One of the best pieces of advice young junior officers can receive on reporting aboard their first seagoing assignment is that God gave them two ears and one mouth and to use them in that proportion. Listening and learning from others—especially chief petty officers and other senior enlisted personnel—is an absolute requirement. History is replete with unsuccessful junior officers who were overzealous in their attempts to apply all they learned at an academy or ROTC program. They quickly, and sometimes painfully, learned the dynamics between the power of position and genuine leadership. Above all, success as a junior officer requires humility and the patience to learn, listen, and translate the theoretical principles taught in classrooms to deck-plate leadership.
Another staple of leadership in the military is taking care of your people. There are innumerable opportunities for junior officers to help junior personnel. Good leaders learn what their people do and take an interest in their professional and personal lives. Helping junior members work through personnel policy questions or challenges can teach a great deal about the administration of any military service.
President Abraham Lincoln understood the necessity of hearing and responding to the concerns of others. From the time of his first inauguration, President Lincoln's attention was dominated by the events of the Civil War. He spent many long nights managing internal government crises or pacing the War Department's telegraph office waiting for updates from the field. With these weighty responsibilities, Lincoln's White House staff often pleaded with him to cut back on the number of hours each day he spent receiving visitors. Lincoln would not have it, declaring to his staff that his visitors "don't want much and don't get but little, and I must see them."1
Based on Lincoln's habit, it is clear that a leader always must be willing to listen, no matter the level of authority. Taking care of your people, however, goes beyond attending to short-term needs and challenges. It does not mean blindly restoring personal equilibrium. In his ground-breaking work on leadership, Ronald Heifetz discusses the tendency for authorities to take action to restore equilibrium, often at the cost of long-term growth and improvement: "Authorities, under pressure to be decisive, sometimes fake the remedy or take action that avoids the issue by skirting it."2 When leaders act to restore equilibrium, they often are treating the symptom rather than the problem.
For example, junior members having financial difficulties often approach junior officers. Directing the member to a shipboard financial assistance programs provides an easy fix. A junior officer taking such action rightly would be commended. This solution, however, might mask a chronic problem causing the financial difficulty. Leadership requires much more than the maintenance of equilibrium. If it was that easy, everyone could do it, and there would be little remarkable about leadership. Leadership is not easy, and requires making complicated and frank decisions about personal and organizational values. I believe that taking care of your people falls into three general areas of emphasis: empowerment, protection, and contagious enthusiasm.
Empowerment and decentralization of authority are areas of common focus in leadership theory. Joe Galloway, author of We Were Soldiers Once, And Young (Perennial, 1993), has described the notion of empowerment as one his principles of effective leadership: "Share the power. Plans don't accomplish the work; people get things done."3 Sharing power often is discussed but is less prevalent in practice.
The military struggles with decentralization of authority and the nurturing of creative innovation for reasons that are easy to understand. First, power is viewed as a zero-sum proposition. Granting power to an individual or group means taking it from another. This destructive logic results in the hoarding of power for the sake of having it and increased frustration on the deck plates for talented junior members who feel they have no authority or power to make improvements. Second, creative and innovative people are distinguished by their ability to live with a certain amount of anxiety and disorder. Such an existence does not easily conform to the norms of military and shipboard good order and discipline. Third, military hierarchies are not effective at giving work back to people. When challenges arise, the pressure often is great to fix the problem quickly, resulting in top-down decisions with little real input from those below. The issue also is one of perceptions. Organizational and shipboard cultures are the product of the work they do. In my experience, senior shipboard leaders are willing to employ teams and task forces to address policy questions. Too often, however, the results of such efforts are molded to fit command expectations or tackle only relatively minor issues that do little to nurture a culture of genuine innovation.
The shipboard work force is increasingly well educated and talented. Modern command-and-control and engineering systems demand such talent. The price of a talented crew is the necessity to challenge and empower shipboard commanders and junior personnel so that we recruit and retain the best and brightest. Remuneration is not the driving factor behind retention. Given the arduous nature of sea duty, we must be willing to challenge and empower our personnel to keep them connected with the noble ambitions of military service to their country. In his enlightening examination of the role of command in war, Martin van Creveld concluded correctly that "those armies have been most successful which did not turn their troops into automatons, did not attempt to control everything from the top, and allowed subordinate commanders considerable latitude."4
The advent of technology brings its own hurdles to empowerment and decentralization of authority. For example, James Wilson summarizes the effects of improved connectivity between field commands and headquarters. He warns that improved communications and the increase of information available to headquarters commanders has three results:
- If higher authority can be sent a message about a decision, then higher authority will be sent a message asking it to make the decision.
- If higher authority can hear a lot, then higher authority will be told what it wants to hear.
- Since processing information requires the creation of specialized bureaus, then these units will demand more and more information as a way of justifying their existence.5
Any Coast Guard or Navy sailor who has conducted counterdrug patrols can testify to the pitfalls of the above warnings. Many Coast Guard cutters and Navy ships ply the waters of the Caribbean or eastern Pacific in support of Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) East. The intricacies of Title 10 of the U.S. Code and the limitations of posse comitatus have helped to create a tangled web of tactical decision making.
For example, if a Coast Guard cutter desires to conduct a routine law-enforcement boarding of a vessel of interest, the commanding officer must first receive permission from JIATF East to shift tactical control (TaCon) of the cutter to the Seventh Coast Guard District. That sounds like a relatively simple requirement, but literally hundreds of hours have been spent in the past few years either coordinating the TaCon shift between the two command centers or working to improve the process to shorten the response time to the cutters. To this day, cutters keep track of and report the amount of time it takes to request and receive the required TaCon shift. The Herculean efforts to improve the process have helped reduce the frustration of our ship crews, who used to wait more than an hour for such permission. These improvements, however, do not explain why commanding officers who are entrusted with the safety and lives of their crew are not empowered to conduct the shift themselves. It seems that tactical commanders could empower commanding officers to take action and fulfill the mission requirements unless directed otherwise.
Effective leaders must realize that power and authority merely are tools for exercising leadership and not the ends of leadership. If empowerment is managed properly, the rewards of a confident work force will far outweigh the risks. Thomas Jefferson had it right when he stated, "if we think [the people] are not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion."
Effective leadership entails playing the role of protector of dissonant voices. Voices that seem to counteract the stampede of generally accepted opinion are the ones to which a leader must pay particular attention. It is all too easy to silence or ignore the voices that do not conform to standard operational procedure or fall in line with the rest of the berthing area or wardroom. I can recall too many times in my young career where I disregarded a person's input based on some preconceived notion of his personality or past experience. My ideological prejudice prevented me from listening to the ideas being put forth. I might have heard the words, but I did not listen to the message or attempt to understand what perspectives or motivations that person might use to attack a problem.
I do not intend to portray a spiritual feel-good shipboard environment where everyone has their opinions fully considered. Many occasions do not afford an opportunity to build consensus. I recall the axiom that we are in the profession of protecting democracy, not necessarily practicing it. An effective leader must listen to the voices and remember the divergent values and priorities represented. Very rarely is there a single person so out of line with the mainstream that he can be marginalized or disregarded. Instead, that person often represents a significant faction of opinion that should not be ignored.
In the heady days of 1774-1776, our founders chose to avoid the issue of slavery in the formation of our union. In the context of the times, it was reasonable to think the issue could be dealt with at a later date. This, in itself, could not be considered a leadership failure. The failure was that the subject was never brought to the fore again to be dealt with in the same spirit of individual and political freedom on which the country was founded. This delay ingrained slavery deeper into the economy and culture of the South, and it took a civil war to address the issue 90 years later.
A leader who systematically ignores or allows others to ignore divergent opinions without understanding the motivations and perspectives behind those opinions does so at great risk. Taking care of your people demands exploring what may appear at first to be insignificant problems or unworkable solutions.
The military needs to grow and encourage what has been described as Noah-principled leadership.6 Accolades should not be bestowed on those able to predict floods, but on those able to build an ark. We need to grow and protect more "Noahs" in our military. There are plenty of people who are experts at identifying problems but relatively few who are willing to recommend solutions. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt called for "bold, persistent experimentation. . . . It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."7 Leaders must be champions and protectors of those willing to try something.
Perhaps the most intangible quality leaders can exercise in taking care of their people is to approach the job and the mission with a contagious enthusiasm.
A leader lacking personal motivation and belief in the mission will be transparent to junior members. In the course of long deployments, the temptation is great for a leader to join the inevitable chorus of complaints about the utility of the mission, schedule changes, and the like. This temptation must be avoided. A leader who does not believe in the mission cannot inspire or lead others to tolerate the sacrifices of sea duty.
This is not to say that a leader should not perform some reality testing of their enthusiasm. There are occasions when some level of grievance airing can be a healthy tonic for crew frustrations. Genuine leadership, however, demands that such grievances be given context within the mission and be turned from counterproductive distractions to productive forces for action. One way to do this is to challenge people and give work back to people. For instance, if crewmembers complain about the quality or quantity of morale events, challenge them to develop and forward their own ideas and then act as a champion to ensure their voices are heard in the Morale Committee.
A leader needs to understand and inspire an enthusiasm for the mission. At its root, inspiration requires speaking to the meaning within people and the values they hold dear. While such meanings and values unfortunately are glossed over by the grind of daily events, the majority of people who join the military do so at least in part because they place value in service to their country and the nature of the service for which they signed up. In the past, I found myself much too cynical with new junior crewmembers who seemed to have trouble finding their way. I often chalked up such problems to a few cases of people who just did not get it. In retrospect, it was not that they did not get it; it was that their leaders could not draw it out of them.
I had the opportunity to attend Coast Guard Boot Camp graduation in Cape May, New Jersey. I have never seen such a motivated, proud, and excited group of young seamen and seamen apprentices. It was remarkable to see the excitement and anticipation on the faces of these young men and women as they set out for their units. They left boot camp with a great deal of momentum, to the credit of their dedicated instructors.
Shipboard leaders must take care to build on and nurture this momentum. In writing about military affairs of the American militia in 1775, George Mason invoked the theory of Machiavelli "that no institution can be long preserved, but by frequent recurrence to those maxims on which it was founded."8
Leaders must cultivate a sense of mission purpose and loyalty. This cannot be gained if discussions of the ship's mission revolve exclusively around scheduling matters. Effective leaders can inspire performance and enthusiasm by drawing on those values inherent in service to something greater than self. The great advantage of all our seagoing services is the rich historical context from which they arose. The Coast Guard, for example, has a storied (though uncelebrated) history of rescues, patrols, and cuttermen who sailed the waters of the United States and beyond. Alexander Hamilton sparked the foundation of the modern-day Coast Guard by stating that a few armed ships stationed judiciously could serve a noble purpose. To this day—and especially since the attacks of 11 September 2001—Coast Guard men and women remain on those armed ships in service to a noble calling. Reminding ourselves of and celebrating a connection with this history can do much to provide context and purpose to an arduous task.
Leaders only can inspire others with a sense of contagious enthusiasm coupled with an attitude of relentless optimism. A mentor shared with me that one of the keys to leadership is to take care of your people and they'll take care of the mission. I think this might be augmented with a leadership principle that champions the mission in order to take care of your people. Completing the mission and caring for your people are inextricably linked.
A 1994 graduate of the Coast Guard Academy, Lieutenant White is completing a master's degree in public administration at Harvard University's JFK School of Government. His most recent assignment was as operations officer on board the USCGC Dallas (WHEC-716).
1. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Touchstone Press, 1995), p. 285. back to article
2. Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership without Easy Answers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 72. back to article
3. Joseph Galloway, remarks to U.S. Coast Guard Academy, 22 November 2002, appearing in The Bulletin, vol. 65, no. 1, pp. 18-19. back to article
4. Martin van Creveld, Command in War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 270. back to article
5. James Q. Wilson, Bureaucracy (New York: Basic Books, 1989), p. 228. back to article
6. David Osborne and Peter Plastrik, Banishing Bureaucracy: The Five Strategies for Reinventing Government (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1997), p. 245. back to article
7. Heifetz, Leadership without Easy Answers, p. 23. back to article
8. Richard Brookhiser, Rediscovering George Washington (New York: Free Press, 1996), p. 155. back to article