Third Prize—Arleigh Burke Essay Contest
Naval officers have a responsibility to care for their people and to carry out the orders of their seniors, but if they perform these functions without consideration of the mission, they are missing the point. Leadership is not about popularity—up or down the chain of command; it is about mission accomplishment.
Is it possible to be a successful leader without enjoying significant popularity among those under your charge? Conversely, is it possible to be enormously popular, both up and down the chain of command, yet be a failure as a leader? Years of observing senior officers as they commanded under varied circumstances, from the benign to the most extraordinarily stressful, leads me to believe that leadership and popularity have only a nodding acquaintance. Certainly, there are a few leaders so gifted and charismatic that they can be loved and successful, but in the main, consistent and significant popularity is more likely to be a residue of non-leadership.
Today, as a Navy, and at all levels, we seem fixated on popularity—preoccupied with the satisfaction of our sailors and determined to go along quietly with any guidance from above, even if it is obviously problematic. Have we come to judge our success, as leaders and as a Navy, not by martial excellence, but by what is tantamount to an approval rating?
There are as many definitions of leadership as there are stars in the sky, but for line officers, there a single purpose next to which all others must pale—to provide the motive force in accomplishing the Navy's mission, that is, "to conduct prompt and sustained combat operations at sea." That is why we need leadership, and any definition must include the recognition that leaders in our line of work are here, mainly if not exclusively, to get the job done in fighting the nation's wars.
My intent is not to denigrate either popularity or the happiness of our people. If anyone deserves decent quality of life and the happiness that comes with it, it is the sailor who lives on the point of the spear. As for popularity, it is a normal human impulse to want to make happy those in one's charge and to be well regarded by those for whom one works. Certainly, it is our responsibility to care for those in our charge and to carry out the orders of our seniors, but to perform these functions without thought, without consideration of the mission, may be just as bad as failure to accomplish them at all.
In our striving for social justice, businesslike efficiency, the proper care and feeding of Generation X or Y, better quality of life, and high retention rates, we have begun to chip away at our ability to accomplish our mission. We have become so occupied with issues that we are told obliquely but genuinely contribute to combat readiness that true preparation for combat is almost an afterthought.
Where are the leaders who do the right thing, regardless of the cost? Where are the officers who stand up for what they know to be right? Why are they silent? I understand. They are out there, but to demonstrate personal integrity by opposing the fashion of the day comes at the most extraordinarily high cost. Is this what we want?
The admiral, the commander, the chief, the ensign who courageously makes the hard decision, the sometimes unpopular decision, the long-term decision, the right decision—he is the man I want to follow into combat.
We Are Here to Defend Democracy, Not Practice It
There are two kinds of democracy, plebiscite and representative. In the former, the immediate will of the people is expressed through elected representatives. These officers are simply the conduit through which the instant, passionate, collective voice of the mass flows. Think France after its revolution.
In representative democracy, leaders recognize that the will and passion of the people is mercurial and often uninformed. Leaders are elected to make decisions dispassionately that, in the long run, are best for the nation. They buffer the system from turbulence. Sometimes the decisions they make are less than popular with the masses, but a presumption is made that wise leaders were chosen to make wise choices. Think post-Revolution United States.
I am concerned that since the end of the Cold War, and especially after the Tailhook debacle, the Navy has moved from what could be thought of as representative democracy to more of a plebiscite democracy.
What we as leaders are supposed to do, what we should be doing, is balancing the wishes and convenience of our people against the unbending exigencies of our mission. When these disagree, one must go wanting. Our public charge to defend the republic dictates that it should be the former. Increasingly, it appears to be the latter.
Money flows to some programs and not to others. System upgrade is sacrificed to fund a berthing modification. We flex along with a newfound obsession with polling. In large measure, our approach has evolved into an ongoing effort to gratify of our people and our seniors. Keeping large numbers of the contented in the service outweighs the imperative to develop hardened men and women who can endure in crisis. But the latter is what the public wants and expects of us—when called we will do our duty, quickly and ferociously. Anything that does not contribute to that, by the public's lights, is chaff.
Do Not Confuse Survey Results with Wisdom
The Navy seems to have been captured by a desire to conduct surveys, and we commonly expect the results to tell immutable truths, which then drive our decision making. We ask; they tell; we act.
The problem with trying to establish certainty through survey is that it presupposes both that the circumstances observed are governed by explicable forces and that the survey is able to measure what we seek to measure. Often, neither is true. So many unquantifiable factors play into these surveys—economics, emotionalism, axe grinding, misperception. Our approach is far too simplistic, and we may be forced to live with the results for painful periods of time. Survey taking has been raised to high art in the arena of national politics. There are many who think running a government based on polling is a bad idea. We need to grasp this.
Daily, weekly, or even monthly perturbations in the "happiness" of our division or crew or students or officers or sailors should not concern us. No one is going to be happy in the shipyard, in a lengthy, stressful school, or while trudging through the tedium of the interdeployment training cycle. Yet, the pleasure of the sailor, assessed in a vacuum of instantaneous measurement, seems to govern much of our decision making. Command Assessment Team surveys, surveys of junior officers in the pipeline, Inspector General tours—they all take a snapshot and these results are then used to justify dramatic change. It is a rolling plebiscite.
When I was a junior officer, no one cared what I thought. Frustrating then, but now I understand. It is clear, in retrospect, that I was too callow to see the big picture. I am sure that my survey results would not have been pretty either. Navy schools were long and boring. My first commanding officer, a Cold Warrior who wanted his ship ready to fight, was, to put it mildly, harsh. If the Navy had surveyed my fellows and me, it would have towed that ship out and sunk her. Or fired the captain. That would have been a mistake. The ship was ready to fight.
In short, it is imprudent to make decisions based solely on survey. Consider, for example, junior officer training. Forty years ago, junior surface warfare officers were sent directly to their ships and were there mentored and taught by their chief petty officers. But ships were becoming more complex; data links were going fleet-wide; weapon systems were increasingly integrated and sophisticated; and the threat required that officers gain a firm familiarity to counter it. Surface Warfare Officers School (SWOS) was established in 1961, for good reasons. No one ever really liked the basic course at SWOS; it was 0700-1700 daily, with lots of rote memorization and testing. No one liked it, but it turned out a consistent product and the ships benefited.
Now, spurred by the survey recommendations of SWOS students, who are convinced their school should be reduced, we essentially are doing away with the course. An experimental program is being undertaken. A Navy study suggests that a new system will provide ships junior officers who are qualified earlier and that ships will benefit from this. Ensigns will be sent to ships following their accession programs and they virtually will complete qualification within their first year at sea, and then go to a four-to-six-week, tailored SWOS course to finish their educations.
And our ships? They are going back to the future. Once again, they will rely, in large measure, on their chief petty officers to train their junior officers. The problem is that ships are infinitely more complex than in the past. Who will bear the cost? Ships. The basic war unit of the Navy.
Have you met the ensigns? They are the same as they ever were—ardent, thoughtful, passionate, completely uninformed by experience. The long view is that there is no substitute for the teacher-student relationship of the academy. Never has been; never will be.
Retention, Discipline, and Where They Meet
In the past, there have been few required entries in evaluations and fitness reports. In fact, the only one I can think of is the requirement to include how communications officers do as classified materials systems custodians. This has changed. Commanding officers, executive officers, and command master chiefs now have a comment regarding their retention statistics included in their fitness reports. Retention is a critical issue, and it is ignored at the commander's professional peril.
Some of our sailors choose not to reenlist for perfectly good reasons, and, inevitably, some persons we recruit into the Navy simply are not cut out for service life, despite their best intentions. True, some sailors have a harder time adjusting than others, and most can make it with a bit of help, but there is a limit to what is reasonable. If a sailor is determined to get out or is so fundamentally troubled that keeping him in is impossible, it exacts a sizable toll on the unit. Leaders can end up spending so much time trying to keep one sailor on the straight and narrow that good sailors are neglected. That message can hurt the morale of our more dedicated people.
The message we are sending our sailors in our effort to retain them is misleading, as well. The last recruiting commercial I saw featured two young women talking about reenlisting. Their discussion was all about the congeniality of the detailer, money for education, and great schools. This ad clearly was developed in response to the desires expressed by our sailors when surveyed. We may have struck retention gold, but are we being fair to our mission and our sailors? Do the expectations we have put into their heads match ground truth? Yes, you can get an education, but en route, you will have to stand a lot of mid-watches, chip a lot of paint, and have your buttons crushed by the ship's laundry. Most important, the only reason the Navy exists is to serve the nation, sometimes in war.
Denting Never Wore a Blue Uniform
What is the origin of all of this interest in workforce satisfaction? Perhaps it lies in our growing interest in adopting the best of civilian leadership techniques for use in the military service. In the past ten years, senior officers have begun to encourage mid-grade officers to read books on leadership—civilian-written books.
Conceptually, many of these ideas have value, particularly for process and maintenance-driven applications, but I doubt their utility in combat units. At its core, the military is fundamentally different from the civilian world. I read voraciously, but I do not read civilian management books because their theories are based on a mission fundamentally different from mine. I believe in staying current. I believe in leveraging technologies existent in the civilian community. But I do not believe, even remotely, that I have much in common with a civilian manager. What is at stake for them is different. Our bottom lines are as far apart as the sun and the moon—profit versus closing with and destroying the enemy, even if I, too, am destroyed in the process.
The Deadly Pet Rock
I recall as a junior officer thinking that admirals are like Godzilla. If they do not move with meticulous care, their tails will crush the citizenry—and they will not even be aware of it. People, especially their staffs, want to carry out the wishes, both stated and implied, of admirals. When a senior officer says these are our goals, it lights a fire in the rest of the populace. Things start to happen, and often the consequences are neither perceived nor intended. Will anyone tell the admiral that his baby is ugly?
Someone came up with the idea to reduce the number of inspections a few years ago. Generally, the idea made sense. What should have happened is a fix to the system so that each thing was inspected once rather than repeatedly and superfluous inspections were done away with. Unfortunately, the people doing the cutting undertook some kind of a scorched earth policy. We eliminated the maintenance and material management (3M) inspection. Someone was rewarded for this. Several years later, to everyone's shock, the Navy's 3M program was a shambles. PMS was not getting done. Records were not being kept. The inspection is back. Same for navigation checkrides. Also eliminated. Then more ships started having accidents. The inspection is back.
If you were in six-section duty in 1989, life was pretty good. Then someone came up with the idea that we could do it in more sections, and the race was on. Captains became local celebrities by going to one more duty section. One day, we awoke to realize that not only could we not fight a fire; we could not defend ourselves either. We are back to six.
Initiatives designed to increase the retention of specific groups are specters lurking in the woods. For civilians, they may be ideally conceived. For us, they promise a further move away from combat readiness and toward a philosophical miasma out of which we may not be able to extract ourselves.
I was told by a senior officer that I no longer am "them." He meant that I had arrived at a level at which I no longer could blame the perceived problems of the Navy on unreachable seniors. Now it is up to me. And so, I enjoin you to be single-minded. Make the difficult choice, the painful decision. Speak up. Understand your duty and carry it out, even at personal expense.
The challenge of leadership is to separate the wheat from the chaff and to grasp what is important, what always has been important—the mission. The challenge is to strive for combat readiness, whether it be in a ship, a squadron, a school, or a staff, even though we may be faced with imperatives that run counter to mission accomplishment. As the cadre of men and women entrusted by our nation to keep a core of strength around which we can build a wartime Navy, should it be required, we must eschew those programs or ideas or mandates that run counter to mission accomplishment. We must question. Our charge is to embrace positions that, while unpopular, are correct. The challenge is to return to representative democracy.
Commander Eyer is assigned as Surface Operations Officer for Commander, Cruiser-Destroyer Group 3. He is the former commanding officer of the USS Thomas Gates (CG-51) and previously served as executive officer of the USS Vella Gulf (CG-72) and as Head of the Russian Branch, Plans and Policy Directorate, on the Joint Staff.