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In a memorandum dated 2 1 January 1941, Admiral Ernest J. King addressed all flag officers and squadron commanders in the Atlantic Fleet:
“1 have been concerned for many years over the increasing tendency—now grown almost to ‘standard practice’—of flag officers and other group commanders to issue orders and instructions in which their subordinates are told ‘how’ as well as ‘what’ to do to such an extent and in such detail that the ‘Custom of the service’ has virtually become the antithesis of that essential element of command — ‘initiative of the subordinate.’
This essay will examine a concern for two factors that exist in the Navy today which tend to impact upon what is perceived by the author to be a diminished capability on the part of many naval officers to apply sound leadership in the exercise of command.
The first, which prompted Admiral King’s remarks, is a tendency on the part of the Navy command/ management structure to overcentralize the decision-making process in the day-to-day execution of the Navy’s service existence and purpose. For the purposes of this essay, overcentralization is defined as the tendency to make decisions at levels of command higher than is required or needed. This factor has frustrated numerous middle management members of the Navy chain of command in their ensuing efforts to demonstrate initiative and fulfill their potential. Second, naval leadership has suffered from the social and political trauma of the Vietnam War. The social repercussions of the Vietnam years were, perhaps, far greater than Navy leaders were prepared to accommodate.
The inclination toward centralization finds its genesis in the incredible technological advances with which the modern world has intoxicated itself since the Industrial Revolution. With the present ability to almost instantly ingest, correlate, scan, sample, inspect, project, select, reject, and at
times replace man with machine, the manager has not kept pace with the more secular world of personal association. Technology has made it easy to centralize authority yet, at the sametime, diversify the function throughout the numerous echelons of Navy command.
Some examples of technical advances which exist in the Navy today that encourage the centralization of management are: computerization, satellite communications, and, most dramatically, the Navy’s sophisticated command-control communications (C3) systems. An increasing amount of control of fleet units is being wrested away from the on-scene commander and placed in the hands of the force and fleet commander.
A fleet commander may possess more complete knowledge of a given scenario and may therefore have an overall advantage in control. But consideration must be made for the potential to be gained by encouraging the subordinate to exercise his judgment.
Many instances of military action justifiably require decisions to be made at the highest level of government. Granted, the centralized decision is more apt to occur during a crisis, yet that tendency to act from the top has woven its way into the peacetime Navy, and the subordinate’s role has been grossly affected. However, a true distinction exists between the management of a war and a peacetime Navy. Because of the ease with which the upper echelon can now exercise authority, that discretion is difficult to return to the middle manager when his talents are sufficient to execute the more common responsibilities of everyday Navy life. If we continue in this fashion, we are deluding ourselves in thinking that we arc- well prepared for our primary mission of war readiness.
With respect to the excessive detail in orders and instructions, Admiral King offered the following observations:
“The reasons for the current state  of affairs—how did we get this way?—are many but among them are four which need mention; first, the ‘anxiety’ of seniors that
everything in their commands shall be conducted so correctly and go so smoothly, that none may comment unfavorably; second, those energetic activities of staffs which lead to meticulous details in orders and instructions and so to infringement of (not to say interference with) the functions for which the lower echelons exist; third, the consequent ‘anxiety’ of subordinates lest their exercise of initiative, even in their legitimate spheres, should result in their doing something which may prejudice their selection for promotion; fourth the habit on the one- hand and the expectation on the other of ‘nursing’ and ‘being nursed,’ which lead respectively to that violation of command principles known as ‘orders to obey orders’ and to that admission of incapacity or confusion evidenced by ‘request instructions.’ ”2 Today’s Navy has developed into a sophisticated and centralized technocratic community. In keeping with that advance, sound and professional naval leadership has not remained in step with the march. Leadership has lingered, perhaps out of confusion. Lines of accountability have disappeared or at least have become obscure in light of the exasperating number of echelons in the chain of command. There exists a seductive- impulse to sequentially defer responsibility to upper or lower levels if fault can be found or a formal procedure has not been promulgated which addresses the shortcoming. The room for error has become more narrow but so has the tolerance that allows the uninitiated to admit failure or lack of knowledge with the confidence that positive guidance or instructions will result. The tendency toward centralization is a synthesis which defies objective resolution. It is an attendant cost associated with bureaucratic man.
The impact of the Vietnam War on naval leadership has also been significant. For the first time on a large- scale, the “initiative of the (armed service) subordinate” was seriously undermined by political or philosophical reasoning. Military leadership suffered its most severe test in modern times. Lamenting such changing times, a newspaper interview in The Washington Post, reports that ViceAdmiral J. D. Watkins, Chief of Naval Personnel, said:
"... better leadership is the longterm answer.
“The Navy was not prepared for ‘the . . . more competent, more mature, more inquisitive and more demanding’ young people who started coming in the service in large numbers in 1972, Watkins said.
“This new breed of sailor, Watkins continued, ‘seems to be less equipped to adjust to the military structure; less ready to accept authority without a rather significant rationale; well aware of his rights to counsel. All of these things have emanated from the difficult Vietnam years.’
“Although we now have ‘a very complicated individual to deal with,’ Watkins said, ‘I would have to say that our leadership and management programs to deal with that complex individual have not kept pace with the changes.’ ”3
As a result of over-centralization and the Vietnam War, highly visible- conditions exist in today’s Navy. With respect to over-centralization, some of those conditions are: a top- heavy Navy command structure, excessive direction and inspection from higher authority, an increased tendency to rely on established procedures and standardized operations, and increased emphasis on upper echelons instead of the middle management to solve problems. Concerning the Vietnam impact, those conditions include: increased desertion and absenteeism, marginal success in the retention of junior officers and chief petty officers, increased drug abuse, and increased institutional dissatisfaction. These combined conditions are indicative of a need to reassess the role of leadership in the exercise of command.
A specific example of these conditions exists in a comparison of the size of the fleet and the number of flag officers on active duty. Table 1 illustrates the comparison.4 Between the years 1970 and 1978, the fleet was reduced in size by a factor of 40%. But
No. of Ships
No. of Admirals (All Grades)
Budget Expenditures (Billions)
only 12% fewer admirals are on active duty today than was the case in 1970. So, although fewer admirals are managing approximately the same budget expenditures, more flag officers exist in relation to the size of the fleet.
The U.S. nuclear submarine force provides another example of the manifest conditions which emanate from both the over-centralization and Vietnam factors. Admiral H. G. Rick- over’s purview, control, and influence is legendary. There is also evidence in the personnel area, Navy wide, which exemplifies the extant conditions. Junior officer retention has been an area of great concern, particularly within the nuclear-trained officer ranks. A shortage of middle grade officers does exist and is best illustrated by the need to offer nuclear-trained officers financial bonuses as incentive to remain in the naval service. Such retention problems could also lead to the manning of middle grade billets with officers who are more senior than the billets require.
Two other examples are the 1977 record-high desertion rater> and the departures of Navy chief petty officers with 8 to 12 years of service. Worried about this record-high departure of CPOs, Vice Admiral Watkins said that these chiefs "are ‘really the guts of your leadership.’ ”6
Today’s Navy management faces the problem of predicting the material and personnel requirements for our future naval mission while being circumscribed by today’s budget and manpower constraints and limited by our continued subscription to yesterday’s management and leadership perspective. To maximize our potential in meeting the demands of our future mission we must reemphasize the role that leadership plays in our complex naval structure. Furthermore, we must better understand the forces that influence the leadership role and its effective application in the military. That understanding cannot be programmed or divined. It must come as an enlightened attempt to excite and develop an individual’s trust, belief, potential, wisdom, patriotism, imagination, and dignity.
The social awareness of the individual entering the Navy today is not apt to change, so the manner with which the Navy attempts to lead that individual must. The changing leadership requirement must be learned through acquired knowledge and not dispensed in the form of a petty officer’s crow or an officer’s collar device. It must be stressed that our spiraling technology and the associated tendency to centralize decision-making pose significant threats to our leadership equilibrium. Leadership is the personal aspect of personnel management.
Returning to Admiral King’s remarks of 1941 concerning the “essential element of command—initiative of the subordinate,” we find the same leadership deficiencies that we are experiencing today. It seems that the overall spirit of naval leadership has not changed significantly in the past 37 years; while the environment has changed drastically. The "initiative of the subordinate” is the focal point for altering our stale leadership role.
The task at hand is to at least attempt to enlighten the upper military echelons that the rules of leadership have changed with respect to the persuasions which are necessary to stimulate the “initiative of the subordinate.” There exist four major leadership principles which require the greatest degree of reemphasis: first, the therapeutic practice of delegation of authority; second, the realization that failure can lead to growth if post facto guidance is positively applied; third, leadership by example; fourth, the value in the recognition of an individual’s worth and dignity.
There exists no simple or singular approach to raise leadership consciousness. The answer will not be found in revolutionary management techniques or mandatory UPWARD (understanding personal worth and racial dignity) training seminars. The solution can be found in a tone of temperance, but the impetus must start at the highest level of command.
Members of flag selection boards, command screening boards, promotion selection boards, et. al., must become more acutely aware that a naval technician or intellectual may not be a sound military leader per se. The officer fitness evaluation system must continue to emphasize the importance of realistically evaluating the leadership capacity of all Navy officers. The importance of the chief petty officer must be stressed.
Examples of how to return the emphasis to exercising the “initiative of the subordinate” are easily cited. As the engineering officer during a submarine overhaul, this author permitted the engineering department CPOs to completely control liberty hours and leave requests for all enlisted personnel. A concerted effort was made to include CPOs in production and planning meetings that were normally restricted to senior shipyard officials and the engineer and/or commanding officer. Several CPOs expressed appreciation for the shared “visibility” and sense of contribution. On several occasions, meritorious captain’s masts were convened to recognize outstanding performance of routine tasks by enlisted personnel. This type of recognition resulted in formal entries in the service member’s personnel record and his evaluation. More CPOs, particularly chief quartermasters, should be allowed to qualify as OODs underway during certain types of operations. This could also apply to submarines when operating on the surface and surface ships during independent steaming.
Junior officers require similar attention. Junior officers could be invited to attend meetings involving members of the upper echelons, even if it requires non-contributing participation.
Admiral King’s philosophy of command (CinCLant Serial ) enunciated five guidelines for maintaining the “initiative of the subordinate.”
► “adopt the premise that the echelon commanders are competent in their several command echelons unless and until they themselves prove otherwise;
► “teach them that they are not only expected to be competent for their several command echelons but that it is required of them that they be competent;
► “train them—by guidance and supervision—to exercise foresight, to think, to judge, to decide and to act for themselves;
► “stop ‘nursing’ them;
► “finally, train ourselves to be satisfied with ‘acceptable solutions’ even though they are not ‘staff solutions’ or other particular solutions that we ourselves prefer.”
Commanding officers of ships, units, and staffs must realize that naval leadership can be taught and that it should be their personal responsibility to actively train junior officers accordingly. Officers must be evaluated on the basis of overall merit and not simply on his or her proficiency at accomplishing standardized procedures. The flag officer aide system could be expanded to include junior officers in a more executive assistant-like capacity in addition to his or her personal aide function.
We are in need of a spirit among military leaders that recognizes the value of and thereby stimulates the “initiative of the subordinate.' To underestimate the need for that spirit will prove Admiral King’s prediction: "If subordinates are deprived—as they now are—of that training and experience which will enable them to act 'on their own’—if they do not know, by constant practice, how to exercise ‘initiative of the subordinate’—if they are reluctant
(afraid) to act because they are accustomed to detailed orders and instructions — if they are not habituated to think, to judge, to decide and to act for themselves in their several echelons of command—we shall be in sorry case when the time of ‘active operations’ arrives.”7
Conditions exist in today’s Navy that cannot be eliminated and they adversely affect the application of sound leadership in the exercise of command, but the Navy’s leadership capacity can be improved.
The precepts are simple.
► Delegate authority.
^ Permit failure to an acceptable extent which allows for the exercise of initiative.
^ Provide a good example.
^ Maintain a respect for what is proper, legitimate and honest.
► Recognize individual worth and dignity.
Lieutenant Morgan received his commission in 1972 through the Regular NROTC program at the University of Virginia from which he graduated with a B.A. in economics. After graduating, he attended the Officer Basic Submarine School. He then reported for duty on board the USS Barbel (SS-580) where he served as supply officer, weapons officer, and engineer during his three-year tour. From November 1976 until last month, he served as a staff assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence. He is now attending Surface Warfare Officer School in Newport, Rhode Island.
1Naval War College Review, Winter 1976, p. 93. 2Ibid., p. 94.
3George C. Wilson, "Navy, Citing Changing Times, Combats Personnel Problems,” The Washington Post, 25 November 1977, p. A9. 4The New York Times, 19 February 1978, p. E4 The number of admirals cited was provided upon the author’s request by Naval Bureau of Personnel, Washington, D.C.
5Ibid., p. E4.
6Post, p. A9.
7Review, p. 94.