Second Honorable, Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest
Peacetime leadership can present a dilemma for the junior officer. There are many examples of how to behave in a combat situation, but few to inspire an officer to carry out the daily routine or schedule successfully. During war, the focus is on the enemy, motivation is high, and those who exhibit outstanding leadership skills are aptly rewarded. Peacetime is not as clear cut, and the rewards for doing what is right may not be nearly as fruitful. In the words of former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Thomas Hayward, "In peacetime, leadership becomes more of a challenge, a serious challenge for the young officer, especially the longer the country is at peace. If there is no national purpose, then you have to create goals and objectives that are very visible to substitute for this national goal and objective.”1
It has been five years since U.S. troops last were involved in a major conflict. Since that time, the attention of the armed forces has shifted from pursuing a common threat to handling its own issues: total quality, personal and ethical standards, and a shrinking fleet. These issues affect the military as a whole, but they stand as a particular challenge to its junior officers, the group that has the greatest potential to bring about change.
In the naval service, it is easy for young officers at their first commands to be overcome by the responsibilities of the job and assume that the application of leadership will occur naturally in the process. They may become disillusioned with the progress of the tasks assigned and lose motivation. Under pressure to compete for upcoming billets in future tours, they may develop the belief that they must think of themselves first to remain competitive. In many situations, they may be at a loss for words when someone neglects to maintain standards, or may assume that those they lead always will make the correct decisions. These areas demand solid leadership skills; not surprisingly, they often are overlooked.
Dedicate Yourself to the Naval Profession, Not to Your Career
Fitness reports and commanding officer’s evaluations are about the only concrete measures of one’s success or failure as a leader. In an era of fewer billets and increased competition for a career culminating with a command tour, a promising future may become a concern early in a junior officer’s career. Echoing the popular sentiment “What’s in it for me?” some junior officers would rather focus on earning a flawless fitness report than on doing a good job.
In every community, there is a handful of officers who put most of their efforts into pleasing their superiors to ensure promotion. They are the ones who immediately start barking orders when the executive officer appears on the bridge. They laugh the hardest at the skipper’s jokes and consider attendance at every squadron social event as a prime opportunity for face time. Unfortunately, they are the same officers who disappear when a volunteer is needed for the extra duty and who view dealing with personnel problems as cumbersome.
There is a danger in trying to get ahead at any cost, particularly in the military. Not only does it compromise goals and missions, but also, in the end, it compromises the individual. It is difficult to count on an officer who looks out only for number one, or to depend on someone who will perform only when someone is watching. Admiral Thomas Moorer, a former Chief of Naval Operations, states, “Young officers should not spend their time trying to impress seniors. On the contrary, they should spend their time trying to impress those that work for them, not the people they work for. They are the ones that make them look good.”2 It is up to the individual officer to set and strive to attain the highest personal standards. It is the decision to make leadership the first priority that will pave the way for a successful career, not the other way around.
Maintain a High Level of Motivation
Much of what the Navy and Marine Corps accomplishes during peacetime centers on maintaining a high level of readiness. The potential danger is that what once seemed exciting and adventurous can turn into a monotonous routine, whether for an aviator flying the starboard delta pattern off the carrier during workups or for the surface warfare officer going through the drydock schedule. This can have a serious impact on individual motivation, which directly affects the morale and motivation level of the troops.
A junior officer’s perception of his or her role in the overall picture can affect leadership skills. Unfortunately, when time is limited to complete a job or project, that absence of personal drive can transform itself into an application of negative leadership. Phrases such as “I don’t care how you do it, just get it done,” or “I don’t want to hear any more excuses” have been uttered by more than one frustrated ensign or lieutenant on more than one occasion. These words are less than encouraging for those whose responsibilities are even more repetitious: the mechanic who has spent hours attempting to replace aircraft parts or the new seaman who is tasked with cleaning the head.
It takes a conscious effort on the part of a young officer to enable every subordinate to believe that his or her work is not only important but also a direct factor in maintaining the peacetime readiness of the military. Every person is a valuable asset, and how you get the best results is just as important as getting them. Dr. Barbara Bate, a gender scholar, defines leadership as “becoming powerful to accomplish your own goals and spreading the power you possess so that other people become able to accomplish their goals as well.”3 In short, the modern military leader should use the ability to empower—not overpower—to ensure job satisfaction as well as job completion. Quality, not monotony, should result.
Reward Your People for a Job Well Done
Rewards are a natural part of leadership, but they are an often overlooked aspect. It is easy to forget that a simple “Good job” or “Bravo Zulu” can go a long way. Some junior officers take the hardline approach and reason that sailors are paid to produce nothing less than a quality result. They believe that the intrinsic satisfaction that accompanies any accomplishment should be the only reward. Others conclude that most rewards are beyond their level of authority and expect the department head to nominate the Sailor of the Quarter or the skipper to grant special liberty.
Unlike the civilian community, the naval service is limited in the types of rewards it can offer. The Christmas bonus or an extra week of vacation in the company condo are means of appreciation that simply are not available. As a result, leaders must come up with creative and original methods for recognizing their people. On board one ship, one officer established a “person of the week” award for his division. Another allowed his men and women to knock off work early, as long as the tasks were done. A junior officer may not have the ability to grant extra pay, but a few extra hours of time off may be valued just as much. Rewarding personnel may seem a minute detail for the junior officer, but it can be very meaningful for the recipient.
Take Leadership by Example One Step Further
There are various personal standards to which every service member is expected to adhere, and there are some sailors who elect to ignore these standards. An officer may believe that he or she is doing his or her part by setting the example: having a fresh haircut, shined shoes, and following the rules. But even this example, which reflects pride in service and self, does not ensure that those below will be influenced to do the right thing.
Learning how to correct someone for failing to do what is right, no matter how minor, can present a challenge to the less-experienced officer. Some may not have had a problem reprimanding plebes for failing to wax their deck or disciplining officer candidates for not reporting in a timely manner in the months prior to commissioning. At the first command, however, those same officers may be at a loss for words when a petty officer third class shows up for the duty muster in multiple earrings or when they see someone in a downtown bar wearing a flight jacket.
There are plenty of excuses for not doing anything. Some junior officers reason that by taking the time to correct, they are making a big deal over a minor infraction. Others simply believe the excuse that is given. Some ensigns and second lieutenants at flight training accept the fact that they are not saluted because there are so many junior officers on base. Still others are concerned with the perception subordinates may form if they stop and take the time to address them. A fellow lieutenant explained that he did not stop someone for failing to salute because he did not want to come across as a jerk.
Although this lack of attention to detail may seem insignificant, high standards are what places the naval service a step higher than any other profession, and adherence to these standards reflects the attitude toward it. Every junior officer should realize that it is his or her right to be saluted, to be addressed properly, and to expect that subordinates will maintain high standards. At the same time, it is every officer’s responsibility to act when standards are not met. Choosing not to say or do anything may give the indication that lack of attention to detail is acceptable. Even worse, it may cause others to lose faith in an officer’s ability to make a decision and take a stand. Leadership is not about popularity; it is about ensuring that the right thing is done. Enforcing standards for yourself and those you lead may not make you well liked, but at the very least, it will earn you respect.
Teach Your People to Make the Right Decisions
Many decisions that personnel have made in the past year have affected the military in a negative manner. The fact that a few sailors and Marines have committed sexual assaults, killed, and used drugs has made headlines and caused the public to lose faith in the once-solid ethical backbone of the armed forces. Several media sources attribute most of the responsibility for this diminishing reputation to the top brass of the Navy and Marine Corps; however, the responsibility and power to bring about change may lie with those who fill the ranks of the division officers and platoon commanders.
There is no guarantee that subordinates always will make good choices. Sometimes the factors that would influence sailors to do the right thing are not strong enough to prevent them from making poor decisions. A sailor is unlikely to remember the core values lecture from six months ago when going on liberty. A junior officer may be the model of ethical behavior but that does not necessarily mean that subordinates will follow that example. It would be naive to assume that they will pay their bills on time, practice safe sex, drink in moderation, or restrain from spousal abuse simply because their leader does.
But the military must be able to influence its members to make the right decisions because poor choices affect mission accomplishment, as well as image. At the junior officer level, there is no doubt that poor choices by one’s troops directly affect the efficiency of the unit. A division’s ability to get the job done may be hampered by the seaman who cannot concentrate on the task at hand because of personal problems or by the yeoman who needs half a day of special liberty to appear in court for unpaid parking tickets. Clearly, it is not just the choices that make headlines that can affect the military at the deck-plate level.
Every officer is not only a warrior and a leader but also in some senses a parent and teacher. Junior officers must take an active role in ensuring that their people act responsibly. What would you do if you saw your best friend’s wife with another man? What do you do on the night that there is no designated driver? Questions like these should be asked and discussed so all can see the logic behind sound decision making. If junior officers dedicate time on a regular basis to discuss such issues, they can be a strong positive influence in many lives.
The solution to many peacetime issues lies with the junior officer; no one can have as much influence at the core levels of the naval service. One lieutenant, who has had an outstanding career thus far, has this to offer: the only key to success is to constantly identify areas in which you can improve yourself. In no uncertain terms, it is up to the junior officer to make the difference.
1 Karel Montor, et al„ Naval Leadership: Voices of Experience (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. 19S7), p. 228.
2 Montor, et al„ p. 65.
3 Richard L. Weaver II. “Leadership For the Future: A New Set of Priorities,” Vital Speeches of the Day, 1 May 1995, p. 439.
Lieutenant Dunne, a 1992 graduate of the Naval Academy, currently is going through the SH-60B replacement air group on the West Coast and expects to report to her first fleet squadron, HSL-43 this year. She received the second co-honorable mention in 1993 and first honorable mention in 1995.