Welcome, my friend, to the naval profession. As a fleet ensign, you are a young American who is happy and filled with a sense of achievement. You are a naval officer of the line or of the Supply Corps who has finished his initial pipeline training and is now ready to enter service in the fleet.
You are a survivor. You are new to the fleet, but you are good, and you know it.
You are at an excellent place to be, reporting aboard as a fleet nugget, an unfinished lump of gold, ready to be burnished. You have every right to be proud of yourself, because you have achieved what few men are able to accomplish. You have seen lesser officers wash out of the program in which you succeeded. Now you are part of a team.
Until now, it is likely that you have not thought much about naval leadership. One of our most vital naval leaders, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, has twice taken the Proceedings to task for publishing articles about leadership written by junior officers—and, in substance, I could not agree with him more. Most of what you will read on this subject deals with the esoteric and theoretical ways of “managing” and “administrating” in the Navy. But here, our discussion will be about “operating,” because, as a junior officer, that is the only way for you to grow and prosper.
If you were starting out as a junior executive at IBM, you would be concerned with learning management. In the Navy, we learn and develop leadership, not just management, and the distinction is important. A manager is a synthesizer—of organizational goals, prospects, attitudes, motivations, and priorities. A leader is different, and a naval leader is more different still. As a leader, make yourself take hold of all the elements of the synthesizer, but work as a connector and a director. The Navy’s chain of command exists to communicate in order to fight and win a war at sea. As a naval leader you will not always be able to have an effect on the decision-making process which will directly impact upon you and your men. It is, therefore, very important to learn fully and take to heart this naval organization so that its leadership and will are in consonance with your own. A leader connects the substance of goals with the men and material at hand, and makes things happen, accomplishing his job without amelioration, in spite of adversity. A manager studies, reasons, develops plans, forms action, and is sensitive to his workers. A naval leader does all that, but also produces results because he and his men are part of a dynamic team. By the force of his personality, the naval leader binds the hearts and minds of his sailors to the task at hand. Management has its place in the naval service, and its nuances are quite applicable to your success in understanding people. General Order 21 states that effective leadership is based in part on “good management practices.” But operative leadership, dynamic personal conduct, and moral responsibility set the pace for accomplishing the Navy’s mission—the ability to conduct prompt and sustained combat operations at sea in support of the national interest. Or in another perspective, the ability to fight and win a war at sea.
The Sailors: The usual advice given to the new junior officer is “know your men.” A better counsel might be: “respect your men.” Respect their professional competence, their zeal, their attitudes, their personal goals and motivations. Their desire for achievement is no less than yours, and a good junior officer will cultivate their collective desire for achievement into group success. Respect is almost always paid back in kind, but it must be heartfelt, and you must be personally convinced of your sailors’ worth or you will find yourself rapidly losing ground with them. Sailors have a built-in “phony detector” that works at peak sensitivity on junior officers. The officer who goes after flashy, high-visibility achievements at his men’s expense will not only lose their respect, but will lose their cooperation as well.
The following guidelines may seem basic, but when used with honesty they will establish your credibility and go a long way toward bringing your sailors around to your own style of seagoing leadership as you develop it.
► Learn all you can about every sailor you lead. Is he married? Where is his hometown? What schools, Navy or otherwise, has he attended? When is he up for promotion? What has he accomplished for the next advancement? What were his previous ships/squadrons? Is he taking any civilian education courses? Has he ever been in trouble, and if so, for what? What does he want for his next set of orders? What are his career plans? This information requires research, listening, and study, and you may find it boring. But remember: to that man, his career and his family are the most important things in his life, and if you want to lead him to operate at his top efficiency—and hence your top efficiency—each man must be important to you.
► Never condescend. You and your men both know that you are the officer and they are enlisted, that you went to college when most of them did not. You do not have to underscore these facts. Recognize that they are highly trained, technically skilled professionals. Convince yourself now that by the time a sailor becomes a senior second class petty officer, he effectively has earned a “college degree” in naval experience, with a major in his rating. Many sailors have spent a long time at sea and possess the skills that you are just now learning. Learn from their knowledge. An aviator can learn aircraft systems from his maintenance men in a way that the Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization (NATOPS) can never teach. A junior officer of the deck in a destroyer’s pilothouse would do well to go over the charts with his quartermaster of the watch and seek an experienced bridge wing lookout’s advice when reading target angles on approaching vessels. On a fast attack boat or a nuclear guided missile cruiser, who besides the engineer himself knows the reactor plant manual better than the electronic technicians? For the new disbursing officer, a seasoned disbursing clerk can be the best instructor for reconciling the way the pay system is designed with the way it actually operates in the fleet.
► Support the Navy. Your attitudes and perceptions will be different from those of your sailors. You will probably not be under the same financial strain that many of them are, and be sensitive to that fact. Support fully and unequivocally the Navy’s goals in the areas of weight control, substance abuse, and equal opportunity. That means leadership by example. You may not be able to change their thoughts and attitudes, but you will be able to alter their actions. For instance, zero tolerance is the Navy’s drug policy, and it is yours as well. Never attempt to explain, justify, or equivocate a Navy policy that may be unpopular with your men. When you do, they will assume, despite their reactions at face value, that you are waffling in your support of the policy. You will look like you need to justify it to yourself by justifying it to them. Do not fall into the pattern of personal disagreement/institutional support, either. This mistake is usually made in an offhand manner: “You and I may not agree with this overweight business, but because we’re in the Navy we do things a certain way.” This method is used by the weak leader to make his men think he is with them against the policy, supposedly solidifying the unit under his leadership with their shared dislike. It does nothing but create a we/they framework for everything that follows; it is bad, and it is wrong. Navy policy is your policy. The captain’s policy is your policy, and you must personally support him. In time, policy and directive will become internalized in your men by your example.
► Do not accept even the intimation of acceptance of drug use among your younger sailors. Make them understand that the Navy expects a different, superior moral code and responsibility from them and that we are not now and never were a mirror of the society we are sworn to protect. Show your men and tell them that they are better than civilians, that you and their nation expect better things from them. Understand that your men are going to be under great peer pressure to engage in certain activities, and that you understand being accepted is very important to them right now. Let them know that you are aware of this dimension in their lives. In my experience, most young sailors have responded quite well to a one-on-one talk, not a group situation, about values, honor, personal achievement, and professional, technical skill. Be positive and be supportive, but be absolutely intolerant of drug use.
► Never allow any racist remark to go unnoticed or pass without your personal reproach. Be prepared for how you are going to act and what you are going to say when a derogatory or bigoted comment is made. It will happen infrequently. It will probably happen in a group without a minority member present. When it happens, do not lecture, just stop it. If you say nothing or purposely ignore the comment you will degrade your position and the Navy’s overall policy and efforts to ensure an even break for every man. Make fairness your policy.
► While you are being supportive of your men, take caution that you do not fall victim to the pitfalls of the greenhorn. No one will be sending you for a bucket of steam or 100 yards of shore line, but you might find yourself explaining to your department head why something was or was not done a certain way after you received assurances from a petty officer that “We’ve always done it that way.” The lesson here is simple: Know the book and go by it, whether that book concerns procedures, maintenance, safety, or tactical warfare. When shortcuts are to be made, you will not be the one to make them—or be responsible for them. Your department head is the key to your success in this area. He knows the proper applications and use of the men in your division. Talk to him. Asking for guidance is the mark of a professional. Doing so will also endear you to your department head because he will see in your receptiveness an opportunity to prevent you from making so-called “dumb ensign” mistakes. (I hate that concept and hope you will too.) He will also jump at the chance to help you step over an unnecessary initial period of casting about, trying to impress superiors with only your enthusiasm. With the department head’s help, you can proceed directly to operational competence and efficiency which, when coupled with enthusiasm, do impress superiors.
► Most importantly, you must apply yourself with a more concentrated devotion to duty than you would expect from the men responsible to you. Be visible. Be demanding of yourself. Discipline your actions and your spirit, and you will find the effect on your men electrifying. If you take an operational stance and stress readiness to fight, sustain, and win a war at sea, your men will too. Train your men to operate and remain calm under pressure. As you are being demanding of yourself and your men, check their output and make yourself the final quality-control inspector. Support your men unfailingly; by your example of dedication and technical warfare skill you will be able to lead them to accomplish almost anything.
The Chief Petty Officers: Your best assets are the chiefs in your ship or squadron. One of the smartest men I know is now a retired master chief aviation boatswain’s mate. When I was a new ensign and he was an E-8 leading chief, he told me that he basically had a two-line job description:
► Run the division.
► Train the division officer.
He also added to the latter requirement his responsibility for keeping me out of trouble when I ventured into areas about which I knew very little. He was understanding, direct, and instructive.
By being receptive to his experience and counsel, I avoided two mistakes that a new fleet officer frequently makes. First, he attempts to be a division chief and run the division. You are empowered to lead the division, not direct its every function toward the fulfillment of the command mission. Leave intact the division of responsibility, and do not try to do the chiefs job. How do you define this division of responsibility? Communicate with your chief, with your department head, with the senior lieutenants, and with the junior lieutenant commanders. Ask questions and then list the responsibilities for your situation.
The new ensign’s second most common error is when he convinces himself that the only leadership he can learn is either from texts or from officers senior to him. Your chief is who he is—and where he is—because he has already grasped most of the intrinsic and undefinable elements of leadership that you are working to develop. Learn from his leadership and his technical experience. Cultivate his counsel as a mentor, not as a friend. Respect his achievement and his position in the naval organization. Without exception, the most successful junior officers I have known have been those with the most personal support from the chiefs; the least successful have been those who alienated them.
The Captain: Emulate the captain, know his goals for the ship or squadron, and watch carefully the manner in which he operates. Consider to be important what the captain considers to be important. He is the command’s finest warfare practitioner by virtue of his position. Mold your leadership orientation to conform to his. At face value this is not always evident, but the personality of an outfit is a reflection of the man leading it. To be a team player, know what the captain expects of the team.
The Executive Officer: The executive officer is your division officer, wardroom “sea daddy,” officer career counselor, and, in many ways, the mover and doer of the captain’s policies. As an operative leader, you should seek his guidance frequently and be very open when listening to him. As a rule, executive officers do not give bad advice. They are also the personification of operative leadership. If I were to write a two-line job description for an executive officer, it would be this:
► Make ready to fight the ship.
► Back up the captain.
If a junior officer adopts these goals for his personal conduct and concept of naval leadership, he becomes an operative leader—and a success.
The Department Head: Your department head is the technical expert in one field of your warfare specialty to which you are assigned. In all operative endeavors, weapons system knowledge and tactical orientation are necessary. This man has both; he is at the peak of his technical skills and will be eager to impart them to you. Work closely with him—he knows what you should be getting from your men. He will make you into an operator if you show him that your personal goals and aspirations are clearly and plainly aligned with success in war at sea.
In learning something new—and operative naval leadership is new to you—you cannot hope to succeed without some specific guidelines.
First: Work at being respected. Then work at being well-liked. This proposition requires absolute technical and professional competence—especially your NATOPS, Rules of the Road, and ATP-1(B), RPM, or NAVSUP P-485. As a new junior officer, you will not be respected for your experience, but you will be respected for your learning and especially for your dedication. Being well-liked is easy, but being well-liked does not in and of itself a good leader make.
Second: Stress personal responsibility. Make responsibility personal by empowering yourself and your men with well-defined jobs and clearly delineated tasks. Make each man personally accountable to you and your chief for his watch station, aircraft discrepancy, planned maintenance system (PMS) card, and liberty conduct. Relate each job to the mission of fighting and winning a war at sea.
Third: Be creative and expansive. Do not just be different. Being different to be recognized and making radical changes for the sake of being noticed are often immature actions, not worthy of the operative leader. If a program or a way of doing something is working well, do not mess with it. If you have a way to improve it, do so decisively—but research it first to prevent unnecessary flailing.
Fourth: Think combat, think war. Distasteful as this proposal is in a nation dedicated to deterrence to forestall combat, you personally must be prepared right now to go to war. Know what is important to that end and what is not. Pick as your role models the senior officers who stress combat readiness, tactical preparedness, and warfare skill to the limits of the ship or aircraft. These are “operators.” Learn from “administrators,” but learn also what to take seriously. PMS, corrosion control, casualty reports, supply, and anything to do with the material condition of the weapons system are definitely to be taken seriously. Doing that work now may just keep you alive in a shooting war.
Fifth: Do not be afraid to make mistakes, and do not be afraid to admit mistakes. One, that is how you learn and grow. Two, having “debriefed it,” you will likely not make the mistake again. Three, you could prevent someone else from making the same mistake or worse. Using this approach, you will again show good judgment. If a new junior officer does not admit his mistakes or if an old officer does not pass along his mistakes (for an aviator this includes pilot errors), he may find others in the organization wondering just what else it is that he is not sharing.
Sixth: Appeal to the higher sense of duty in every enlisted man. Your troopers may tell you that they joined the Navy to learn electronics, to meet girls in Hong Kong, and because in jumpers they would not have to wear neckties. But that is not the whole story. Patriotism and duty to the United States, when coupled with personal pride in a job well done—even if that job has to be cleaning the heads—can be a potent force. Use it, embracing its subtleties. This dimension works best in private conversation or when sharing a group accomplishment of the first order—especially any weapon put directly on any target.
Seventh: Keep your personal life in the wardroom. When you go on liberty, do so with the other officers, not with the men. (The exception, of course, is the planned division get-together.) Keep your more spectacular moments and those of other officers in the wardroom. In group social gatherings, treat your men correctly, sociably. When you unexpectedly meet up with your sailors on the beach, by no means avoid them; remember they are loyal to you. They are also expecting you to behave more gentlemanly than they are. Buy them each a beer and live up to their expectations; wish them a good time, and then depart. Do not lose respect for the sake of a few hours’ good time, either. Ask yourself if, after a long night of officer/enlisted revelry doing all sorts of liberty things, you would still be able in good conscience to give one of your men an order after the start of the shooting that could cost him his life.
Eighth: Forget the “key man” principle. Adherents to this precept believe that without the “key man,” an organization crumbles. As an operator, realize that in a war any one man could be killed, injured, or called to another duty on a moment’s notice. You do not want the loss of a “key man” to jeopardize your operation any more than the ship as a whole would want the captain’s loss to cause it to stop fighting then and there. Cross-train everyone, be demanding of your men, be demanding of yourself. Show them how to be demanding of themselves.
Ninth: Be fair. Support the command’s goals, and, in performance evaluations, reward the operators among your sailors. Do not attempt to be a psychologist or a therapist—chaplains and physicians are trained for these services. Use performance output, quantifiable work improvements, and the attitude of operational orientation as the measures of a good sailor. When you write or issue orders, make sure they are understood. Create your own KISS principle: “Keep it simple, straightforward.” Do not leave room for interpretation. Do not assume. Treat the problem sailor carefully—you will meet his type soon in the fleet—but know that he is probably far more adept at manipulating new junior officers than you are at helping errant E-3s. Treating each sailor with equanimity works.
Tenth: Be conscious of how you are perceived as a naval leader. If your concept of yourself as a leader is very different from the perception your men have of you, your men are probably right and you are probably wrong. Know what your men think of you; that is important. If their outlook is not what you want, you will likely find only yourself at fault. Be positive, and seek counsel from your department head and executive officer frequently.
The collective naval leadership of the junior officers in a ship or squadron is absolutely essential to putting weapons on targets. Our Navy accomplishes this goal through quiet, forceful, hard-working men like yourself. To quote a famous submariner. Admiral Rickover once paraphrased a well-known leadership maxim when he wrote that “people do not notice the existence of the best leaders. When such a leader’s work is done, they say, ‘We did it ourselves.’” To accomplish this type of leadership, at once technical, operational, and tactical, I pass along the all-encompassing charge to junior officers of another submariner. Admiral Steven A. White: “You’ve got to do it all, and you’ve got to do it all well.”