Fireproof Commanding Officers

By Lieutenant Lawrence Heyworth IV, U.S. Navy

Crunching the Numbers

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus stated in 2011 that officers relieved for cause represent only a small percentage of the roughly 1,500 commanding officers in the service. 2 This would suggest that since 12 commanding officers had been relieved at the time he was interviewed, only 0.8 percent (12/1,500) were affected. Ultimately, in 2011 a total of 22 (1.5 percent) commanding officers were relieved for cause, including several for reasons unrelated to personal misconduct. 3 This would suggest that Navy-wide, commanding officers finish their tours with a 98.5 percent success rate. Does this tell the whole story? It may be helpful to examine one data set in greater depth to see if the success rate the secretary offers holds true when viewed in a different light.

If one were to consider only the commanding officers of the service’s 285 ships, this narrows the total number of fired officers in 2011 to 9 (in 2012 this rose slightly to 11, while 2013 had seen only 6 at the time of publication). 4 Assuming an average command tour is 18 months long (as the majority are surface-ship commands), then throughout any given year there would actually be upward of 190 individuals in command. This estimate brings the percentage of fired commanding officers of ships for 2011 to 4.7 percent, or a 95.3 percent success rate. 5 Navy-wide historical data corroborate our focused approach: Small percentages are indeed the norm.

This seems to confirm the secretary’s statement that only a small percentage of commanding officers are relieved for cause. It is worth noting that U.S. Code is incredibly demanding of commanding officers:

All commanding officers and others in authority in the naval service are required to show in themselves a good example of virtue, honor, patriotism, and subordination; to be vigilant in inspecting the conduct of all persons who are placed under their command; to guard against and suppress all dissolute and immoral practices. 6

Given this high, almost superhuman standard, could the current rate just be acceptable attrition? If the Navy were baseball, .953 would be a legendary batting average. A coach with a win percentage that high is unheard of. While a 2–3 percent failure rate could be viewed as insignificant or even praiseworthy in other arenas, screening boards highly scrutinize officers before selecting them for command at sea and all are expected to meet basic standards of personal conduct if they are to be trusted with billion-plus-dollar warships. Navy regulations state:

The commanding officer . . . shall exercise leadership through personal example, moral responsibility and judicious attention to the welfare of persons under [his] control or supervision. Such leadership shall be exercised in order to achieve a positive, dominant influence on the performance of persons in the Department of the Navy. 7

The failure to lead by personal example and the impact of a CO’s relief can have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences for a crew of more than 250 sailors. A list of costs resulting from a commanding officer’s relief for cause could include lost productivity from distracted or unmotivated crews, a loss of continuity of leadership, lower retention rates of disenchanted sailors, and significant negative effects on personnel management to redirect prospective commanding officers to the affected commands. Due to the cascading costs involved in even a single relief for cause, Navy leadership is correct in attempting to further reduce these events.

The Current Remedy

In 2004 and 2010 NAVIG conducted studies of detach-for-cause (DFC) events involving commanding officers. DFCs in 2003 were significantly greater than other years, and personal misconduct almost always outweighed other reasons for relief. However, no statistically significant trends or root causes were identified in the course of these investigations. The studies judged the personal misconduct to represent poor decisions on the part of the commanding officers and considered 2003 a statistical anomaly.

While neither the 2004 nor 2010 reports concluded a systemic problem exists, both focused on the disturbing rates of (presumably avoidable) personal misconduct reliefs and offered suggestions to improve selection processes and officer training. For example, the 2004 study recommended incorporating a 360 degree assessment tool at the prospective executive officer (PXO) level, developing and implementing a refresher course for all major command prospective commanding officers (PCO), improving operational risk management training in the surface warfare officer PCO pipeline, instituting command self-assessment training for all department heads and XOs, and reviewing for adequacy the training provided for PCOs. 8 Unfortunately, the 2010 study concluded that “the recommendations implemented as a result of the 2004 CO DFC study have had no discernible impact on the CO DFC rate, which has remained essentially constant since the completion of that study except for small year-to-year variations.” 9

Reliefs due to personal misconduct appear to be the most numerous and avoidable DFCs, but the correct change to policy or training to reduce these events is not so apparent. The recommendations of the 2004 NAVIG report reflect widely held assumptions as to why these commanding officers engaged in personal misconduct: They are either simply “bad apples” or officers with weak moral character who fall victim to an unfortunate but avoidable error chain. The logical solutions based on these assumptions would be an improved selection process to screen out bad apples and improved officer training to strengthen potential offenders’ moral character. Contemporary psychology suggests that these assumptions are myths and that believing them can be detrimental to one’s own propensity for ethical failings. Rather than attempting to modify existing Navy-wide selection processes and training, individual naval officers could personally avoid misconduct by a more complete understanding of why these situations occur.

Simply Bad Apples?

Dr. Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University adamantly refutes the bad apples myth by asserting that immoral behavior is observed when bad systems place good people in bad situations. 10 In his 2007 book The Lucifer Effect , Zimbardo evaluates an experiment he conducted in August 1971, the now-infamous “Stanford Prisoner Experiment” (SPE).

In the SPE, a group of college-age men were randomly split into two groups: guards and prisoners. Although Zimbardo and his researchers were initially interested in what would occur psychologically to the prisoners, they soon found far more disturbing results in the guards. In the simulated prison environment where a guard’s power was largely unchecked, prisoners were quickly and unquestioningly subjected to inhumane abuses.

Zimbardo concludes that abuses such as the ones witnessed in the SPE—and similar abuses chronicled at Abu Ghraib—are not the result of a few bad apples, but instead of putting good apples into bad bushels . In the context of the SPE, Zimbardo created bad bushels by placing guards without much training into seemingly consequence-free environments where leadership allowed inappropriate behavior to slowly escalate until it was out of control.

The parallel to command at sea is not immediately obvious. In the SPE, guards existed to control prisoners and were often in direct conflict with them. As a ship’s commanding officer, one is charged with the crew’s training and well-being and is seen as the leader of a team. However, one striking similarity exists: A ship’s captain, like the guards in the SPE, is often the ultimate authority in an environment isolated from many aspects of “normal” life. Navy regulations specify that “The responsibility of the commanding officer for his or her command is absolute . . . the authority of the commanding officer is commensurate with his or her responsibility.” 11

The bad-apple myth is especially easy to believe because most people assert these failings could never happen to them. Zimbardo addresses this directly, writing, “Instead of distancing ourselves from the individuals who were deceived by assuming negative dispositional attributes in them—stupidity, naiveté—we need to understand why and how people like us were so completely seduced.” 12

Naval officers (as PCOs) must pay special attention to Zimbardo’s phrase “people like us.” Ethical and moral training falls on deaf ears when students begin thinking, “This could never happen to me.” To safeguard themselves from personal misconduct in command, officers must first convince themselves that moral failings can vex even the best individuals in a bad situation and must dismiss the myth of the bad apple.

Or of Weak Moral Character?

The second myth surrounding commanding officers’ ethical failings is that those relieved for personal misconduct were not necessarily bad apples, but were probably of weak moral character. Contemporary business ethicists and philosophers suggest otherwise. In Dean C. Ludwig and Clinton O. Longenecker’s The Bathsheba Syndrome we see instead that even the strongest moral character can fall prey to ethical failings when someone becomes successful. 13

The Bathsheba Syndrome takes its name from the Biblical story of King David, a revered king who seemed to have it all—until he began an affair with a subordinate’s wife, Bathsheba. David ultimately impregnated her and ordered his generals to ensure her husband would be killed in battle, which he was. The authors use this story to illustrate their theory that ethical failings in upper managers are not due to a lack of ethics training or a stressful, competitive environment, but rather are byproducts of success. In fact, they assert that personal and professional successes contribute to this vulnerability rather than demonstrate resiliency against it.

Ludwig and Longenecker suggest that four major factors contributed to David’s personal misconduct, all of which can accompany success: privileged access, control of resources, an inflated belief in personal ability, and a loss of strategic focus. The correlations are obvious in this case: Every commanding officer has privileged access and control of resources by the nature of his position, and is therefore inherently likely to encounter the Bathsheba Syndrome. While the syndrome is taught at Command Leadership School to prospective commanding officers, junior officers, too, should be aware of these dangerous aspects of psychology so that they may strengthen their resistance against them.

It is important to note, however, that some contemporary psychologists think that even the strongest character may not be enough to avoid moral transgressions in many instances. David, for instance, was known to be a man of great courage (remember Goliath?). “Situationalists” would suggest—and are often supported by convincing data from experimental psychology—that the only way for David to prevent his affair with Bathsheba was to avoid private interaction with the woman entirely. Experimental results show that some situations seem to always result in immoral behavior, regardless of the character of the individual involved. Accordingly, officers must accept that their morality is never fully fail-safe and must learn to quickly recognize and steer clear of these situations. 14

Building Character throughout a Career

The 2010 NAVIG study “uncovered no correlation between the likelihood of a CO to be relieved for cause and a CO’s career path, personality traits as reflected in standard personality tests, accession source, time in command, or year group.” 15 This finding echoes the debunking of the two myths: There are no bad or weak apples. It then made several recommendations, the most significant of which was to create “an officer leadership training continuum from accession through major command.” 16 This approach may yield positive results.

To prevent personal misconduct in command, officers must realize early in their careers that they will be highly susceptible to ethical failures when they are commanding officers. After shedding the “it could never happen to me” attitude, junior officers may then begin to strengthen their character through personal reflection.

Ideally, every naval officer would safeguard him or her self from ethical failure through deep and consistent introspection. Officers can begin to forge moral and ethical courage by reading classic philosophers’ treatment of ethics (or even the works of more recent—and perhaps even more applicable—philosophers such as the late Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale) and then applying their principles to daily life. Insight can also be gained by reading about others’ moral or otherwise courageous struggles; the Chief of Naval Operations’ reading list is an excellent place to begin. Although reading provides perhaps the most solid foundation, inspiring movies and even conversations about motivating events can stimulate interest in moral and ethical courage. The key is then internalizing these concepts by asking, “How does this apply to me and my job?” This must begin as early as possible in one’s career to lay the foundation for a lifetime of learning.

It would be folly to presume one could only read a few books and attend mandatory PowerPoint training offered by the Navy throughout a career of service and be safeguarded against ethical dilemmas that require the strongest character to identify and resolve. Any leadership continuum instituted in response to the 2010 NAVIG study must steer clear of rewarding “checks in the block” and instead focus on personal development. Philosopher William Durant once summarized Aristotle in saying, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” 17 Officers must consistently take the lessons learned and implement the theory behind them in their daily lives.

The 2010 NAVIG study advocated a centrally managed leadership curriculum, but this should not mirror existing courses of study. Character development cannot be taught, tested, or graded in a classroom. Existing schoolhouses should work to encourage personal reflection at early career milestones so officers have an opportunity to develop good ethical habits well in advance of command.

In surface-warfare-officer-school and department-head school, students (generally lieutenants) are divided into “wardrooms” of three or four and assigned an instructor “XO” (a post-department-head lieutenant commander) and instructor “CO” (a post-command commander or captain). These groups meet independently outside the classroom at scheduled intervals throughout the program to discuss important issues. Other schools should consider adopting this “wardroom” model—even for short periods of time—to encourage the personal development of officers. Even simple questions by a wardroom CO such as, “what book are you reading right now?” or “what accomplishment are you most proud of?” can nudge an officer toward deeper thinking. The Lucifer Effect and The Bathsheba Syndrome could both guide a lively dialogue. Situationalist experiments could be reviewed and parallels made to shipboard environments. These discussions are critically important at division-officer and department-head schools where students digest important concepts and then form good habits in their next tour at sea.

Officers complete nearly 20 years of professional development in most communities before assuming command, but most unrestricted-line communities do not even mention ethics in a classroom environment until prospective XO/CO courses. To rise to the moral and ethical challenges of command, an officer must impose upon himself a similarly systematic curriculum of character development. Only by admitting it could happen to each of us, recognizing situations where moral failure could occur, and subsequently developing strong ethical habits throughout a career can an officer safeguard against a relief in command due to personal misconduct.

1. Thom Shanker, “Concern Grows Over Top Military Officers’ Ethics,” The New York Times , 12 November 2012; Craig Whitlock, “Navy’s top ranks seeing turmoil,” Washington Post , 18 June 2011; Craig Whitlock, “Two admirals face probe in Navy bribery scheme,” Washington Post , 8 November 2013.

2. Whitlock, “Navy’s top ranks seeing turmoil.”

3. “Commanding officer, XO and senior enlisted firings,” , Gannett Government Media Corporation, 28 January 2013.

4. Ibid.

5. A ship generally has a new CO every 18 months, which means each ship has two COs every three years, or 285 ships. 2 COs/3 years= 190 COs per year; 9/190= 4.7 percent.

6. 10 USC § 5947, “Requirement of exemplary conduct.”

7. Navy Regulations Article 0802.

8. U.S. Navy Department, Report on Commanding Officers Detached for Cause (Washington, DC: Naval Inspector General, 2010). 1, 19–20. Hereafter NAVIG 2010.

9. Ibid., 3.

10. Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (New York: Random House, 2007), 445.

11. Navy Regulations Article 0802.

12. Zimbardo, 447.

13. Dean C. Ludwig and Clinton O. Longenecker, “The Bathsheba Syndrome: The ethical failure of successful leaders,” Journal of Business Ethics , 12, no. 4 (April 1993): 265–273.

14. Martin L. Cook, “Leaders of Character? The Dangers of ‘Integrity,’” Lecture, U.S. Military Academy, 29 October 2012.

15. NAVIG 2010, 3.

16. Ibid., 4.

17. William Durant, The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers , (New York: Pocket Books, 1991).

Lieutenant Heyworth is a 2005 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, a 2006 graduate of Stanford University, and a surface warfare officer.


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