Third Prize Winner, Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest
Junior officers balance seemingly contradictory realities. They are in command of their troops, yet have little control over their own lives and those of whom they, lead. They are the officers in charge; however, they are students to the chiefs, who saiute smartly and then tell them the correct place to stand.
Management of the most complex systems cannot compare to the challenges of leadership. As a junior officer, you are the representative of higher command, and possibly the only visible sign to your troops of that command. Everything they dislike about the command will end up on your desk. You also are the ambassador of your troops up the chain of command. Any problems the command has with your unit's performance will be placed on your shoulders. The ability to inspire confidence, motivate action, and instill a moral guide flows throughout the chain of command. Your ability to work under a myriad of situations with all personality types, from those you lead to those you follow, is crucial to the success of your mission.
You are responsible for your troops, as well as for the mission. The system is imperfect and is populated with imperfect beings. You will have to lead and follow those with radically different leadership styles from your own. Everyone is a mix of strengths and weaknesses, past experiences, and future goals. We all react differently to external pressures in our lives. And everyone is always changing. A team's mix of personalities, the factors that affect them, and their ability to interact will affect their success greatly.
The following observations on character traits provide a practical guide to navigating this imperfect system. They are grouped into four categories of impact on the mission: Contagions, Forward Progress Difficult, Rough Seas Ahead, and Dead in the Water.
Contagions' negative impact can spread throughout the unit.
Complainer. Nothing is good enough for the Complainer. Things would be different if he were in charge. He criticizes everything and everyone up and down the chain of command and actively seeks others who share his outlook. This personality is incredibly destructive to unit morale, and if he finds a receptive audience, his attitude can multiply quickly.
If the Complainer is a junior member, work with your chief to help him understand the bigger picture of what you are trying to accomplish while identifying that his behavior is contrary to those efforts. The chief may wish to handle this personally or ask you to join him. Sometimes the opportunity to talk to the officer will provide the junior troop the reinforcement that we are all in this together and that his productive input is valued. If appropriate, assign more responsibilities to the member and make him part of the solution. In the rare event that a senior enlisted member is creating a problem, work closely with the command master chief, but take a visible role only if you witness the occurrence personally. This is a matter of pride and brotherhood in the chiefs' community; they quickly police their own.
If you discover a fellow officer or your immediate supervisor having difficulty restraining his frustrations, pull him aside and provide an opportunity for him to vent. Offer assistance if there is a specific challenge leading to this behavior, and reassure him that he can speak with you anytime there is a problem. Make sure he is aware his behavior has been noticed and remind him of the junior officer support structure, such as the Junior Officer Protection Association, and the appropriate manner in which to blow off steam.
Conspiracy Theorist. The Conspiracy Theorist believes his lack of success is a result of a flaw in the system or some personal vendetta held by someone further up the chain. A frustrated individual who spreads rumors of injustice or prejudice may affect all who are struggling. Regardless of rank, this usually occurs when the member does not have a clear understanding of the expectations that come with his assignment. The best prevention is the mentor program. A senior rate supervisor or warfare qualified member can provide a holistic view, training program, and career path guidance.
Forward Progress Difficult
Communication is vital to the success of any team. Those who make forward progress difficult will not necessarily cause the mission to fail, but they will make everyone miserable.
Micromanager. The Micromanager has to be involved in all phases of work. He often believes his method is the only acceptable way to get things done. His inability to seek team members' participation denies them ownership and pride in their work. The frequent result of this behavior is that some tasks are overlooked-it is impossible for one person to do it all.
Reinforce to the Micromanager that we live in a culture of change, and that turnover or casualty can occur at any time. Emphasize the need to train our replacements; they will be promoted again soon and he must develop the team he wants to lead.
Blue Blood. The Blue Blood does not see the value of or necessity for all levels of the command. He limits to an absolute minimum his interactions with those outside his perceived peer group. Officers who lack respect for the junior officer and enlisted communities will suffer from poor output from their men and waste valuable time trying to solve problems without the benefit of their experience. The enlisted community can suffer from a similar ignorance, in which its members believe officers are incompetent elitists incapable of doing real work. Both cases are caused by ignorance of the value each community brings to the table.
Team leaders are often uncomfortable letting subordinates see they do not know everything. Before the chief alerts you to a situation, he already has developed three possible courses of action: the one he would love you to pick, the one he is afraid you will pick, and the one he feels is the right solution for the problem. Reinforce that shopping for opinions is not relinquishing authority; it is a gesture of trust and respect for your staff that builds teamwork.
Rough Seas Ahead
Hard-working, selfless individuals are some of our best performers, but these two individuals will affect your ability to complete your mission and may endanger your troops.
Operator. The Operator is a skilled "hard charger." He gets the job done and has little use for protocol or paperwork. This unprofessional attitude breeds insubordination and individualism. He pushes the limit of safety and personal endurance.
Regardless of rank or position, this situation usually is remedied by bringing the long-term needs of the troops and the mission to the attention of the individual. An Operator prides himself on getting the job done. Any perception that he is not doing his job or indication that his actions will lead to failure is sufficient to bring him in line.
Martyr. We all chose to serve our country, but beware those who need to be heroes. The Martyr constantly seeks the high-profile task, risking his safety and productivity to gain recognition. This situation can be further complicated if the member requires constant attention for personal validation; in this case, he may report the most routine problems with a life-or-death urgency.
Keep people who need more attention from harming themselves or others. If the member is junior to you, check in on him periodically. A little attention to his efforts does not take much time, and a feeling of contribution to the command may be all he needs. Take this time to reinforce your safety policy and the procedures for keeping the command informed at all times.
Officers senior to you are not exempt from insecurities. There is nothing inappropriate about pointing out the value he brings to the command and reminding him that the full team is standing by to assist him. A leader cannot take care of his troops if he does not take care of himself.
Dead in the Water
These personalities are the most dangerous to mission, safety, and careers. They can shut you down.
Cruiser. Cruisers are adrift: the power plant is cold and you may be along for the ride. Cruisers come in two categories, those who are Just Stopping By and those who have Retired in Place.
Someone Just Stopping By has no interest in his current assignment; he is just punching the ticket so he can continue up the ladder. He will spend all available time securing his next billet in a field that interests him. You will be required to gap the billet as long as he is aboard. A member who has Retired in Place is similar, except this is his last tour before retirement. He is not concerned about future assignments. Not only will he not assist you in your mission, but he also may try to limit your effectiveness.
Motivating junior troops is best left to the chiefs. Provide clear and direct tasking to someone Just Stopping By, with equally clear consequences for poor performance. He depends on image and advancement and will work hard not to lose either. One who is Retired in Place is more difficult to manage. He is not looking for a future in the Navy and will not do anything foolish enough to threaten his retirement. However, he will be with you for the remainder of his tour and you have some influence on his quality of life during that period.
An officer who is Just Stopping By is often more than happy to let you run with things and to take credit for your accomplishments. But as wrong as he is for not performing his duties, you do not have the authority to act in his place. Keep him apprised of all operations, gain approval for all actions you take, and document the process. The Retired in Place officer can be very frustrating. He has his eyes set on one goal and there is very little that can divert him. Aggressive or innovative programs could contain risk. Problems may be swept under the rug. Any activities that could threaten his peaceful passage to retirement will be met with resistance. Significant progress may have to wait for his departure.
Sexist. Nothing shuts down a command faster than a sexual harassment charge; everybody goes into defensive mode. This is delicate territory for all of us. There are talented women struggling to make it in today's Navy, good men who fear any remark could be misconstrued, and members of both genders using the issue to manipulate the system.
Do not let this issue affect your decision process. Concerns for external appearances should not keep you from placing the most qualified member in a position. Vigorously investigate each sexual harassment claim to separate legitimate grievances from those that are merely an individual's disappointment at not receiving a desired billet or a vengeful reaction to a relationship gone bad.
Recognizing and managing these combinations of strengths and weaknesses will help you to achieve success. Leadership is more than motivating people toward a goal; you set the command's priorities and reinforce the moral compass. Get to know your people. Let them get to know you. You will find that leading troops is the most rewarding position you will ever hold.
Lieutenant Coyne is a direct commission reserve Civil Engineer Corps officer serving with the Navy Seabees. A registered architect by profession, he is currently deployed with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 23 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom II.