Second Honorable Mention, Vincent Astor Leadership Essay Contest
Whether completing underway replenishments or firing weapons, when it comes to leading as a division officer, rely on the basics and you will succeed.
Having "grown up" in the peacetime Navy, I found it a stark transition to return from shore duty to a fleet at war. Ship schedules are classified, force protection is near its highest alert, and deploying ships are firing in anger because our homeland has been attacked. The country is rallying in a way we have not seen since World War II. As I prepared to join my ship as a department head, I focused on leadership.
In books, leadership often is presented as a laundry list of attributes. The Naval Institute's Command at Sea, The Naval Officer's Guide, and the Division Officer's Guide address leadership in this manner. Periodicals such as Proceedings carry discussions of philosophies. Leadership training at the Surface Warfare Officer's School adds analyses of different styles of leadership, but most of the class time is spent sharing anecdotes about particular situations.
All of these sources are useful and necessary, but what is missing are the basic techniques and practices that make leaders successful. The greatest challenge for a department head is to contribute in a meaningful way to the leadership development of division officers. In my experience, only the captain of the ship was engaged directly in developing leaders. I want to be involved on a practical, day-to-day level in this critical mission as a department head.
The best division officers I have known have a few things in common. All went from being clueless at first, to qualifying as officer of the deck and surface warfare officer, to mastering their ship. Successful division officers are aware of their dual functions as a division head and as a leader. They are subject matter experts, growing with each endeavor. Once they are established, they take the initiative.
All department heads should aspire to inspire our sailors. While every officer has a different philosophy and style of leadership, there are some practices that work for division officers regardless of one's approach or length of time on has been on board his or her ship.
- Your presence has a purpose. From the first day on the ship, division officers must realize they are the wardroom's primary interface with the crew. Therefore, division officers must understand the impact of their physical presence and the dual nature of their position as the division's advocate and the wardroom's representative. From standing a professional watch to touring spaces after working hours while under way, a division officer's presence should signal to the division that something important is happening.
Beginning at quarters in the morning, the division officer visually inspects the division and ensures the day's tasking is understood. Presence at reenlistments, advancement exams, and award ceremonies encourages all hands. A daily tour of the division spaces demonstrates interest and is an opportunity to build pride. Walking through messing and berthing with the executive officer or occasionally standing with the berthing petty officer signals the division officer cares for the division's living conditions. Participating in emergency escape breathing device training, egress, and other damage control training is an opportunity to demonstrate the division officer's skills as well as to show junior sailors the importance of damage control.
It has been said that 90% of life is just showing up—and so it seems to be true for division officers. But realize too that there are times your sailors should be left alone. My philosophy is to never get in the way of a working sailor. I do not like to be disturbed when I am working, so I try to avoid interrupting my sailors when I know they are busy and their petty officers and chief petty officers should be handling the job. The result is a feeling of independence and pride among the sailors, which is a key to maintaining an atmosphere of professionalism.
- Build confidence through competence. The first question asked by division officers before reporting to their first ships is: "How will I accomplish all the necessary qualifications while still running a division?" The only answer is to prioritize.
But that answer does not explain the difference between a division officer who just gets by and one who excels. Most of us do not excel at everything right from the start. It is natural to focus on one thing at a time. Still, competence in one area allows an officer to devote more attention to other areas that need work. Smart division officers learn one thing well before moving on to the next.
Division officers who are comfortable in their division duties are more likely to feel ready to tackle their qualifications. And when those first milestones are reached, that officer has built the foundation to be a successful surface warrior. Confidence in self is the most important building block in that foundation.
An officer with self-confidence will inspire confidence in the division. For example, sailors will respect the division officer who is a competent boat officer, even if he is not yet qualified as officer of the deck. They may even work hard to support that officer behind the scenes. Confidence is contagious, but only when backed by competent performance.
- Control what you can control. It often is said that Navy programs are created individually as reactions to leadership failures. The heat stress program resulted from too many heat stress casualties. The planned maintenance system was a result of supervisors not knowing what was going on with their equipment. Personnel qualification standards were developed because people were not being trained adequately. Regardless of the reason for their creation, Navy programs exist to help administer the ship. Junior officers must be trained to drive the programs and not be driven by them.
Too much time is spent nitpicking the details of programs and not enough is devoted to focusing on their value as leadership and management tools. Often these programs are ineffective because of administrative errors. Administrative errors are symptoms of ineffectiveness. The true success is in the mission effectiveness of the ship and the individual sailor. The first step to changing our cultural bias is to educate, rather than flagellate, our division officers.
Nothing in the administration of a division is new. The Standard Organization and Regulations Manual (SORM) lays it all out. All division officers should be able to master their roles as defined in the SORM. Using Navy programs is a simple way to achieve the desired mastery.
As a division officer, mastering divisional administration is liberating. When the division officer is in control and uses the Navy system, organization, and regulations, qualifications will come with ease. A division officer in command of Navy programs will gain the initiative and be ready for an expanded role in the wardroom and on the ship.
Many division officers are exasperated when it seems seniors are controlling their divisions. First, a word of encouragement. Your sample size is somewhere around 1 in 300 ships, meaning your experience reflects less than 1% of the surface Navy. Second, rather than taking the easy path of criticizing without acting, make a change. Do it right in your division. When your chief petty officer says, "In the real Navy they do it this way," challenge that chief to make it right in your small part of the Navy. It may be a slow, piecemeal process, but the rewards are great and your division will appreciate your efforts.
In a big football game, when the home team gives up an unexpected score and momentum is swinging in favor of the other team, the best coaches go back to the basics. Aspire to inspire your sailors, but know the basics first. Leadership development for division officers follows a simple path that is repeated over and over. Analyzing that path and guiding officer development are the keys to developing our future surface warriors.
Lieutenant Callaway is the operations officer in the USS Benfold (DDG-65). He has served as electronic warfare officer in the USS Mount Whitney (LCC-20), and navigator in the USS Thorn (DD-988). On shore duty he served on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations for the Director for Politico-Military Affairs.