Second Co-Honorable Mention, Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest
Before they made admiral, the legends of naval command were leading the right way as captains and commanders. We should be learning from the habits of these highly effective commanding officers.
The impact that legends such as John McCain Sr., Chester Nimitz, and ArLeigh Burke had on the military and our country are fairly well known. When we study only the sweeping decisions these commanders made, however, we often miss the far more relevant lessons we should learn from their successes as junior commanders.
These men initially rose to prominence because of their performances as junior commanders at sea. Most naval officers may never command "more military power than had been wielded by all the commanders in all previous wars" as Nimitz did, but many of us will have the privilege of commanding a ship, submarine, or squadron during our careers. A study of the habits these great leaders practiced before they were stars yields lessons that can help future generations as they prepare to take command at sea or ashore.
Whether they led with the quiet confidence of Raymond Spruance or the brash optimism of William Halsey, one thing remained constant: the great leaders created a culture of excellence in their commands. How profoundly did this culture of excellence affect the performance of their command? The case of Admiral Isaac Kidd shows how one young commander can make a difference.
Although his passing in the summer of 2000 exposed many people to his record for the first time (the vast majority of those serving today were in grade school when he retired), his achievement is still relevant. Every department that he headed in the ships he served in won the Fleet Trophy for Excellence each year, and each ship he commanded won the Fleet Battle Efficiency Trophy every year as "First in Force."
Long before Chester Nimitz became a household name and a five-star admiral, he also demonstrated that he knew a thing or two about creating a culture of excellence on board his ship, the USS Augusta (CA-31). Whether he was holding seminars on Chinese history, inviting renowned speakers to his wardroom, or creating winning sports teams, Admiral Nimitz created command excellence on every front possible. His biographer, E. B. Potter, summarizes Captain Nimitz's philosophy: "He did not broadcast his expectations but conveyed them subtly to his officers . . . It was a demand for excellence, not for Nimitz's sake, and not altogether for the sake of the ship or the Navy, but above all for the sake of the men themselves and their own pride and self-fulfillment."
Clearly, the great captains have more in common than the general concept of command excellence. To borrow a page from Dr. Stephen Covey, author of the personal leadership handbook of the decade, I believe the great leaders of history fleet practiced the "Seven Habits of Highly Effective Commanding Officers." Fortunately for the Navy, some leaders today do practice the same leadership habits that made past Navy legends great. As we examine the actions of our profession's heroes before their rise to fame, examples from today's fleet confirm that these seven habits are indeed timeless:
- They equipped their people with the best.
Given the responsibility we assign to our young sailors and officers, they deserve the best. Ensign Nimitz, as he assumed command of the USS Decatur (DD-341), realized that even for his "beat up old destroyer," equipping his crew properly was paramount. "[Nimitz] turned to some warrant officers at Cavite with whom he had played poker. . . They promised to do what they could. Soon bargeloads of equipment, coal, and water began to arrive on Decatur." Aside from demonstrating that Nimitz had the wisdom to ask a good warrant officer for help, this story shows that even in 1907 good commanding officers worked to equip their people with the best.
While the business of leading sailors remains the same, the tools have changed. For instance, our young warfighters now need to be equipped like young executives. In today's high-tech fleet, young officers can waste 10-20% of their day looking to log onto a computer to write that next watch team replacement plan. As tactical networks and classified websites become integral to combat operations, officers lacking access to computers will suffer tactically as well as administratively.
Some commanding officers have closed the technology gap on their ships already. Following a junior-officer survey on the USS Princeton (CG-59) that listed lack of computer access as a productivity buster, Captain Jake Ross issued a Palm Pilot to every division officer and a laptop computer to every department head. Since the increase in computer assets, the Princeton's productivity has skyrocketed.
Vice Admirals Ed Moore, and Hank Giffin, and Rear Admiral Mike Mullen demonstrated their commitment to junior surface warfare officers by initiating a similar policy for the entire Surface Navy. This policy makes those officers more productive and clearly signals that these officers are valued as much as other demanding professions value their young leaders.
Our sailors deserve to be equipped with the best as well. Education, computers, and even new coveralls make a difference. In the Princeton, for example, all petty officers and below were issued leather-- man tools and maglights. While some might dismiss this as a gimmick, it has paid dividends. As one sailor put it, "Now when I see a small problem in my space, I can usually fix it without going back to the shop." By helping our sailors maintain their systems more easily, new technologies such as computers, corrosion resistant paints, and electric laundry will allow them to spend more time training.
- They took the time to master and then teach the art of warfighting.
The legends never forgot that putting ships to sea and fighting this nation's wars was their mission. In his first command, Admiral Arleigh Burke embodied this belief. E. B. Potter, Burke's biographer, recounts that, "Burke, as if he were not busy enough, volunteered himself to serve as the fleet's destroyer gunnery school with himself, his similarly trained gunnery officer, Lieutenant Robert Speck, and his own gunners as instructors—his principal aim being to give his own gunners additional practice."
Although his sailors may have groaned when they first heard the news of this arrangement, Burke's initiative clearly paid dividends: "Mugford's gunners . . . felt their months of toilsome exercise finally rewarded when at the annual short-range battle practice their guns attained the unprecedented score of 36 hits with 36 shots."
Of course, the legends did not hold a monopoly on mastering the art of warfighting. Recently, the USS Russell's (DDG-59) commanding officer, Commander Ed Boorda, decided to conduct a war college at sea with his wardroom during a nine-week repair period. How could a wardroom afford to write the ship's battle orders, study today's threats, and flex their combat teams in the middle of a crucial maintenance period? Instead of asking "why," Commander Boorda asked "why not?" By challenging the chief's mess to manage the repairs, the Russell emerged from the availability early and with a wardroom of warfighters.
- They viewed every crew member as a person of value.
Vice Admiral John T. Parker, who served as an officer on a sister ship to the one commanded by then-Commander Elmo Zumwalt stated, "Both Admiral Zumwalt and Admiral Burke made whatever sailor they were talking to feel like they were the most important person in the world."
Another great commander, Admiral John S. McCain Jr., also practiced this important habit. According to his son, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), "There were eight officers and 72 enlisted men on board the Gunnel (SS-253). My father knew the first names of every one of them. He knew who was married and who was single; how many kids they had; whose wives were pregnant and whether they were hoping for a boy or a girl. He knew what sports they favored; what they and done for a living before the war; what they wanted to do when they returned home. He knew what scared them and what made them angry. After the war, when any one of them contacted him for assistance, he did all he could do to provide it."
If we value only those who will make the Navy a career, we are only tapping into 30% of our workforce. We should be dedicated to making all of our enlisted members better sailors and better citizens. One day many of those sailors who left their hometowns because of limited opportunity will return, and the skills we impart to them in the Navy will allow them to be better citizens in the heartland. The "Don't waste time on him, he's getting out of the Navy" attitude we sometimes see in the fleet demonstrates a shortsightedness that does not befit a profession that is dedicated to higher principles of service to our nation.
Activities that, in a narrow view, would be considered extraneous should be pursued. One ship recently arranged a free Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) seminar (normally $400) that concluded with the sailors taking the SAT. This enabled sailors to have the same advantages upper-middle-class kids enjoy when they are preparing for college.
Remembering the names and ambitions of every sailor in their ship was more than a mere parlor trick for commanding officers like McCain and Nimitz. They realized that understanding the goals and value of their sailors allowed them to tap into the Navy's greatest resource—our people.
- They did not lead through fear; they led by example.
On ships, a commanding officer's style sets the tone on the bridge. The legends were no exception. "In the early days of his command on the China Station, Nimitz from time to time had a box thrown overboard and then, under his personal supervision required the junior officers to take turns bringing the ship alongside it as if it were a wharf. During these maneuvers he never raised his voice." One ensign clearly remembered the conversation he and Captain Nimitz had following a hair-raising anchoring that required the ship go all back full and lay out 90 fathoms before she stopped.
"Captain Nimitz remained silent until the ship was secure. 'Waters you know what you did wrong don't you?'
'Yes, sir, I certainly do, I came in too fast.'
'That's fine,' said Nimitz and that was the end of that."
In his article, "One Special Ship" (May 2000 Proceedings, pp. 71-74), Lieutenant Commander Bryan McGrath describes then- Captain Giffin who refused to let an atmosphere of fear pervade his wardroom, even during the Gulf War. "Every JO on the ship had the chance to make mistakes and survive; we weren't judged on our latest miscue." By rejecting the mentality that "you're only as good as your last gunfight," these leaders created an environment that allowed their crews to flourish. In addition, by leading their men with even-handedness in times of great stress they set the example. Is it any wonder that McGrath writes, "We didn't want to be like the CO, we wanted to be our CO"?
- They made their sailors aware that they were part of a special fraternity.
The great commanding officers reminded their crews that they were bonded together by what Senator McCain termed "a higher calling than mere self-interest." These leaders and their crews engaged in activities that underscored their common heritage and built camaraderie. Dining outs and professional organizations such as the Surface Navy Association, the Dolphin Club, and the Tailhook Association can highlight the best of what the Navy has to offer to the Navy's future leaders.
Of course, events away from the command are not the only way to build this camaraderie. On the Princeton, one of the most popular events during deployment was Warfighter Day. During these events, each of the command's 180 petty officers and below embarked on an all-day course that included weapon shoots, heaving line competitions, damage-control Olympics, and a full combat systems tour. At the end of the day, the commanding officer told these sailors that the activities of Warfighter Day linked them to the previous generations of sailors who were also members of the "profession of arms."
Having served with commanding officers who took the time to build esprit de corps, it is not surprising that Senator McCain told the Surface Navy Association in September 2000 that, "All I ever wanted was to command a squadron."
- They were willing to take risks and trust their people.
The great leaders knew that the price of greatness meant taking risks. Commander Boorda's decision to delegate the Russell's repair period to his chiefs while he built a combat savvy wardroom clearly involved the concepts of risk, trust, and reward. This modern-day example of putting warfighting first demonstrates what most naval leaders know already: The pursuit of excellence does not come without risk. Clearly, the Russell could have ensured excellent results by throwing as many khaki uniforms as possible at the challenge. Instead, Commander Boorda took a calculated risk, and he was rewarded with an empowered chief's mess, tactically proficient officers, and a fully-equipped ship.
Commander Mike Abrashoff, former commanding officer of the USS Benfold (DDG-65), a ship recognized as the best in the Pacific Fleet, reflected on what can happen when commanding officers have the confidence to take risks and trust their people. "All I ever wanted to do in the Navy was to command a ship. I don't care if I ever get promoted again. And that attitude has enabled me to do the right things for my people instead of doing the right things for my career. In the process, I ended up with the best ship in the Navy—and I got the best evaluation of my career."
- They were willing to visualize the impossible.
To the great leaders, nothing was too hard to try. Many of these leaders were able to achieve great things by providing their people a push when needed. "A principle of Nimitz's training plan was to give every man as much responsibility as he could handle, which was often a great deal more than the man thought he was capable of handling."
Once again, this characteristic is still making a difference today. Commander Boorda's war-college-at-sea concept likely drew a few doubts from the very officers and chiefs who went on to prove him right. On the Princeton, Captain Ross also compelled his leaders to look beyond their in boxes. His creation of the Princeton's Tiger Top Ten Program allowed his wardroom and chiefs to identify and tackle the Princeton's ten most vexing cross-departmental challenges. The program, which included an enlisted advancement program, an SAT/college education team, and a citizenship initiative—named Better Sailor, Better Citizen—continues to bear fruit a year after its inception.
The leadership tenets that emerge from an examination of four-star admirals in their junior commands provide guidance that remains startlingly relevant to today's leaders. Clearly, the "Seven Habits of Highly Effective Commanding Officers" are harder to live by than to list. Nonetheless, these habits provide a time-tested guide for those preparing for future command, no matter what warfare community from which we come.
Ultimately, timing, talent, and history will dictate the next generation of four-star flag and general officers. Living by the seven habits, however, will allow naval leaders to achieve a far more reasonable but no less satisfying goal—becoming a great commanding officer.
Lieutenant Commander Kacher, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the Department Head School, was weapons officer in the USS Princeton (CG-59) from 1998-2000.