Along the Path of Leadership

By Lieutenant Commander Tom Spahn, U.S. Navy Reserve    

Stepping onto the cold steel gangway, casually rocking underfoot in time with the gentle eddies swirling between the pier and the dull gray steel hull of a warship looming ahead, a newly minted ensign boards her first ship. She pauses. Turns. And crisply salutes the American flag snapping eagerly in the stiff trade winds. Already the pomp involved with unfurling diplomas, swearing oaths, and donning gold bars of office are fading into memory. The final few feet of metal leading to the ship’s quarterdeck span a Rubicon across which waits her new life of honor, courage, commitment, and the heavy mantle of leadership. The burden is initially little understood, yet accepted along with the duties of a military officer.

As she approaches the petty officer standing proudly in gleaming whites at the end of the ramp, she experiences one emotion that crowds out all others: terror. Not fear exactly, but a final realization of the scope of the task that stretches ahead. Lives will be placed in her charge. She has accepted a nearly impossible task of leadership, responsible for men and women the youngest of whom is only a few years her junior, the eldest decades her senior. Many have stood on this threshold. Crossing it, they have forever changed their lives.

Twenty-some years later, the scene repeats. Now shining silver oak leafs replace gold bars, a rainbow of ribbons add color to a crisp white uniform, and she boards not a ship, but her ship. No trepidation crossing this time; the feeling is replaced by a quiet confidence in the leadership skills gleaned from those who have led her. They and those she has led have prepared her for this pinnacle of achievement and gravest of responsibilities: command at sea.

A World unto Itself

The captain of an underway ship is solely vested with awesome power and responsibility. A lonely role, some have said, but one that cannot be reached alone. It might follow, as some argue, that the leadership skills necessary to fill this position of ultimate authority cannot be taught, only learned. I disagree, because of the reciprocal half of three critical relationships that guide a rise to command: those with leaders, the led, and the peers who join the journey. As we obtain positions of increasing authority, the fundamental charge given to us becomes clearer. Though it is not always obvious, as leaders we serve as teachers and mentors. Our actions and decisions change not only our lives, but those we lead. Thus, the consequences of the manner in which we execute our duties endure far into the future.

To write as a junior officer halfway along this journey presents a unique opportunity to reflect on how leadership develops. With the past lingering still fresh in the mind, the future spans into the distance, bright, open, limitless. At this point, John F. Kennedy’s words resonate: “Any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.’”

That the leader of the free world would place such emphasis on his time in the Navy, echoing generations who dedicated even a portion of their lives to service at sea, highlights an important fact: the unique experience of leadership as an officer in the sea services has a permanent impact on those who rise to the challenge and accept the duty.

A Profound Impact

A question comes to mind about the nearly universal lasting effects of this service, often disproportionately significant to the relative time spent in it. The level of responsibility alone does not provide a satisfactory answer. Though the burdens placed on even the most junior military officers are great, many eager young professionals accept roles of significant responsibility, often similarly facing decisions that determine life or death. Nor does the explanation lie in the satisfaction experienced in perfecting and employing tactics to solve complex problems to accomplish critical missions. Many careers fulfill this high level of intellectual curiosity—even if harnessing the technological marvels of our trade, war machines capable of devastation unmatched in human history, does provide a thrill that is difficult to match.

The difference, I believe, is the underlying, unquantifiable experience of leadership training aimed at honing the skills to assume command. The impact of this endures, regardless of whether an individual spends an entire career at sea or chooses a different path.

No peer or mentor plays a more critical role in this teaching process than the Navy’s chief petty officers. At first glance the military command structure seems strange, even contradictory. From the moment they step on board, ensigns with little to no experience are given a higher rank and charged, at least notionally, with leading senior enlisted sailors who are seasoned experts in their fields, most with a lifetime of accumulated knowledge behind the anchors tacked to their collars. Having subject-matter experts on board gives obvious advantages, but why give a junior officer authority greater than that of such experts? One could almost believe that this seemingly illogical relationship is a historical anachronism, outdated and unnecessary given modern organizational theory.

The Structure of Command

In truth, this command structure facilitates an environment perfectly suited to providing junior officers with the first fundamental building block of leadership. Most of the Fleet’s officers arrive at their first duty station straight from college or the Naval Academy, perhaps with flight training or nuclear-power school along the way, with little worldly experience. The first assignment thrust upon them, leading a division of mostly seasoned sailors in a unified effort to accomplish a long roster of difficult and often dangerous tasks, seems impossible. Without the chiefs, it almost certainly would be. The steep learning curve begins with the first step onto the quarterdeck, and early lessons, sometimes learned painfully, follow immediately. It takes true responsibility to fully appreciate how infinitely more complicated leadership is than simply giving orders.

Though the junior officer holds rank over the chief, this means little compared with the authority that accompanies deep knowledge and experience. Thus this command structure creates a challenging juxtaposition, and thereby forces the development of leadership that is not demanded from rank or position, but commanded by confidence and respect earned from those who are led.

The nature of the relationship between chief and junior officer also facilitates another critical leadership skill: the ability to accept the wisdom, recommendations, and occasional criticism of subordinates. If the organizational structure established a narrower gap between experience, for example by waiting to place an officer in charge of a division until a more senior tour of duty, the line between rank and experience would be less clear. Instead, there can be no doubt as to who has the greater knowledge and experience, leaving no choice but to accept, even if reluctantly at first, the advice of a ship’s senior enlisted.

Learn from Those with Experience

It does not take long to appreciate the incredible value leaders can draw from those under their command. As an officer rises in rank and station, the mentorship provided by senior enlisted by no means diminishes or becomes less important. Effective leaders remember these lessons.

As Admiral Chester Nimitz recognized even at the highest echelons of command, “Some of the best advice I've had comes from junior officers and enlisted men.”

However, over time senior officers begin to play a larger role in an officer’s leadership development. These senior leaders, on the other end of the chain of command, provide a second foundational lesson in an officer’s leadership progression: how to follow. This maxim has unfortunately become cliché, dismissed as obvious without ample consideration of the complexities underlying the concept.

Ironically, developing an ability to follow effectively is equally important as learning to lead. Likewise, just as leading requires skills that extend far beyond the obvious ability to issue appropriate orders, so too effective following demands much more than simply one’s best efforts to carry out the orders of a senior. Again, the path an officer must follow to command proves illustrative of the special bond that leaders in the armed services must have with those in their charge. This is only possible by recognizing the fundamental importance of followership.

Not Like Executives

A question that those in service rarely ask is why those in command are not simply hired in the same way as executives in civilian organizations.  It cannot be a reluctance to advance younger or less-experienced officers to positions with authority over older, more seasoned veterans. Rather, as is evident in the critical role senior enlisted play in training junior officers, the Navy relies heavily on exactly such a command structure. The answer provides a glimpse into the underlying complexity of the unique leader-follower relationship in the military.

The required rise through the ranks ensures that each senior leader can not only effectively lead, but also can appreciate that those serving under her or his command have a fundamental duty to follow orders intelligently, not blindly, and exert the courage to provide a countervailing opinion when necessary. This is the essence of effective followership.

If not learned along the path to command, the opportunity diminishes. Command at sea is a lonely charge, not only because the special position of authority sets the commander apart personally, but also because often no peer can offer advice or support. Therefore, since captains at sea have ultimate, largely unchallenged authority, they must have developed a willingness to accept that those they lead can often provide an essential check on their decisions.

I clearly recall sitting not so long ago in a hot, sticky classroom in Annapolis, Maryland, rolling my eyes along with the rest of the class at what seemed to be a nearly insultingly obvious discussion of whether, we, as leaders, would refuse to follow orders of our seniors should we find ourselves in a situation similar to that faced by the perpetrators of the My Lai massacre. Of course, unlike disgraced Second Lieutenant William Calley, we would have the fortitude to refuse unlawful orders to kill unarmed civilians. Of course we would intervene with the pure moral courage shown by Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr., who swept in on his helicopter to halt the madness.

Perhaps those convinced that leadership cannot be taught also remember struggling in class to pay attention while being force-fed similarly simplistic case-studies. However, viewed in the hindsight gained only through experience, the underlying message and how it relates to the leadership qualities essential to command become clearer. Leaders must have the courage and conviction to not only challenge orders when they obviously must, but also be willing to consider input from those they lead. Few, God willing none, will ever face an order so far beyond the pale that the decision to refuse requires no deep reflection before refusing. All leaders will, however, inevitably confront situations far more complicated, in which many possible courses of action are equally acceptable, each lawful and reasonable but with mutually exclusive or even directly conflicting, consequences. The mentorship of senior officers over a career provides the firm foundation essential to considering and balancing the impacts of each course of action on one’s ship, shipmates, and self, then making the best choice with confidence.

Shared Peer Experience

Finally, the ability to recognize and accept the skills and knowledge that fellow junior officers bring to the wardroom represents the third foundational leadership skill essential for command. Though not mentorship in a traditional sense, leveraging the talents, experience, and opinions of peers plays no less of an important role in developing effective leadership. The diversity of our nation’s officer corps holds an impressive wealth of talent, but to unlock this treasure requires a sense of humility. This is sometimes difficult in a profession that demands confidence in one’s own abilities; deference to conflicting opinions may be equated with weakness.

But an effective leader cannot, in any circumstance, allow ego to interfere with the execution of duty. After learning to lead those who are junior and follow those who are senior, a willingness to share lessons provides the last link in the journey to command, forging a team from the wardroom, leveraging each individual’s skills to accomplish tasks that are impossible alone.

As for who have answered the call, my time in the sea services unquestionably changed my life forever. Reflecting on the reasons for this provides an even deeper sense of pride in those who serve in our nation’s military, and a reassured sense that leaders have risen through a system that instills each with the skills required to meet any challenge. Our senior enlisted ranks have accepted a heavy burden beyond their role as absolute experts of every nut and bolt on every piece of machinery sent to sea, and have risen to the challenge. We place inexperienced future leaders in their charge, and under their guidance, these officers take the first tentative steps of leadership. Our senior officers, masters of tactics and strategy, remember well the investment made by their mentors. They repay this debt to the next generation, securing their legacy and the future security of the country. The individuals sharing this journey become a team of leaders capable of meeting challenges none could meet individually.

Nineteen is the average age of the 5,000-some souls who operate a Nimitz-classnuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the most sophisticated piece of machinery ever conceived. Organizing any group of this size, let alone essentially a city at sea, to accomplish even simple tasks would prove difficult, but the Navy forges a weapon of singular purpose, unmatched in power and sophistication, from individuals from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and values. And this, somehow, from men and women who are barely adults. Only by producing the highest caliber of leaders can such a feat be accomplished. Those who answer the call are forever changed, and with them the sea services, the armed forces, and the future of the country.

Lieutenant Commander Spahn, who holds J.D. and M.S. degrees from Stanford’s Law School and School of Engineering, is a corporate attorney. He served for three years on the USS Chicago (SSN-721) following nuclear-power school, then as a staff officer for the U.S. Third Fleet, including a deployment to Afghanistan.


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