The Navy needs to be able to recognize and encourage the real leaders.
In the daunting task of selecting officers for promotion and assignment, evaluators in the Navy have tended to look primarily at assignment patterns and for the absence of negative material rather than attempting to measure performance under difficult or stressful conditions, without exclusive emphasis on outcome or results. Failures or mistakes, even where performance otherwise has been exemplary, may be seized on to screen out candidates in a selection process that relies on inflated reports of fitness by reporting seniors with greatly varied degrees of skill in writing personnel evaluations and forecasting career potential.
If we are to meet the challenges of the new Navy, we must develop a better way of identifying people who can lead—and we have to do it in a way that will enable us to keep the best without demotivating the rest. First, we must educate reporting seniors as to what leadership is and what behavior characterizes leadership. Second, we must purge the system of any traces of cronyism. Third, we must redefine what constitutes a successful career. Finally, we must replace career building with professional development.
One is not a leader by virtue of rank, nor does one inherit the "mantle of leadership" merely by assuming command or other positions of authority. To be a leader, one must practice leadership behaviors:
Empathize with followers. Leaders care about their people and their concerns. They want to know what makes their people tick, and they feel a responsibility for their well-being.
Plan for the long term. Leaders set goals and objectives to be measured over a longer timeline than just their own tours of duty. They put long-term progress ahead of short-term gains and personal recognition.
Explore alternatives. Leaders invite input and debate. They encourage a "devil's advocate" position. They examine as many scenarios and possibilities as time and circumstances permit.
Explore change. Leaders are dynamic individuals, unafraid of new ideas.
Address the needs of followers. Leaders may not always be able to put people first, but they consider the impact of every decision and action on their followers. They understand that to succeed they need the support of their followers and they invariably put their troops' well-being ahead of their own.
Be comfortable with stress. Leaders view conflict as an opportunity and capitalize on adversity to progress toward goals. They do not hesitate to take risks when circumstances warrant.
Have vision. Leaders have a plan for the long-term success of the organization and the people they lead.
Decision makers in the Navy must have a clear understanding of what leadership is, how it differs from management, and how to recognize it in those who are candidates for greater responsibility. How naval officers guide the men and women entrusted to them does matter.
In the past, a number of senior Navy officers got ahead primarily by maintaining fierce loyalty to a powerful sponsor and establishing themselves as members of an exclusive team, often following the mentor to subsequent assignments. In such relationships, loyalty and responsibility sometimes become distorted and allegiance flows only upward. In addition, a sort of elite class of naval officer emerges, made up of those who by faithful and loyal service have earned the confidence and gratitude of a very senior person. As a result, loyalty is sometimes rewarded over experience and competence, and in too many instances, officers are selected on the basis of for whom they have worked. It places a favored few in positions of great advantage, and it amounts to cronyism.
Any hint of cronyism or patronage destroys our people's faith in the fairness of the selection and assignment systems. It fuels the perception that it is not so much what you have done or can do that matters as much as it is for whom you have done it. There is no room for personality cults in the Navy. Service on the personal staff of a flag officer should never entitle an officer to special career consideration or influence.
Redefine a Successful Career
In the Navy, success must be more than simply meeting commitments and not offending anyone. The overall contribution of an officer to the Navy, to the unit, and to the people for whom he or she is responsible must be weighed. Reporting seniors must look beyond the narrow limits of visible but perhaps superficial accomplishments and their own interests, responsibilities, and biases in evaluating candidates for greater responsibilities.
Not all jobs in the Navy are equally demanding, but we have demonstrated some peculiar priorities in determining which are the most important assignments. Executive assistants to senior officials, both military and civilian, often have been regarded as occupying more career-enhancing billets than, say, action officers responsible for important programs and large budgets. The logic in this eludes me. As important as an executive assistant's gatekeeper role might be, and as demanding as the working hours and the boss may be, the executive assistant primarily is an aide, not a leader. Yet inevitably, it seems, executive assistants are on a fast track to promotion and command, a role that does require leadership, while the action officers compete with the other candidates from the trenches for the jobs that are left.
For years, early command at the lieutenant and lieutenant commander levels, something that should be coveted by every junior officer, was regarded as a mixed blessing—an easy way, in fact, to end a career if anything went wrong. Too often, moreover, that career was in the hands of a unit commander whose own career had peaked and who may have lacked the ability to recognize leadership potential, much less describe it in a fitness report. Little wonder, then, that many surface warfare officers of my day avoided early command while conscientiously punching their qualifying tickets on the way to a hoped-for commander command, preferably in a destroyer.
Command at sea and sea duty should be treasured by all line officers. Command at sea should be regarded as the main prize, not as a qualifier for bigger and better things. In addition, there should be no "preferred" or "prestige" commands. They are all prestige commands and should be reserved for proven, demonstrated leaders. Replace Career Building with Professionalism It will be of scant benefit to the Navy and the nation if we improve officer retention but are unable to identify the leaders the Navy will need in the new century. Our system has produced senior officers who measured success mostly by the absence of failure and who were willing to sacrifice people to advance or safeguard careers. It has produced officers who learned to minimize career risk by avoiding challenging, difficult, thankless, and less glamorous assignments.
Officers who had no passion for ships and sea duty fought for command opportunity because it was a career ticket that had to be punched. Some of them actually disliked the duty, were uncomfortable with the responsibility, and counted the days until the burden would be lifted from them. Our selection system did little to screen out these hazards to navigation. In fact, the system accommodated them by making command tours ridiculously short, affording them a good chance of getting through the ordeal without getting into major trouble.
Instead of building professionalism and excellence by keeping the best and most competent leaders in command long enough to achieve some long- or even intermediate-term goals, we marched officers briskly through command tours that were as short as one year or even one deployment. This was just enough time to permit them to do some real damage but short enough to enable them to avoid blame for it. Our career managers then would rotate them ashore, back into the Washington "arena" for more visible but less risky assignments, leaving, too often, a mess for some successor to clean up or get blamed for. Even if the successor could rectify the mess and add value of his own to the command, he seldom would be around long enough to get any credit.
We have done this under the guise of maximizing command opportunity. In other words, we have put career building ahead of building excellence and professionalism. We have produced an officer corps of ticket punchers who view every assignment in terms of career value. This obsession has been abetted by a monstrously inflated fitness reporting system that makes adequate performance sound like heroism under fire and a system of awards that insults actual outstanding performance or valor by handing out service medals and personal decorations like corporations hand out certificates of appreciation.
A consequence of these years of emphasizing career building is officers who are so intimidated by Congress and the news media they would do nearly anything to appease them and protect their own careers. If it is career suicide to stand up for a subordinate who may be unfairly under fire or to tell the unpopular truth about declining readiness, well, better to live and fight another day, they rationalize. Time to "put it behind us" for the "good of the service" they say. This may be good management, but it is not leadership. The Navy suffers now because of it.
The Navy has produced some of the world's best leaders, and the failures of leadership described here do not apply to all. But given the responsibilities and authority a Navy career offers, it should be a crucible of leadership, producing many more real leaders than it has of late.
Something in the system is broken and must be fixed. For starters, we might examine the degree of importance placed on executive assistant positions and other personal staff assignments. We seem to be under the impression that leadership is learned by serving people in positions of great authority. There is little in the body of leadership research that supports this.
Perhaps the best thing we can do for now is to get better at recognizing and encouraging real leadership potential when we see it.
Captain Kelly was 1979 Proceedings Author of the Year for his essays on command authority and professionalism and women in warships. He had four commands during his 30-year Navy career and was a personnel subspecialist. He holds a master’s degree in management and a doctorate in leadership.