Third Prize, Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest
I served as an enlisted sailor for nearly 12 years before receiving my commission as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. In the transition from the Navy to the Marine Corps, I've learned many lessons on leadership and differences in the organizational structures between the two branches of the Department of the Navy. The most significant difference is the role of non-commissioned officers. The typical corporal in the Marine Corps has as much, if not more, decision-making ability, accountability for personnel in his charge, and more hands-on leadership tasks than I ever had as a junior first-class petty officer. The vast majority of daily supervisory tasks were accomplished by the leading petty officer (most often the senior first-class petty officer who was passed over for chief many times) or the leading chief petty officer. These tasks could (and should) have been carried out by the third-class petty officers who were hungry for leadership responsibility and the chance to exercise the "officer" portion of petty officer.
This centralized model is a holdover from the Cold War and the Navy's focus on engaging the Soviet fleet in a blue-water battle. In this new era of warfare, however, the focus of effort for the Navy is power projection ashore or littoral warfare. Transitioning to these new missions also requires a change in organizational structure.
The more centralized an organization, the less creative thinking is encouraged. As a result, mental stagnation sets in. Because our main threat no longer comes from the highly centralized Soviet war machine, we need to adjust accordingly. Terrorist groups are decentralized and full of creative thinkers. Unfortunately, the nation had to learn this lesson the hard way as we saw what a few people armed with box cutters and fueled with an intense hatred for the United States were capable of doing. We must create a structure that can respond more quickly and creatively to this new threat.
The Marine Corps had to lose 241 Marines to learn this lesson. In 1983, Marine security guards were given the task of defending their barracks while part of a multinational peacekeeping force. The rules of engagement prohibited them from carrying loaded weapons during peace-keeping operations; their lack of empowerment to accomplish the mission led to disaster.
The Navy has increased its awareness and commitment to force protection and fighting the war on terrorism. As a result, it has assumed small-unit missions that the Marine Corps has been conducting for more than 200 years, such as maritime interdiction operations, port security, and vessel boarding search and seizure. The Marine Corps has been successful at these types of missions primarily because of the development and employment of its noncommissioned officers for quick thinking, decision making, and decisive action. In the 1920s, 13th Commandant of the Marine Corps Major General John A. Lejeune stated, "Leadership is the eternal spirit which has animated our Corps from generation to generation." Our current Commandant, General Michael Hagee, added to this statement in his newly published guidance: "It is our leaders—from our most junior, especially our noncommissioned officers, through the entire chain of command—who have kept the Corps successful and victorious." If the sea services are to be successful at these types of missions, they need to develop and empower petty officers to be leaders and decision makers, not just technicians and system operators. It appears as though the Coast Guard already has begun to transition some of its units to the traditional infantry model: port security units, with their training headquarters at Camp Lejeune, are set up in the format of squad and fire teams. I am certain the petty officers at these units have greater responsibility than their shipboard contemporaries.
Span of Control
I have witnessed many units or sections that centralize their leadership, forcing the leading petty officer or leading chief petty officer to deal with 90% of decision making and accountability for both personnel and operational issues. This responsibility must be delegated to our junior petty officers for the junior sailors to get the individual attention they need. This also allows for development of leadership skills of the third-class petty officers, who will evolve into better chief petty officers. It simply is impossible for the leading petty officer, with 30 or more people in his charge, to do this job well.
In 1921, General Sir Ian Hamilton, credited by many as the first to study the notion of span of control, wrote:
The nearer we approach the supreme head of the whole organization, the more we ought to work towards groups of three; the closer we get to the foot of the whole organization, the more we work towards groups of six.
General Hamilton is correct if the only responsibility for the leader is to lead. Six would then be a reasonable number of subordinates to supervise. In today's military, however, we are forced to do more with less. Leaders not only are responsible for their people but they also must perform normal work tasks, watch standing, and see to their own professional development. Three or four is probably a more realistic span of control today.
Delegation versus Empowerment
Delegation is defined as the assignment of responsibility and transfer of authority for directing and coordinating task performance to one or more subordinates by a senior. Empowerment takes delegation one step further and gives the empowered leader decision-making ability and an active roll in the planning process.
This is key if we expect junior leaders to make split-second decisions—often with grave consequences if the improper course of action is taken or no action is taken at all. For example, a pier-side security team at an overseas port is briefed that the current threat to the vessel and personnel is from a particular method of attack. Before assuming the watch, they are briefed on the rules of engagement and review immediate actions for this particular method of attack. During the watch, a team member detects a terrorist presence with an unanticipated weapon or method of attack. That team leader needs to act, and there is no time to request permission from higher authority.
I have observed some changes at my current unit—the Marine Corps Chemical Biological Incident Response Force where I serve as the assistant mission commander for the 120-man initial response force (IRF)—that illustrate how allowing junior leaders to take charge improves efficiency. Comprised of both Marines and sailors, the IRF's mission is to respond quickly to a terrorist attack involving a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or high-yield explosive device that results in mass casualties. We maintain a one-hour alert posture, 365 days a year. We have made great strides in improving our process of recalling all of our personnel, getting accountability, and proceeding to the incident within one hour. We have been able to cut valuable minutes from this response time by transitioning from a single senior noncommissioned officer being accountable for all personnel as they arrive to our rally point to a decentralized system where small-unit leaders perform the same function in a much more manageable and efficient manner.
While conducting our downrange operations, we also have successfully transitioned from a single senior noncommissioned officer who was the primary decision maker for up to 40 personnel in the hot zone to a system that allows team leaders to make timely decisions. This allows the mission commander to flood the zone with more teams and team leaders, empowered to make decisions, and get more casualties from the contaminated area to medical treatment more quickly. This transition enhances our unit's lifesaving mission.
General John A. Lejeune spoke of the father-to-son relationship when describing the relationship between officers and the enlisted personnel in their charge. This perspective helps deter the senior/subordinate mind-set that can occur in some military leaders.
There are countless leadership styles and even more methods to pass on leadership lessons to our young military members. The most important factor in all of them is taking an active approach to developing leaders. Do not assume the senior petty officers or chief petty officers will do it through on-the-job training or that the Navy will deal with it through formal schools or correspondence courses.
The Navy needs a group of quick-thinking, decisive petty officers. When they are faced with situations that will test their leadership skills, we cannot expect decisive action if they are worried if they are doing the right thing, or if they are offending someone, or that if they make a mistake their careers will be over. We must create a system that instills in them the confidence to respond immediately to difficult situations. We need them to know it is okay to make mistakes if you learn from them but that abuse of power will never be tolerated.
Throughout my enlisted career, my technical proficiency was regularly exercised and evaluated. At the end of each evaluation, I was given feedback and courses of action for improvement. I do not recall my leadership skills being exercised and evaluated in such a manner. Tactical and ethical decision games are used regularly by the Marine Corps. Leaders pose a situation or problem to a group of juniors and give them a limited amount of time to come up with solutions. The solutions are shared among the members of the group. It allows junior leaders to develop their own courses of action and then hear other plans. It is a great tool to exchange ideas and receive feedback.
As junior officers, we must prepare our junior leaders for success. We must provide them the opportunity to take charge of junior personnel or missions. We must make our mission statement clear and ensure they understand the task at hand, and then allow them to formulate the plan of attack. Remember the old adage, "If you have to tell a man how to do the job, then you picked the wrong man for the job." We must use our senior enlisted leaders to provide guidance and ensure the junior officers have all the resources required to complete the task. Then we need to stand back and let them execute the mission without too much supervising.
Although the advances in military technology since the bombing in Beirut are immeasurable, the terrorists still rely on low-tech weapons to do harm to our way of life. Therefore, we cannot rely on technology to fight the war on terrorism. We must rely on a smart, well-trained cadre of petty officers for decisive action and front-line supervision. It is up to the Navy's junior officers to develop and employ petty officers to their full potential.
Captain Kozloski is the Headquarters and Service Company commander at the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force.