Second Honorable Mention, Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest
Ensigns can learn a lot when they roll up their sleeves.
When I stepped onto the brow of the USS Reuben James (FFG-57) for my first taste of shipboard life, I knew next to nothing about what my daily life would be like. The captain relayed his expectations for my progress during my inbrief, telling me that he expected rapid progress as a result of my schooling. Although I replied with a confident "Aye, aye, sir!" in truth I had no idea how to find the on ramp for the fast track to a surface warfare officer (SWO) pin.
The concepts of hard work and time management had been imprinted on my brain during a childhood spent working in my father's business and a grueling four years at the Naval Academy. I knew that I should be stepping into my role as an officer with confidence and a good dose of humility for what I had yet to learn. But the absolute knowledge that I knew less about the ship and how it ran than the most junior deck seaman did not escape me. And initially I found it frustrating as I made fumbling attempts to put into practice what little I did know. Ironically, the turning point came for me in a small space deep in the belly of the ship, the collection and holding tank (CHT) pump room, where I spent one of the longest and most trying weeks of my life.
The first few weeks passed in a blur. After house-hunting leave and Repair Locker Leader School, I finally felt ready to attack whatever it was I was supposed to be doing to earn my pin. Armed with a mountain of personnel qualification standards and the SWOs-at-sea modules, I spun my wheels trying to gain traction on any one of my many projects. The ship's schedule further hindered those efforts, as we were just beginning an accelerated training cycle and the pace of operations seemed to intensify with each passing day. Early in our preparations, with an Immediate Supervisor in Command Assessment looming in the near future, the commanding officer, Commander John Figuerres, determined that it would require the efforts of the entire ship to prepare the engineering plant for the inspection.
All the junior officers and chiefs were called to the flight deck at 2000 one Monday night about a month after 1 had checked on board. There I learned that I had drawn the CHT pump room, with a chief to help supervise. My job was to clean, chip, needle-gun (remove paint), wipe down, fix, and paint that space in the next few days, preparing it for inspection. While the engineers worked on restoring various casualties to the plant, the rest of the ship formed itself into tiger teams to combat preservation deficiencies. With flashlight in hand and a lump in my throat, I ventured out after Chief Gunner's Mate Gault, down to a space I had never seen before. I was provided with the manpower to accomplish the task, but no further guidance was forthcoming, and everyone else seemed engrossed in their own piece of the preservation pie. This was to be my first real test as a leader and an officer, and I desperately wanted to pass. Fortunately, I had five motivated and hard-working sailors assigned to me-a cross-section of the crew that I later found was typical on board the Reuben James.
After assessing the space to determine the repairs needed, Hull Technician second Class Kinast, an experienced petty officer, helped me formalize a plan. Although I had not yet had the opportunity to conn the ship or write a fitness report, wielding a paint brush and rag were things I knew I could do. I spent the next 84 hours crawling around the CHT tank with its associated maze of pipes, valves, and gauge boards. In the end, I probably got more paint on myself than on any surface that needed it, but in the work I found something productive and specific to occupy my time. And I earned the respect of my team in the process. In simply showing my willingness to pick up a paintbrush and work alongside my sailors, they began to open up to me, teaching me lessons it would have taken me months to learn otherwise.
In part because I felt yet unable to contribute in any meaningful way as a division officer or as officer of the deck, I threw myself with gusto into my exalted role as CHT pump room officer in charge. I felt a compelling need to be useful, even if only to complete a task commonly viewed as menial. As I added needle-gunning, chipping, and bilge-diving to my repertoire of skills, I unknowingly earned the respect of the sailors assigned to me. The interruption of our ship's schedule to send tiger teams down into the engineering spaces provided me the perfect opportunity to take the first step in establishing myself as something more than a warm body taking up rack space.
As our work in the pump room began to yield tangible results, I realized that while I may have been new to the ship, lessons I had learned in my childhood could be applied to the leadership challenges faced on the deck plates of a frigate. I went back to the lessons my father taught me about leadership and realized that though I may have been new to shipboard life, I still possessed a modicum of common sense. My father owns a gas station and car repair shop that was passed on to him by his father. Though he lacked formal leadership training, I watched how he employed basic leadership skills to significantly enrich the lives of his employees. Each of them owed their livelihood to his vigilance and perseverance. I learned how to respect hard work, and I saw first-hand the loyally that springs from treating employees as more than just interchangeable parts in a machine. By taking a personal interest in their lives and opening up to them about his own family, my father made them feel important, legitimizing their hopes and dreams. He made it his responsibility to develop his employees as people, not simply in the narrow area of their job. I saw disparate individuals stumble into minimum-wage employment at a gasoline station and, over time, evolve into a family.
Those memories left me with the desire to learn formally the art of leadership, and to practice those skills. But as I learned while painting the CHT pump room, positional authority and real authority are two very different things. How-and when-is a young ensign to make the leap from figurehead to figure of influence? I remember wrestling with this question as I slapped gray paint onto a motor controller. Suddenly, my five sailors snapped me from my reverie. "Ma'am, get ready," one said. "I'm going to tell you an enlisted man's secret." My ears perked up, hoping to gather some tidbit of knowledge that would help me lead my division. "If all you hear from your guys is, 'Yes, ma'am, I'll get right on that ma'am. No problem, ma'am,' you know you're getting snowed. They're just saying that to appease you." Although this did not exactly qualify as a revelation, I realized that in this simple confession, Torpedoman's Mate second Class Ramelb had passed on an important lesson: While initially I may not have the specific technical knowledge my sailors had, I did have the power and obligation to be a force that encouraged growth in their lives. Furthermore, I needed to develop a working relationship with my division to ensure not only that their needs were met, but that I received more than head nods and a cursory effort paid to the work that needed to be done.
By virtue of my commission, I had been thrust into a position of authority. That authority allowed me the humbling opportunity to influence the satisfaction and happiness my subordinates had with not only their jobs, but with their lives. I had a choice to make: I could ignore the extent of my influence, focusing blindly on my own qualifications and rubber-stamping whatever my leading petty officer pointed me toward, or I could make a real difference in my sailors' lives, taking the time to get to know them beyond the name tapes on their paint-spattered coveralls, learning what makes them tick and how to really motivate them.
Unfortunately, it can be common for young officers to become intimidated by the mountain of knowledge they need to acquire in a short amount of time, even more so when they realize the majority of the crew members on board their ship initially outshine them on just about every topic. Often, the temptation of a junior officer to say to himself that his lack of real-fleet experience precludes him from any contribution to his sailors stops him from creating a much-needed and far-reaching impact on them.
From day one, junior officers are thrown multitudes of little tasks that add up to an incredibly daunting mountain. Focusing on that mountain and losing sight of the responsibility we have to our sailors is a very real risk. My recent experience on the deckplates, painting and chipping and sanding and listening to sailors, afforded me an invaluable perspective on the officerenlisted relationship. Recognizing the varied interests of the sailors in a division helps to match them to jobs that best fit their personalities. Every officer has an obligation to use his influence to better his division. By displaying confidence in common sense and a willingness to learn the technical knowledge required for the job, a new ensign quickly can regain a sense of control over the mountain of work that never seems to end.
As the captain's inspection of the pump room neared, my sailors worked with increasing ferocity to restore their small corner of the Reuben James to pristine condition. We had worked side by side, long into the night, for five days straight, and the effort showed in the results. With the inspection complete and the "BZs" passed along, I sent my team home with cookies to thank them for their dedication-and for teaching this new ensign a few highly guarded enlisted secrets.
A 2003 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Ensign Gibbon distinguished herself as a second team all-American rower while earning a bachelor of science degree in English. She currently serves on board the USS Reuben James (FFG-57) as the combat information center officer.