Leadership Forum: Closing the Gaps in Naval Leadership

By Lieutenant James Stavridis, U. S. Navy

To function in the naval milieu, a leader must have some administrative ability, even if the predominant tendency is toward a charismatic approach, and vice versa. The two basic styles of leadership are typical of the current state of fleet leadership. Of course, the categories of leaders are not black-and-white. History provides examples of a widely disparate group of leaders; as Lieutenant Thomas B. Grassey observed in his leadership essay "Outcomes, Essences, and Individuals," (Proceedings, July 1976, p. 73) "…what one sees when one…scan(s) hi story for the unique elements common to great leaders is nothing." This is because of the subtleties of style; yet leadership can almost always be grouped in one of the two categories.

Leadership is defined in General Order 21 as the "art of accomplishing the Navy's mission through people. It is the sum of those qualifications of intellect, human understanding, and moral character that enable a man to in spire and to manage a group of people successfully." "To inspire and to manage:" these are the operative words in the definition; they define the categories of leaders in the naval service. Echoing this thought, Lieutenant R.T.E. Bowler III, and Lieutenant D.R. Bowler, in discussing the distinction between a leader and a manager, stated that "Within the Navy today, two philosophical paradigms are competing" ("The Naval Officer: Manager or Leader," Proceedings, December 1975, p. 64). The Navy today has its share of both charismatic leaders, who are capable of inspiring those under them, and administrative leaders, who effectively manage their men.

Either of the two styles of leadership, or better yet, a combination of the two, can be effective. However, when the two styles act in opposition in a chain of command, great problems can arise, signals may be missed from above and below in the chain of command, and failed mission readiness may occur. This sort of failure is often put down to a lack of leadership; in reality, it is often a result of gaps in the leadership chain. Neither style of leadership is necessarily more effective. The Navy needs leaders with both sorts of abilities to fulfill all its missions in peace and war.

A charismatic leader can change the way others think, and thus influence the way they act. He can make sure not only that his men arrive on time, but that they want to arrive on time. The charismatic leader uses tools that change the perceptions of his followers. Such abilities are, to a degree, innate, but can also be developed through training in the understanding of human character and by practice. The charismatic leader is capable of influencing attitudes as well as actions. He will probably exhibit some of the following traits: uses personal examples often, attempts to understand the motivation and background of his men, acts on intuition or initiative in problem solving, and exhibits great trust in his men.

On the other hand, an administrative leader is more concerned with the external actions of his men than with changing their inner motivations. He tends to believe that the key ingredients of the leadership problem revolve around hard knowledge, training, rigid scheduling, and frequent inspections. In the January 1981 Proceedings, p. 82, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, U. S. Navy (Retired), summarized everything necessary to know about leadership in a few lines:

"a. Learn your job

b. Work hard at your job

c. Train your people

d. Inspect frequently to see that the job is being done properly."

For our purposes, a definition of the administrative leader would be: An actor capable of attention to details of time, place, and mission demand, who directs his men in achieving the mission by ensuring control over their external actions. He probably exhibits the following traits: places distance between himself and subordinates on a personal level, is concerned primarily with the details of each operation, prefers great detail in the preparation for and the solving of problems, does not easily deviate from proposed operations, approaches problems from a management perspective, and conducts frequent inspections.

One problem that naval leaders must face is the gap that occurs when the two styles of leadership act in opposition in the chain of command. Both types of leaders can exist in the same chain of command, particularly in a relatively small organization, such as a ship, submarine, or squadron. When these styles work in opposition to each other the resulting conflict can be at the center of a number of leadership problems.

As Powell Fraser correctly observed in his essay "Leading the Leaders" (Proceedings, July 1977, p. 79), "Today's leadership problem may be that the senior's enthusiasm is not readily apparent to the junior officers." Such an argument can be extended to cover not only the relations between junior officers and their seniors, but also to cover the gap between administrators and charismatics. When a junior in the chain of command is confronted with a leadership approach with which he is unfamiliar, he can become confused. If he feels constrained to imitate it, and is not comfortable or effective, he can become disillusioned. This situation can arise with either charismatics or administrators at the top of the pyramid as shown here:

Petty Officer Jones is an E-5 boiler technician on an Atlantic fleet carrier. He is a charismatic leader; he directs the men assigned to him by influencing their attitudes and beliefs with personal contact and example. He leads from the deck plates. Morale is high despite the arduous conditions of aircraft carrier engineering.

Master Chief Franklin is the leading chief petty officer (CPO) for the 190-man electrical (E) division of a West Coast carrier. He is primarily an administrative leader; he has daily meetings with his ten work center supervisors; he has concise managerial control of all personnel through his meticulous record system; and he gives personal attention to all details of the E division operation. He conducts frequent inspections of personnel, spaces, berthing, and equipment, but maintains a personal distance.

Lieutenant Smith is the combat systems officer of a Pacific Fleet destroyer. He controls his 80-man division through charismatic leadership techniques, including open give-and-take with his four division officers, personal contact with the men in his department, occasional department head call with his troops, and recognition for a job well done. He leads "from the inside out," and attempts to motivate his men by understanding their perceptions and beliefs.

Commander Drake is the commanding officer (CO) of an East Coast destroyer. He is an administrative leader who requires detailed plan of actions and milestones (POA&M) reports for all events, works almost exclusively through his executive officer, sends weekly memos to his department heads, and wants the ship run by the book. He is a first-class manager and organizer, concerned with preparation, planning, and direct regulation of the actions of his subordinates. His ship is an "E" winner with high morale.

Suppose Commander Drake is the CO of a destroyer, with Lieutenant Smith as his combat systems officer, Master Chief Franklin as the leading CPO for the department, and Petty Officer Jones as the leading petty officer (LPO) for the operations specialist (OS) gang. The CO, being an administrative leader, has a policy on the ship of insisting on a detailed, daily POA&M being submitted in preparation for all inspections. Lieutenant Smith understands the CO's requirement for a POA&M for the pending planned maintenance system (PMS) inspection, but also feels that personal contact in the form of spot-checks and a general motivational approach will get his men ready for the inspection. Franklin is tasked with preparing the POA&M, which he does with great enthusiasm and administrative acumen. He is not impressed with what he regards as Smith's overly familiar approach with the men, Jones, on the other hand, regards Franklin's carefully prepared POA&M as a waste of time and a typical example of the paperwork that absorbs his time as LPO. The crosscurrents in the chain of command indicate friction between virtually all parties. In private conversation with the CO, Franklin subtly makes his feeling known on Smith's "new style" leadership. Smith overhears Jones grumbling about Franklin and his "paperwork Navy." The whole chain of command is at odds, even though they all share the same basic goal: combat readiness. Sound familiar? After the ship fails the PMS inspection, Jones is upbraided for his lack of attention to the POA&M; Franklin is hammered for "not getting the people psyched up for the inspection;" and Smith is called on the carpet for his lack of enthusiasm in implementing the POA&M. The CO is left wondering about the efficiency of his entire organization. Such are the gaps in naval leadership through which fall inspections, recruiting efforts, morale, and entire commands. The ultimate loser is the Navy.

There are several solutions to this type of leadership conflict. The first, and in some ways the most feasible, is the simplest: The CO of a unit sets the tone and pace of the organization, and it is up to the command leaders to adapt and make sure they are not working at cross-purposes with the CO's approach. This is the solution some segments of the Navy have used for a long time. This stops up the gaps by forcing all the leaders in the command into roughly the same approach. The advantages of this technique are its simplicity, traditional acceptance of the CO's complete command, and its ease of implementation. Several disadvantages exist in this method as well, however. First of all, it can over direct leadership training in a single style, producing frustrated or ineffective junior leaders struggling with a leadership style alien to them. This leads to low leader morale, retention problems, and production of relatively ineffective leaders. Second, history and analysis show that the Navy needs leaders who a re both charismatic and administrative to handle the wide variety of missions. Our leaders must develop both styles, and the only way to learn is to act. As Lieutenant Grassey observed in his leadership essay in the July 1976 Proceedings. p. 75, about how one becomes a leader, "For proficiency, doing it is far better than reading about it."

Another approach to the problem is possible. The ideal leader would be one who combines the attributes of a charismatic and an administrator. The ideal solution to the hypothetical situation would be for the CO to foster an environment in which his junior leaders (including officers, CPOs, and POs) become solid administrators and develop charismatic qualities as well. In the example, Smith should pursue his techniques, but fulfill the CO's requirements for POA&Ms as well; in the process, he would develop in both directions. At the same time, Smith should be encouraging Franklin to spend time on the deck plates working directly with his men. While in the process, the E-9 could probably sit down with Jones and begin to teach him the fundamental skills of administration that are so crucial to his advancement through the rates. The best solution would be a command in which the overall tone encouraged development on both sides of the leadership spectrum, with all the players contributing their individual skills and acumen. This environment presupposes some attention to the styles of leadership, open and realistic evaluations of performance and results, and a willingness on the part of all hands to learn from the chain of command.

Given as a premise that the Navy has an interest in developing leaders who can perform both administrative and charismatic functions, and that the best method of becoming a better leader is to get in there and lead people, a case can be made for the following proposals:

  • Recognize that everyone has the same basic goal: combat readiness
  • continue to use the leadership and management training (LMET) school system to explore the elements of the two basic leadership styles
  • investigate the possibility of a CPO course for POs ma king the transition from E-6 to E-7; for many, this is a transition from an essentially charismatic to an administrative situation
  • continue to teach basic leadership theory in the officer procurement courses, emphasizing toleration for other styles and the need to find what works best, as well as the development of a wide range of leadership skills
  • cross train leaders by conscious assignment to positions that demand a different style of leadership than the leader has used in the past, i.e., rotation from Communications Officer to First Lieutenant, from collateral duty jobs with different emphasis, within division for the POs and CPOs
  • encourage the use of leadership techniques that can train in both charisma tic and administrative ways: an inspection can become a means of learning more about the juniors in the chain
  • insofar as combat readiness and safety allow, be willing to allow inexperienced leaders time to discover what works best for them
  • use in formal means of training leaders, i.e., the best single source of information and guidance for the division officer is often the division leading chief through in formal counseling at the E-7/O-1 level
  • communicate and tolerate; there are many ways to do the same job.

For some time, the debate has been one of leader versus manager, or of charisma versus administration. We can and should be instead striving for a leader who is both charismatic and a fine administrator. If we open our eyes and train both aspects of our leaders, it is the Navy that will benefit. There is a place for charisma and a place for administration; but both sides must work and develop together to ensure that we can close the gap in naval leadership.


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