From the Deckplates

By Senior Chief Jim Murphy, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The FFC program gives individual unit command master chiefs (CMC) a pass on effectively training their chiefs. It’s similar in effect to CPO 365, another recent development, this one intended to prepare first class petty officers to become chiefs. In both cases, traditional mentoring is replaced by programs dictated from above, indicating a lack of trust among seniors in the ability of chiefs to train each other and their subordinates, a training history that had enjoyed an admired reputation.

This situation is exacerbated by an evaluation system that rewards those who create things—like this new training initiative—while refusing to hold accountable those responsible for failing programs. It’s much easier to come up with something new—knowing that it will lead to glowing evaluations, a hefty end-of-tour award, and personal advancement—than it is to identify weaknesses and fix existing programs. Doing the latter would point out someone else’s failure, a leadership responsibility we have abandoned. We’ve created and rewarded this behavior while the quality and effectiveness of existing programs have deteriorated to the point of uselessness.

The point is not whether these programs are useful. The point is, we never examine what caused them to be necessary in the first place. According to Faram, FFC Commander Admiral John Harvey and FFC Fleet Master Chief Mike Stevens envision this program as a means to “get chiefs back on track.” But why are they off track in the first place?

Faram’s article states that chiefs “can go 20 years after putting on anchors without . . . leadership training” beyond CPO Indoctrination, the only official training before becoming a chief. Even if they never attend another formal course, all chiefs should be participating in the unofficial yet vital portions of Transition, formerly Initiation. That evolution is designed, in part, to provide the re-energizing effect FFC’s new program seeks. Additionally, for the past several years, chiefs have had a Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy-mandated monthly training curriculum and a CPO Leadership Continuum which have been unsuccessful, as evidenced by the need to create yet another program. Moreover, chiefs should already be fully versed on the topics covered by the FFC program—these are as basic to being a chief as possible—and each should be reinforced constantly by CMCs.

So, what are the root problems that lead to a perceived training gap? The answers are simple yet seemingly inconceivable to current senior leaders: unnecessary changes to Chief Petty Officer Initiation and creation of the command master chief program. It is no coincidence that increasingly common stories of disciplinary problems, leadership weaknesses, and knowledge deficits in the Chiefs’ Mess have unfolded at the same time these other changes occurred. These have weakened the Chiefs’ Mess, and that weakens the Navy.

Each year Initiation gets shorter, easier, and less meaningful. Newly selected chiefs once endured a demanding process that lasted two months or more. This evolution was, for many, the most challenging, useful, and rewarding experience in their careers, a period of deep personal and professional exploration and discovery. Today the process is but a shell of its former self, somewhat handy for some but truly useful for few. It has become little more than an annoyance for the participants. It’s a sham compared with what it used to be.

The former difficult and gritty format of Initiation prepared chiefs for the new challenges and authorities that awaited, but “difficult” and “gritty” are foul words in today’s hyper-politically correct and risk-averse culture. Removing the drunken debauchery of days long past was appropriate, but the changes have gone too far. The training no longer prepares chiefs effectively. If it did, we wouldn’t see increases in disciplinary problems, a lack of knowledge of basic Navy programs, and a deficit of effective leadership.

As the Mess declines, our top enlisted leaders tout the success of the command master chief program—a savior for the Navy and the CPO Mess, they no doubt believe. Hogwash! The program has done little more than create a political elite class of middle-management. By its very design, the members of this community are predisposed to not rock the boat because doing so entails career risk. A negative evaluation or lack of support from above would end the aspirations of anyone seeking to enter this aristocratic circle or lead to non-advancement within it for those already there. Like other distasteful things, this tendency rolls downhill and has contaminated much of the CPO Mess. In all honesty it occurs everywhere in our service; throughout the chain of command, those willing to stand up and challenge poor decisions are rare at a time when we need them most.

Chiefs, and CMCs in particular, used to—and still should—tell their boss if he or she is wrong, point blank, and fight for what is right even in the face of certain defeat or negative career impact. That was long the essence of a chief petty officer: doing the right thing in spite of one’s own career. Those days are largely gone. Too many of our command, fleet, and force master chiefs have become political yes-men for so-called leaders who will not tolerate being challenged, and they themselves will not accept challenge by any chief outside the program or below them in the community pecking order. Most will not even allow discussion of the relative strengths or weaknesses of this well-intentioned program but continue to peddle its successes, which remain vague, at best and undefined most typically.

The result is a Navy culture where technical leadership has been replaced by physical fitness and community involvement; where leadership accountability has been replaced by second-guessing and punishment for every misstep of a subordinate; where expertise in uniform has been replaced by civilians dispatched to test and repair equipment because sailors no longer can; where our on-again, off-again tiptoeing around a zero-defect Navy means one mistake can end a career; where authority for every rank above seaman has been replaced by mistrust; where mission focus has been replaced by meddlesome downsizing-focused personnel policies.

It’s as simple as that. Senior enlisted Navy leadership no longer carries the weight it once did. We’ve produced too many ineffective chiefs through a failure to provide challenging training before they don their anchors and holding them accountable afterward. We’ve cultivated an environment where CMCs are rewarded for toeing the party line and focusing more on professional progression than doing what’s right. It’s a travesty that the feelings of so many active-duty chiefs are silenced because criticism of the program is forbidden.

Chiefs, in and out of the CMC program, must again raise the Bravo Sierra flag on all that has gone wrong in the CPO community, even if those efforts are unpopular. So much leadership has been lost and authority given away that the days of “Ask the Chief” being a service-wide phrase are numbered. Most of our commissioned leaders pay lip service to the CPO Mess while relishing in its demise, which ensures their actions go uncontested. Until someone who can make a change has the intestinal fortitude to put the CPO Mess back on course, we will simply overlook the root causes of our own failures and create meaningless new programs that also founder, leading to more new programs and even less respect.

Somebody who can make a difference, please, wake up . . . and speak up! The 138-year legacy of the Chiefs’ Mess hangs in the balance. The success of the Navy depends on it.

Senior Chief Murphy transferred to the Fleet Reserve in 2008 after 21 years of active service. He served his entire career in the cryptologic community and was a qualified submariner.

Senior Chief Murphy will transfer to the fleet reserve on 31 December 2008 after more than 21 years of active duty.

More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Mon, 2016-06-13

You are cordially invited to: U.S. Coast Guard Update A discussion with: Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, USCG25th Commandant of the U.S...

2016 Naval History Conference

View All

From the Press

Guest Speaker & Book Signing

Fri, 2016-05-27

Keynote Speaker & Book Signing

Mon, 2016-05-30

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership