Leading from the Middle

By Lieutenant Ryan Hilger, U.S. Navy

A casual perusal of the Internet for definitions of leadership yields a staggering number of results. They run the gamut from short and sweet to lengthy and convoluted, with examples from ancient times to modern chief executive officers. Speakers frequently spout off a soliloquy of clichés with little thought given regarding how to actually apply them. Most people know leadership when they see it, but that does not make the problem of defining it any easier. In my view, John C. Maxwell characterizes it best: “All leadership is influence.”1  To which I might add: “For better or worse.” All definitions boil down to influence, nothing more, nothing less. The direction it takes determines whether we characterize a leader as good or bad.

Naval leadership is no different. Each and every sailor and officer has a sphere of influence in his or her vessel. Some spheres, such as that of the commanding officer, are first derived from positional authority but may transition to other sources as they create the new leader-follower relationship. Others develop from personal traits exhibited by the individual, such as charisma, which needs no positional authority to generate influence—we naturally gravitate toward charismatic individuals.

Everyone on board a ship plays a role in combat readiness. Junior officers (JOs), by virtue of the watches we stand and our proximity to enlisted sailors and chief petty officers as division officers, have an extraordinary, but rarely discussed, amount of influence in the ship’s combat readiness. But for such a great responsibility, the Navy does comparatively little to formally prepare and mentor JOs for faithfully discharging their duties. The burden falls to the leadership of individual crews to develop JOs into effective leaders, often with mixed results. Yet these officers are 360-degree leaders. Whether the direction it takes is down, beside, or up, our leadership is crucial. The following simple, practical advice for growing into more effective leaders and mentors is offered from one JO to others.  

Training Supervision

In combat, the captain of a ship is undoubtedly on the bridge, leading his crew to accomplish the mission and ensure their survival. But the ability of the crew to respond and fight the ship to the brink of death and back is a function of training. Not much has changed in this regard since well before the Battle of Salamis in 480 bc. From the age of sail to the present, the combat readiness and effectiveness of a warship has been measured by the speed it takes a gun crew to reload and aim for the next shot. JOs have directly overseen that training.

For submariners in World War II, the question was how fast the torpedo tubes could be reloaded, in exercises supervised by JOs. Today, with the myriad of automation in our weapon systems, the issue may be how fast a crew can restore electrical power. The damage-control assistant, a JO, oversees that. As division officers, we are responsible for the training of our division to respond to casualties and maintain systems. The effort we place into that endeavor determines the division’s performance. Captain Paul Rinn, commanding officer of the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) in 1988 when she struck a mine, credited Lieutenant Eric Sorensen, the recently transferred damage-control assistant, for his influence: “We saved our ship after hitting a mine in no small part because of your relentless training and insistence on SBR’s damage control readiness.”2

JOs stand the bulk of the peacetime supervisory watches, on a daily basis. Whether the ship is steaming or in port, these are the primary mechanisms by which we build teamwork and competence at the watchsection level. An effective JO uses that time to build and train her or his watchsection, so that when things do go awry, the team performs calmly and correctly. Small training victories instill confidence in individual watchstanders, something that may or may not occur during whole-ship drill periods. JOs exercise all the attributes of small-unit leadership, never taught in our training curriculums, every day as we train our watch teams. The skills, teamwork, and camaraderie created from small training sessions, during the midwatch, for example, form the core of a ship’s combat readiness. Being an effective leader as a JO requires dedication and perseverance, especially if the command tends toward micromanagement, which can easily marginalize a division officer’s ability to lead.

Walking around the Ship

The Navy trains its division officers to lead divisions. Our leadership-development courses focus on abstract principles and project management, with little consideration of practical, tangible applications. The bulk of officer-leadership training happens before commissioning, but few midshipmen have enough experience to place it in context and derive the proper lessons. Its effectiveness is thus severely diminished and likely not revisited after experience has been gained. For most ensigns, actually leading remains somewhat mysterious, even when they are in a leadership position—the dichotomy between day-to-day and crisis leadership is never fully explained. On a daily basis, action is needed to lead and motivate sailors to accomplish the mission. But during a crisis, sailors need clear and forceful direction. The latter is engrained in us as characteristic of a heroic leader, but the former is often left out of view.

The ability of a JO to lead, given all the responsibilities of the division officer, can be boiled down to a Latin phrase generally attributed to Saint Augustine: solvitur ambulando—it is solved by walking. Get away from your computer. Get out of your stateroom. Be in your divisional spaces daily. Talk with your sailors. Find out their strengths, weaknesses, and career goals; learn the names of their spouses and children. Know where your division keeps its manuals and tools, and what maintenance or operations your division will be performing each day.

In my limited experience, the crew tends to look up to and respect a division officer who is in his spaces daily—he has influence. As he discusses operations with his chief petty officer and leading petty officer, who mentor him, he develops a professional rapport with the sailors and takes an active interest in their welfare. These sailors will support the caring division officer during times of crisis, simulated or otherwise.

But the division officer who does not develop a working relationship with his division or watchsection will be allowed by the crew to fail at appropriate—hopefully not inappropriate—times. This will not be outright disobedience or insubordination. It may manifest itself as an unwillingness to provide backup or recommendations. Over the long term, such an attitude becomes poisonous to camaraderie and combat readiness.

Mentoring Peers

We train to lead subordinates. We do not train to lead in any other direction but down. Yet we have no authority over other JOs. So how are we supposed to lead them? The traditional rules do not seem to apply. Enter another widely used buzzword with just as fuzzy a meaning as leadership: mentoring. The two are synonymous. Behind all our greatest leaders have been superb mentors. Generals George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and George S. Patton were all discovered and mentored by Major General Fox Conner. A mentor enhances the leader's inherent strengths and bolsters his weaknesses, helping him become a better person, officer, and leader. Conner saw Marshall's keen ability for administration, Eisenhower's knack for operational planning and tactics, and Patton's aggressiveness as innately suitable for the infant tank corps. He developed and nurtured these traits in each officer and guided their careers to help them grow even further.3 The results of General Conner’s mentorship are well known to history.

JOs certainly need not aim to develop another Eisenhower in a fellow officer; we are not qualified to do so! However, we should strive to mentor other JOs with an eye toward technical competence, combat readiness, and leadership. The complex weapon systems on board our ships today require intimate knowledge of both the individual systems and the integrated whole. JOs must build themselves into subject-matter experts in as many warfighting areas as possible. That task, while daunting, must be done to expand influence, gain the respect of the crew as a competent watch officer, and set oneself up for success in future assignments. Admiral Chester Nimitz, disappointed with his assignment to the submarine service, devoted himself to submarines instead of constantly seeking a way out of them. After commanding four boats and a flotilla as a JO a mere five years out of the Naval Academy, he had become a self-taught and widely recognized expert on diesel engines. Nimitz’ technical competence and fierce campaigning led to the replacement of gasoline engines, which had a habit of exploding, with diesel, and the beginning of his ascent to high command.4

During qualifications, encourage fellow officers to read the source documentation or reference manuals instead of only seeking out a watchstander. Developing these qualities in other officers does not need to be an exclusively off-watch activity. I have found that standing watch with another officer as my under instruction affords me the greatest opportunity to develop and teach him.

These times allow both officers to explore connections across seemingly disparate areas, interact with watchstanders, and develop greater competence and confidence in their abilities as watch officers. A request for a simple checkout on a casualty procedure can lead into an in-depth discussion of the design specifications of the ship, the indicators needed for casualty diagnosis and control, and other coordinated actions that may not be stated in the procedure. It is a Socratic method of sorts. Taking care to raise the level of knowledge in fellow officers also increases influence. JOs lack much of the positional authority to firmly direct events, but establishing oneself as a technically competent, professional watch officer who actively mentors and develops other officers and watchstanders can result in their seeking out your knowledge and guidance on a variety of issues. The process not only raises the level of the ship’s combat readiness, it also raises your own performance level, in a self-reinforcing positive cycle.

Leading Up

This presents the greatest challenge. If leading fellow JOs is difficult, influencing department heads, the executive officer, or the commanding officer can be nearly insurmountable. However, excelling at the various skills mentioned here brings an officer to the point of being able to lead up. This does not mean issuing orders to a superior officer—that would be a grave mistake—rather, it involves the subtle influencing of decision makers. Demonstrated mastery of the technical and operational aspects of the ship’s warfighting requirements allows the JO to attempt to persuade the ship’s leadership to take a particular course of action, whether this be for inspection preparations, a new training program, or a maintenance requirement.

Having a stake in the overall operational plan shows the extent of an officer's influence and prepares him for service at the next level by forcing him to think like a department head, the executive officer, or the commanding officer. On an interpersonal level, a JO can lead superiors through questions. Asking a more senior officer about why he decided an issue the way he did gives both parties benefits. The JO gets insight into more senior thinking, and the senior officer is forced to better communicate—an essential tenet of leadership. The process may start both on the path to a more active role in mentoring fellow officers and subordinates.

JOs, thrust into positions of great responsibility at the start of their careers, can be truly transformational leaders in their ships or squadrons. Those who rise to the challenge will hone their craft and develop expertise in naval warfighting while expanding their influence across the organization and eventually into the joint force. Normally trained to lead subordinates, JOs can be exceptional division officers if they simply care, communicate, and walk about their spaces and the ship. Likewise, they can mentor and lead fellow JOs to higher levels by encouraging personal and professional growth and seeing nearly every moment potentially as a teachable one.

Finally, JOs can allow their influence to spread vertically up the chain of command, developing the skills needed for the future while helping seniors become better leaders, communicators, and technical experts. This circumnavigation of JO leadership in the Navy shows the inherent and often understated importance they play in the daily promotion of combat readiness and maintenance of unit cohesion.

Be bold and accept the challenge. Dive headlong into the leadership unknown, and emerge as a better leader, follower, and naval officer. Our Navy can only get better for it.

1. John C. Maxwell, “Are You Really Leading, or Are You Just Taking a Walk?” John Maxwell on Leadership, 7 August 2012, http://johnmaxwellonleadership.com/2012/08/07/are-you-really-leading-or-are-you-just-taking-a-walk/.

2. Bradley Peniston, No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006), 194.

3. Edward Cox, Gray Eminence: Fox Conner and the Art of Mentorship (Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press, 2010).

4. E. B. Potter, Nimitz (Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976), 62.

Lieutenant Hilger is a Director’s Fellow at the Chief of Naval Operations’ Strategic Studies Group in Newport, Rhode Island.



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