Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest, Winner
Blessed with patient superiors and instructive chief petty officers during two tours as a junior officer, I thought I had mastered the art of leadership. I worked hard to know my subordinates. I encouraged them to dream up unique solutions to problems. I gave them latitude to act. And I always, always, looked after my sailors.
In reality, however, as I have discovered during my current tour, learning to lead is a never-ending task. Following each promotion, a commissioned or noncommissioned officer must lead ever-larger groups and must therefore draw on an ever-widening set of leadership insights and skills. One great way to gain these insights and skills is to observe someone who has led successfully—in other words, to find a mentor.
Over the past year, as the aide-de-camp for a fleet commander, I have enjoyed an outstanding opportunity to learn about the U.S. Navy. As a "loop," I've sat with the admiral in meetings with senior Navy officials, foreign dignitaries, and U.S. political leaders. I've learned to read a budget, and I have attended meetings at the United Nations. But the most valuable experiences—those that I will cherish for a lifetime—have been the moments when the admiral has confided in me his personal insights and anecdotes about leadership, drawn from a lifetime of naval service.
My education started the day I first pinned on the aiguillette, the yellow and blue braided shoulder loop that marks an admiral's aide. On the morning of his change of command, the admiral asked me to accompany him on a walk across base. Two junior security guards passed, rendered a "Good morning, Sir," but failed to proffer a salute. Increased threats recently had precipitated a no-salute policy at the front gate, ostensibly to prevent an unfriendly observer from detecting superiors, but within the base, I thought, the sentries should have saluted.
"Hey, Loop," the admiral said afterward, "investigate the current saluting policies. Being new, I don't know what the rules are, but whatever they turn out to be, we need to ensure that we enforce them. Every time a superior allows a junior's improper action to go uncorrected, he has set a new, lower standard."
Later, as we walked back, the admiral stopped to pick up from the ground a discarded candy wrapper. "A similar rule applies here," he noted. "If I were to walk by without picking it up, I would have accepted dumping trash on the ground."
Every time a leader sees something improper, he must act to correct it. Whether it be failure to salute, garbage on the ground, sloppy uniforms, or undisciplined behavior, shortcomings must be addressed, or the leader risks setting new, lower standards.
Two months later, on a trip to the frigate USS Reid (FFG-30), I saw affixed to the wall of the commanding officer's cabin a quote from General George Patton that took me back to that first day on the job:
If you can't get your troops to salute or wear their uniforms properly, how can you expect them to die for their country?
The Ninety Percent Rule
Several weeks later, riding in the admiral's sedan, I was talking on the mobile phone when the admiral decided to speak to an officer in one of the fleet's departments. Not wanting to interrupt me as I worked out the myriad details of an upcoming trip, he picked up a second telephone to call.
"Hello? Is this fleet headquarters? Hello? This is the Admiral. The Admiral . . . yes, your Admiral." He took care of his business, hung up, and asked, "Hey, Loop, what's up with the staff of that department? Do you ever have problems with them? I just got the feeling that situational awareness in that shop is a little low."
I try to speak candidly with the admiral, for many will not. Amid the scores of captains and commanders maneuvering to tell him news he wants to hear, his aide, I believe, should speak his mind. Thus, I responded frankly, "Admiral, that office is staffed with some incompetents. Many can't handle unexpected contingencies; some don't know how to contact concerned personnel; a few exhibit no common sense. In my opinion, someone in that office ought to get fired, to shake things up a little."
From his furrowed brow, I could tell he disagreed. He pondered my brash remarks, then countered, "You know, staffing is very important, and in the long run, finding the right people for the right job is one of the most critical functions of leadership. But in the short term, we all must play the cards we've been dealt; we must perform our mission with our assigned people.
"I believe that 90% of all people want to do a good job. Every day they show up for work and—within the limits of their training and experience—they try their best. Regarding the personnel in that particular work center—yeah, maybe all of them aren't the hardest chargers in the world, but I don't think that we need to fire anyone, as you've suggested. We just need to train them better. We need to inform them of what we expect, develop a curriculum to teach them, and generate some standards against which can we measure their progress. Okay, occasionally we may need to reassign some people if they aren't measuring up, but to fire someone now would be to admit our own leadership failures."
So much for the value of my frank remarks! I was humbled by the admiral's response. Since then, I have come to realize that a systemic work center problem probably signals a leadership or training problem rather than a staffing problem. I also haven't been so quick to criticize.
Slipping through the Cracks
One night two young fleet sailors stayed out late, drank too much, got into a fight with a taxi driver, and ended up in the local jail. When I heard the news, my first thought was that we must make an example of these two; the fleet, after all, depends on the goodwill of the locals for its continued overseas presence. Because the admiral is tasked with maintaining good relations between the United States and its allied navies, I thought he would share this belief. So it surprised me that his reaction was more self-evaluation than punitive retribution.
"Hey, Loop," he asked after studying the ensuing incident report, "how many captain's masts were there in your last squadron?"
"About eight, over the course of three years," I replied.
"That sounds about average," he continued. I sensed his discomfort. "Every command ultimately must send some people to mast, and we will rightfully do the same to these two offenders, but it's something that all commanders should loathe, for in essence, sending a sailor to mast is an admission that his naval leaders have failed to fulfill their charter: to develop our young sailors."
The admiral paused for a moment and glanced back at the report. "In this particular incident, we let these guys slip through the cracks." He referred to the fact that the two had been assigned temporarily to a workshop with no first class or chief petty officer and no direct division officer. They were, in effect, left unattended to make their own rules and discipline themselves.
"We let these guys down. We weren't looking after them. We neglected to provide role models. We didn't perform the most basic of all leadership functions—leadership by example," the admiral lamented.
"The foundation of leadership, the one that did not exist in the drunken sailors' work center, is the mentor-subordinate relationship. We as officers can't be in all places at all times, and we cannot and should not directly supervise junior seamen and airmen, but what we can do is ensure that these junior people have a close mentor, someone to look up to for decisions regarding life's travails, in addition to workplace tasks. Admiral Boorda used to call it one-on-one leadership; others call it the mentor principle. Whatever you call it, you must ensure that our most impressionable young sailors have above them someone to turn to for professional and personal guidance. Only in this way can we prevent our most valuable resource—our sailors—from falling through the cracks."
With a sigh and an evidently heavy heart, the admiral forwarded the incident report, concurring with the recommendation for captain's mast. He concluded, "It used to be that a sailor usually could recover from a trip to mast. When I first took command, I used to review every enlisted service member's record, and I saw how many of my enlisted leaders had had problems at an early age but later overcame them. Today, though—in the smaller, post-Cold War Navy—there exists an almost zero-defects standard. Our junior people seldom can recover from a blemish such as a captain's mast. So, when we send someone to mast, we must recognize that we may be ending his naval career. As leaders we must make sure that our sailors don't behave in ways that will take them to mast. In most cases, we can do that—if we don't let our sailors slip through the cracks."
Managing from the Middle
Partly as a result of the drinking incident and partly to encourage sailors to advance to a higher pay grade, the admiral later decided to end liberty at midnight for all personnel below the grade of petty officer. This was certain to be unpopular.
"Hey, Loop," he said to me after making his decision, "organize for me a meeting with all the chiefs and workshop supervisors. Topic: my new Cinderella liberty policy."
Strange, I thought. If he wanted to publicize his new policy to ensure maximum dissemination, why not do it in a plan of the day message or an all-hands call? Why meet with just the senior enlisted personnel?
At the meeting, as expected, the admiral faced a hostile crowd. He made it clear, however, that his decision was firm, and that he needed and expected the assistance of everyone in the room. "The reason I'm here is simple," he explained, "not to negotiate, but rather to explain my intentions. Good things don't happen after midnight. With my new policy, if we can avoid a serious liberty incident, while at the same time providing an incentive for advancing to a higher pay grade, then I will consider the new rule a success. I'm not going to post the shore patrol near downtown bars, however. I'll depend on your leadership to enforce this policy, and that's why I'm here with you today."
I asked him afterward why he chose to meet with only the chiefs and workshop supervisors, instead of taking his message directly to those affected.
"We officers can't be everywhere all the time," he answered. "We must work through our subordinates; as a rule, discipline should be handled at the lowest level possible. That means that as good leaders, when we adopt a new policy, we should meet with those who will enforce it, to explain the rationale and intent. Subordinates then can enforce the spirit of the policy, while at the same time applying common sense to make justified exceptions. If I had presented this new policy to several hundred junior enlisted personnel, I would have been bombarded with requests for exceptions. Instead, I'll manage from the middle."
Honoring the Pact
Although he favored ending liberty at midnight for the most junior sailors, the admiral believed strongly that good liberty was an important part of the Navy experience. Several months ago, following the jailing in a foreign country of a U.S. sailor, Washington officials canceled liberty for all ships' crews in our region's most popular and exciting country. Since then, I've watched the admiral move to the top of his priority list regaining the right to send our sailors there. I asked him once why he devoted so much energy toward this end.
"There is a huge issue here," the admiral explained. "When we enlist a young recruit, we make a time-honored pact: He forfeits his freedom, subjects himself to strict discipline, works never-ending hours, and separates himself from his family and friends. In return, the Navy shows him the world. It sounds like a cliché, but great liberty is part of what keeps these kids coming back for more grueling six-month deployments. It is what keeps enlisted retention high. It is what keeps up our readiness. Sure, from the fleet commander's perspective, I could avoid a lot of Washington headaches by simply agreeing to kill liberty in the region's most popular port, but that would be wrong. After all, we can make these port calls safe and enjoyable. I simply refuse to violate the pact with our sailors. We promised them the world, and I intend to give it to them."
After countless hours on the telephone with Washington officials, the admiral regained for the sailors the right to visit the popular country. To lessen the chance of incidents, however, he had to limit liberty to organized trips. Unrestricted barhopping was prohibited.
"Organized trips are the kind of liberty that our officers should provide to our sailors anyway," the admiral noted. "Sailors on liberty get into trouble when their leaders fail to give them productive and enjoyable things to do. If leaders research liberty ports, organize tours and sporting events, and give sailors constructive things to do, then the chances are minimal that we'll have any incidents. Ninety-nine percent of our sailors want to get out and see the world, not cause trouble.
"Looking back at my naval career," he continued, "I've most often seen serious liberty incidents when there has been a leadership failure. When a ship ties up and the commanding officer leaves sailors to their own devices for entertainment, the chances are good that many will end up at an unsavory bar, where there undoubtedly will be problems."
Avoiding the Handoff
The admiral, like most naval officers, loves to operate—to sail, submerge, and soar—but detests the concomitant, never-ending paperwork. Accordingly, he has tasked me occasionally to pull him from the office for unscheduled ship visits and base walk-arounds. He enjoys patting backs, shaking hands, and telling sailors and civilians how much he appreciates their hard work. One day as we returned to fleet headquarters from such a visit, the admiral pointed and remarked, "Look at all those wonderful organizations: the Family Service Center, Navy Relief, Housing Office, Morale & Recreation, and all the rest. Never before in my 26 years in the Navy have I seen so many productive and well-intentioned organizations. But I hope I never find you guilty of the handoff."
"The handoff, Admiral?" I asked.
"During the past ten years, I have seen countless officers fall into the trap of handing off a subordinate's problem to a counselor at one of the mushrooming number of support organizations. It appears to some junior officers to be a quick and easy way to get rid of time-consuming and thorny problems—send a sailor with debt problems to the Navy Relief's financial counselors, for example, or refer to the mental-health clinic a young recruit who is having problems living away from home for the first time.
"But these wonderful support activities also can work to the Navy's detriment if our frontline leaders—our petty officers and junior officers—disengage themselves from our sailors' concerns. You can't just set up an appointment for one of your troops and then forget about him," the admiral warned.
I thought about the admiral's words and tried to apply his guidance to my own situation. Had I in the past "handed off" a subordinate's problems just to make my job easier? Regrettably, I confessed, I had. Several months earlier I had referred to the career counseling office one of my sailors with a request to change specialties. His plight had then slipped to the bottom of my priority list. The sailor later told me that everything was "taken care of," and that he had decided to extend his tour in his current rate because his desired rate was filled. But, as I now reflected, I had never sat down and explored with him all his options, nor had I made his crusade my crusade. Had my sailor been led astray by a lazy career counselor? By an overburdened detailer? Was his desired rate really filled, or did some detailer just say so to save himself some work? Had I done everything in my power to help him out? I had to admit that I had not. I was guilty of the handoff—and I have vowed never to do it again.
As a fleet commander, the admiral travels from ship to ship to address officers, chiefs, and sailors. For all of this talking, however, he spends even more time listening and observing. "Hey, Loop," he once instructed me, "I challenge you to look around for markers of a good ship or squadron. I've discovered some very simple markers of good leadership, and with a little practice, you can develop your own."
I've since toured scores of ships and spent countless hours below decks in sweaty engineering spaces and freezing radio rooms. As directed, I've listened and observed, and I've compiled my own list of three markers of an outstanding unit. They are simplistic, I admit, but I have yet to find a well-led, award-winning unit that lacked them:
- A great unit's sailors wear sharp uniforms and shined shoes. From boot camp onward, all Navy officers and sailors learn that pride begins with our uniforms. I've found that on great ships, the uniforms and personal appearance of the crew are exemplary. Pressed shirts, clearly stenciled uniforms, aligned gig-lines—all suggest that leaders have instilled in their crew a sense of dignity.
- Clean bilges are my second marker of good leadership. Not surprisingly, sailors who exhibit attention to detail in their appearance often take interest in the physical condition of their ship (or plane or maintenance gear or work center). Clean, dry bilges means that leaders have inculcated their personnel with a sense of pride. I have yet to see an outstanding ship—regardless of her age—whose bilges were soiled and filled with debris.
- My final marker—at the risk of sounding foolish—is a collection of enthusiastic, smiling faces. During a ship tour, one can pick out the sailors who enjoy their jobs-they are the ones with the toothy grins. Enjoyment comes most often, after all, not from the task at hand (for who can truly enjoy long hours in sweaty engineering spaces?) but from a shared sense of accomplishment-a knowledge that each individual plays a crucial role in a unit's mission.
When I accepted the fleet commander's offer to serve as his aide, I anticipated a year of long hours in which I would be exposed to high politics and national military policy. All this I have seen, and I am a better naval officer for it. What I did not foresee, however, was something more valuable: getting a full year of leadership training from a three-star admiral.
I realize now that leadership can't be learned by studying sterile formulas, models, and traits. Rather, it must be absorbed by observing and practicing, a time-intensive process that can be speeded up with the help of a willing mentor.
Lieutenant Commander (Sel.) Macris, a P-3 naval aviator, serves as flag lieutenant for Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/U.S. Fifth Fleet in Manama, Bahrain. A recent Philip Merrill fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, he soon will begin his department head tour.