior officers (JOs) in the Thomas S. Gates didn't want to be like our CO; we wanted to be our CO. His enthusiasm for the job never diminished. Clearly, he faced numerous setbacks and challenges, the same as any other captain. The difference was that he didn't share them with us. He refused to let the burdens of command interfere with the joys of command.

COs need to remember that everyone takes his or her cue from them. If it means suspending reality for a while, do so. I'm not proposing a rose-colored glasses approach; the officers and crew need to know without question when their performance has been disappointing. But those periods should be brief and without residue. Every JO on that ship had the opportunity to make mistakes and survive; we weren't judged on our latest miscue.

The COs took officer training seriously; so seriously, that he often gave it himself. This is something I've seen little of in my time in the fleet, but its effect on a wardroom is astounding. When a neophyte administers officer training primarily to improve his or her knowledge, an opportunity is lost. When the most experienced person on the ship shares knowledge, everyone gains.

I could spend pages cataloging the nuances of our captain's leadership style that helped make the experience special, but that would detract from the other significant pieces of this puzzle. Although the CO created the environment for these other factors, had he been less of a leader, the presence of these other factors still would have made my tour in the Thomas S. Gates memorable.

The first time I saw the executive officer (XO) was shortly before I reported to the ship. I still was attached to my previous ship, which happened to be berthed a pier over from the Thomas S. Gates . I took a stroll one afternoon to look over my new home, and happened upon a flurry of activity on the pier. The cruiser was exercising its damage-control parties, and the XO was overseeing the action. To say that he was involved is an understatement. He moved from group to group, exhorting, challenging, cajoling, and inspiring. Here was a man having the time of his life, bringing a level of enthusiasm to an evolution so routine it often breeds indifference.

Everything he did resembled that day on the pier. He knew the Aegis weapon system better than anyone else on the ship (and better today than anyone else I know), and willingly shared that knowledge with us. Many a daily operations brief went past its allotted time when the XO decided to take to the overhead projector. He took his role as the number-two warfighter seriously, and devoted at least as much time to training division officers as he did to his considerable administrative duties.

The Department Heads

The department heads were an irreplaceable element of the Thomas S. Gates's success. To a division officer contemplating remaining on active duty, command seems a world away, and XO is just short of that. What we looked at more with more intensity than those positions was our department heads. Were they enjoying themselves? Were they challenged in a positive manner? Did the job they were doing seem worth coming back for? After a year working with the department heads in the cruiser, I had my answers, and they led me to stay Navy.

These men were very talented surface warriors, both operationally and in terms of their leadership skills; their current success stands as convincing evidence. But their effect on the ship was much more than just individual talent. These men were best friends who understood that if the ship did well, they would do well, irrespective of how they were ranked against each other at fitness report time. Don't get me wrong; I could see the disappointment in my boss's eyes when it was clear that he had been ranked lower in the group of four lieutenant commanders on board than he had hoped. But it did not last long. The level of cooperation was incredible, and the ship functioned like a well-oiled machine as a result.

Looking at this from the division officer level was insightful. Once a week, the captain convened a meeting of the Commanding Officer's Training Team—COTT—comprising himself, the XO, and the department heads. At these meetings, the captain laid out his instructions, and the team reviewed long-range plans and conducted considerable business. More importantly, here is where they let off steam. I cannot remember laughing harder than I did during those meetings. Very serious men, dedicated to very serious ends, genuinely enjoyed these meetings.

Another aspect of the department heads' performance that I believe helped retain a large percentage of their division officers was their keen interest in mentoring us. I never will forget walking into the wardroom late one night under way to find the combat systems officer sitting next to the gunnery officer going over his division's maintenance charts. This in itself is unremarkable; what was worthy of note was the tone of their conversation. It was clear that the department head was teaching his division officer, not brow-beating him.

Some years later when I was a department head, my divisions were having a tough time with a routine damage control evolution. I would tell them at quarters to go out and verify yoke and then report to me when it was done. One by one they would filter in and report, and soon thereafter I would receive notification from the Damage Control Training Team that we had failed—and miserably.

I thought back to the combat systems officer in the wardroom with his gunnery officer and gathered my division officers in my stateroom. I then calmly asked if any of them knew what was meant by "yoke checks." One by one, they shook their heads and said no. It wasn't that they didn't know anything about what they were doing, it was that they weren't sure about the complete scope of the evolution. So I trooped them up to the communications officer's passageway and showed them how to verify yoke. The lesson isn't that I was a good department head, it was that I hadn't taken the time to do a very important part of my job: to teach my division officers.

I believe that much of the frustration of today's division officers springs from a sense of detachment from their department heads. Department heads seem more likely to browbeat than to praise. I suppose some would say that it always has been that way, but I doubt it has been that way on good ships. COs and XOs have to make it clear to their department heads that training and mentoring those who will come after them is not a luxury to be pursued when everything else is complete. It must be a fundamental part of every department head's leadership style, and commanding officers should be attentive to their department heads' performance in this respect.

Department heads, as much as the CO and XO, must remain positive. Going to sea as a surface warrior is tough; doing it while working for a negative, critical, self-centered jerk is torture. I'm not advocating a leadership style by which we attempt to deceive division officers into looking at the next step as a positive one. What I am advocating is maintaining perspective—every once in a while, sitting back and remembering why it was that you stayed in the Navy, and how you can convey your enthusiasm for your work to those who work for you.

The Thomas S. Gates had many things going in her favor in 1991; she was four years old, she was commanded by a man who would go on to three stars (at least), and her wardroom was deep and talented. It would have been negligence if we weren't able to retain a great deal of our officers under these circumstances. I may go through my entire Navy career without having another experience like I did in the Thomas S. Gates . I tried my best to recreate that atmosphere as a department head, and I can report only mixed results. But the truth of the matter is that the Surface Navy does not need the kind of retention we had in the Thomas S. Gates (although it would be wonderful). Currently, we need to retain 8 more officers out of every 100 than we are to meet our department head needs while retaining reasonable tour lengths. If the leaders on every ship in the fleet were to take stock of themselves and think about the example they were setting for the junior officers on board, we could go a long way toward turning this situation around. Ultimately, leadership is the answer.

Lieutenant Commander McGrath is the Speechwriter for the Chief of Naval Operations. In June 1999, he will begin pipeline training prior to reporting as executive officer of the USS Princeton (CG-59), homeported in San Diego.


Commander McGrath is the founding director of Delex Consulting, Studies and Analysis. On active duty, he commanded the USS Bulkeley (DDG-84) from 2004 to 2006; he also led the team that produced the 2007 maritime strategy, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st-Century Seapower, and was its primary author."Jointness is not an end in itself. . . . Apart from combat, it is a rhetorical whip that maintains a politically useful discipline among the services in a time of falling defense budgets." -

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