2013 Leadership Essay Contest Winner
Made possible by the generous support of Dr. J. Phillip London and CACI International
A good leader’s most important responsibility is preparing more good leaders. The question is how to do it most effectively.
In my final month of college, an alumnus of my ROTC unit delivered a box of books and videotapes to our building. We could take whatever we wanted, and I picked up a few books, including Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command. I only had two finals that semester, and both occurred on the first day of exams. With those behind me, I had two weeks with little to do. So I spent hours each morning sitting in the sunny courtyard of my brick Georgian-style dormitory, wading through the 700-page tome.
I loved the way Gordon chronicled every detail of the Battle of Jutland. After reaching the critical point in the battle, he stepped back and traced 100 years of Royal Navy culture. He set out to explain why the rest of the battle would unfold the way it had. He attributed the British failures to a clash of two command cultures. Citing psychologist Norman Dixon, Gordon divided the British leaders into “authoritarians” and “autocrats.” Admiral John Jellicoe, in overall command of the Grand Fleet, was authoritarian. Authoritarians focus on the “authority” of rules and regulations. They like details of uniforms and ceremony, seek to please their superiors, and are risk-averse. Admiral David Beatty, commanding the Battle Cruiser Squadron, was an autocrat. Autocrats trust their instincts (focusing on self) and prize initiative. They are open to ideas from below and have difficulty following orders they think are foolish. They create “trouble” when they seek ways around their superiors, but they often excel in the chaos of battle.1
I finished the book as commissioning and commencement approached. Full of the energy, excitement, and confidence those events promote, I was ready to head to my ship, certain I would be able to apply Gordon’s lessons. Seven weeks later, I flew halfway around the world to join my ship in Japan. We were under way the next morning.
Three weeks later, we returned from sea. I sat in a car next to the combat systems officer, a fearsome lieutenant commander who did more to make the ship run than the executive officer. He had offered me a ride “home” from my hail, “home” still being the ship. As we rolled past warehouses and machine shops, he offered advice. “The captain is always evaluating you,” he instructed, but then he turned the tables. “What do you think of the captain?” he asked. After weeks of being beaten down by minimal sleep, homesickness, and having little clue what I was doing, I was surprised by this question. I thought for a moment.
“He seems the type of guy I want in charge in a fight,” I responded. The captain was a classic autocrat. I described Gordon’s book and outlined the two archetypes, thus explaining why I classified the captain the way I had. The combat systems officer listened with what was probably genuine interest, but as I spoke, a thought crept into my mind: “I must sound ridiculous.” Barely out of college, here I was explaining what I had read about naval leadership in a book to a man who had been a naval leader for ten years. Could I have been more presumptuous?
Dwight D. Eisenhower was not a naval leader, but he almost was. He originally applied to the U.S. Naval Academy; his application to the Military Academy was a second thought. In the examinations he placed first for Annapolis and second for West Point, but Eisenhower proved too old to matriculate at Navy. The top finisher for Army dropped out. In any event, few have been better qualified to speak on the subject of leadership. In a news conference as President, he once said, “Leadership is a word and a concept that has been more argued than almost any other I know.”2
So what do we mean by naval leadership? As I left my first ship, I reflected on my experiences. When I discussed them with my peers at my next station, I became convinced they were typical. The shipboard experience is unique, I thought. Even peacetime service is a crucible for character. You cannot judge how an individual will behave at sea until he or she is in that environment. Responsibility is inescapable. In a three-section rotation, you might sleep a full night every three days. Crankiness is proportional to fatigue. In a small crew, everyone knows everyone. Secrets seldom stay, well, secret.
Superiors and subordinates alike consciously and unconsciously evaluate your competence at every moment. You must constantly and consistently set the example. There is no respite. You are always hours away from the next event where you must lead. Under these conditions, no one meets standards all the time. The crucible exposes human flaws. Absolute consistency becomes impossible. You can be good 70, 80, or 90 percent of the time, but consistency requires 100 percent reliability. The pressure of the crucible does not just expose flaws, it tempers the individual. It teaches discipline and perseverance. You learn to cope with failure. These experiences make the first sea tour life-changing.
Still, naval leadership is more than responsibility and pressure. It requires getting things done under these conditions. Eisenhower more or less agreed, saying, “I think . . . by leadership we mean the art of getting someone else to do something that you want done because he wants to do it. . . .”3 The Navy judges success based on results. Efforts and methods are secondary. You do not need to work with others, though as you rise through the ranks tasks usually require more work than one person can complete. Regardless, what matters is that things get done.
I vividly remember learning this lesson as an ensign. Our ship was entering the shipyard for three months. As a forward-deployed ship, it would be the only time in the next year and a half when we knew we would be in port. All of us had our own plans: maintenance, schools, leave. The XO gathered representatives from each department to de-conflict the various plans. I was not sure it was possible. As we pressed through the meeting, the difficulty of our job became increasingly clear. Finally, our chief engineer interrupted, “Leadership is about getting stuff done [he didn’t say “stuff”], we just have to gut this out.” At first, I felt aversion to his statement. Throughout ROTC, I had learned leadership was far more than getting stuff done.
But as I thought about it I realized that in the Navy, he was right. “Mission first, sailors always,” we say, but if the missions never stop, we never get to sailors. The real evidence, however, is how we evaluate our officers. We judge them from above, and seniors look first and foremost at what their subordinates can do for them. Witness the significant resistance to the idea of formally incorporating 360 evaluations into fitness reports, even though they have become the standard method of performance evaluation at the most successful firms. We fear that input from below will diminish the leader’s focus on the mission. In the Navy, leadership means getting things done.
Getting the Job Done
Shortly before my first ship’s change of command, I overhead a department head discuss lessons he had learned from our outgoing commanding officer. Watching our captain, this department head had concluded that with sufficient grit and determination a leader could get the crew to accomplish anything by simply refusing to relent. I felt dismay. I did not dispute that our captain had gotten things done, but I also saw the costs. Soon I transferred, but I continued to think about that conversation. I realized I could categorize two types of successful leaders (at least by the Navy’s definition). I called the first group “pile drivers.” When these leaders encounter an obstacle they do not go around or over it, they go through it, like COs who win the Stockdale Award but whose crews hate them. They accomplish their objectives through sheer will power regardless of the pain inflicted. These leaders are usually intimately involved in the details of all projects, because if they relax the pressure things do not get done.
The other type of leader creates an environment in which their subordinates will thrive, and then allows their subordinates to go do great things. I call them “environmentalists.” Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz described this approach when he said, “Leadership consists of picking good men and helping them do their best.” Environmentalists focus on fundamentals like the values of their organization and the culture in which their sailors operate. They know how to evaluate various paths that will lead to success even if those paths are not what they themselves would have envisioned. They focus on developing the skills of their subordinates. A leader called “coach” is probably an environmentalist.
Eisenhower understood this difference. He continued his previously cited statement that
leadership [is] the art of getting someone else to do something . . . not because your position of power can compel him to do it, or your position of authority. A commander of a regiment is not necessarily a leader. He has all of the appurtenances of power given by a set of Army regulations by which he can compel unified action. He can say to a body such as this, “Rise,” and “Sit down.” You do it exactly. But that is not leadership.4
Essentially, Eisenhower was saying that pile drivers are not leaders. Clearly, his definition of leadership differs from the de facto definition in the Navy today.
As previously discussed, service members spend significant time discussing leadership. Most officers have had much advice on how to lead successfully: set high standards, plan ahead, take care of your people, etc. All these tenets are important. The real challenge in being an environmentalist is less about what to do and more about what not to do.
Environmentalists succeed by giving their subordinates room to innovate and use initiative. They need to be careful not to quash that instinct. This requirement becomes challenging in difficult times. When things are going poorly, particularly at lower levels, many leaders want to reach down to fix what is wrong. It takes strong moral character both to resist the desire to take over and to give subordinates room to fail. The drive to take control is culturally risky. If too direct, a leader risks destroying the very initiative he seeks to cultivate. A few instances of excessive direction may not destroy a culture of innovation, but if done too many times juniors will stop taking risks. To get anything done the senior will need to become deeply involved. Our would-be environmentalist will have turned into a pile driver.
The key in this and all situations is for leaders to understand the limits of their own power. Leaders are judged on outcomes, but frequently they do not have the tools required to directly implement those outcomes. It is like playing pool. You cannot pick up the ball and place it in the pocket, you must use a stick to hit a ball to hit the ball that you want to make go into the pocket, all while avoiding the other balls. Sometimes you have to bank the ball off the side to make your shot. Some shots you just cannot make.
On my second ship, I worked with a lieutenant who did not understand these limits. A young sailor had alienated many in her division. The others tried to make her miserable. They would dump trash on her rack and move her things. The offending sailors made sure to remain anonymous. The lieutenant wanted to gather all the sailors in the berthing and tell them to stop “being mean.” Many officers sympathized with the lieutenant, but we knew her efforts could backfire. The sailors in that berthing wanted to be “mean.” The lieutenant could not compel them to stop or punish the anonymous. By taking the young sailor’s side, the lieutenant risked further isolating her by making it appear she needed officers to solve her social problems. Ways existed to help the young sailor, but they were indirect. Only once you understand the limits of your power can you begin to make wise choices about how to use it.
Leaders must understand the limit of their direct reach. Most have heard jokes about an admiral asking for something to be done and the seaman receiving a completely garbled order. A leader can explain his expectations to his immediate subordinates and coach them to success with relative ease, but the farther down he reaches the more filtered his desires become. This leaves the leader with a choice. He can give precise directions and require their exact execution, risking his exact instructions will become garbled as they proceed down the chain of command and relegating his subordinate leaders to be mere enforcers. Or he can give broad directions about his desires and allow his subordinates to divide the task at hand among their subordinates to accomplish it.
Successful leadership is fractal. In mathematics fractals are shapes that are “self-similar;” they “look ‘roughly’ the same on any scale.”5 This idea relates directly to ideas about span of control. Marine units are generally organized on the principle of threes. Each commander controls three subordinate units. A fire team leader has three Marines, a squad leader three fire teams, a platoon commander three squads, and so on.
Environmental leaders behave in the same way. They recognize that they can only exert direct control over their immediate subordinates and so give their subordinates direction broad enough that they can develop guidance for their reports. The system of providing guidance and then supervising should replicate itself at each level.
Several implications follow. Fractal leadership is recursive. As political activist Ralph Nader once said, “The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” Thus, the appropriate development of young leaders is particularly important. At lower levels of responsibility, leaders often retain the capacity to complete or personally supervise all important tasks within their purview. They can pile drive everything easily and without much impact on their subordinates. As a first-tour division officer, I often heard officers and sailors alike say, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” While appropriate supervision is a necessity, we must get beyond this attitude and define right in a broad enough manner as to avoid this situation.
Leadership’s recursive nature means experiences at lower levels prepare developing leaders for higher levels of responsibility. Environmentalists provide subordinates the opportunity to exercise their initiative because those subordinates will need that skill later in their careers for the organization to continue to be successful. If a new officer does not learn good habits early on, it will become increasingly difficult for him or her to develop skills as an environmentalist. Moreover, it will be virtually impossible for him or her to teach future subordinates to be environmentalists.
Successfully developing junior officers as leaders is the most challenging task of all. Paragraphs d. and e. of Article 0821 of the U.S. Navy Regulations specifically require commanding officers to ensure their newest officers receive appropriate mentorship and training. In the development process senior officers must carefully tread the line between being a pile driver and an environmentalist, providing more guidance without becoming overly directive. Young officers must be nurtured and coached into being environmentalists. My first operations officer did this instruction well. Though I did not work for him, he coached me into being a better officer. As we prepared for our shore-bombardment certification, he provided me previous messages used to arrange the event and asked me to draft updated versions. I found the references and wrote and routed the messages. When it came time to shoot, our ship was diverted. Later, as we were arranging another attempt, I asked the operations officer if I needed to draft the messages again. He said “No.” He would have one of his officers do it. Only then did I realize that he had had me draft the messages just so I would learn how to do it.
Developing leaders requires giving them room to fail, but too little guidance will leave no option but failure. I compare my experience with the operations officer to one I had with another department head on the same ship. The annual safety-award submission was due, and I was asked to prepare the message. When I inquired whether there was a previous award I could use as a guide or an instruction I could follow, I was given almost nothing. Grudgingly, I set to work. Eventually, I found the previous year’s submission. I realized I had prepared it. I had had no problem working on that award, but I remembered that the previous safety officer had provided a template and advice on what to include. The five minutes the previous officer had taken to set me up for success made all the difference in my attitude. This example illustrates a fundamental challenge. Hands-on direction must be carefully applied as the officer develops. If the superior is too hands-off, the junior will become frustrated and have little chance of success.
Legacies of Leadership
Junior officers have to experience leadership. They enter the Fleet with what they have been taught but in reality knowing little about what they will do. Like any new sailor they see things the way they are rather than the way they ought to be. They learn from everyone around them, those they should emulate and those they should not. When they begin their journey their power comes from little more than their legal authority and what charisma they may possess.
What they develop into depends on how they are trained and led. As an institution, the Navy wants leaders who get things done. Both pile drivers and environmentalists get things done, so the choice officers face as they develop as leaders is not how successful they will be, but rather the legacy the will leave among the leaders they train.
2. Dwight D. Eisenhower, “The President’s News Conference” (Press Conference, Washington, DC, 14 November 1956), The American Presidency Project, www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=10702.
3. Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Remarks at the Annual Conference of the Society for Personnel Administration” (Speech, Washington, DC, 12 May 12 1954), The American Presidency Project, www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=9884.
4. Eisenhower, “Remarks at the Annual Conference.”
5. Eric W. Weisstein, “Self-Similarity,” MathWorld—A Wolfram Web Resource. http://mathworld.wolfram.com/Self-Similarity.html.