The Kool-Aid Doesn't Have to Taste Bad

By Lieutenant Albert J. Perry, U.S. Navy

When Directions Don’t Make Sense

Let’s start by looking at a recent conversation I had with my sailors, auxiliary mechanics on board a submarine:

“All right guys, listen up. You all heard about the critique yesterday with the radioman who messed up the air charge.”

“Yeah. How could you not know that you have to open the supply valve?”

“Well, there are two reasons: He wasn’t very proficient, and the supervisors didn’t conduct a thorough enough brief.”

“But he’s qualified to do it, right?”

“Well . . . yes, but we didn’t verify how long it had been or how comfortable he was with the written procedure.”

“It’s just one valve, and he did the qual process. He should know already.”

“Yeah, that’s true. Anyway, as a corrective action from the critique, I need all of you to conduct training with your duty sections—especially the wire rates—on the daily evolutions that off-going personnel perform. Then I need you to monitor them all to make sure they’re doing it right.”

“But we already did that once.”

“When was that?”

“When they first qualified. We made sure they knew what to do. This guy was just an idiot.”

“Okay, but you’re the experts, so get that training done and we’ll know we’re all better off.”

“Man, we didn’t do anything wrong and we have to do the extra work? Thanks a lot.”

There it was: The logical corrective action directed from on high ultimately created more seemingly unnecessary work for a group of sailors who did nothing personally to warrant it. From the point of view of a division trying to accomplish its tasks, the junior officer must smooth things out and communicate between the sailors in the trenches (or in this case, the bilges) and the people who evaluate the big picture and set conditions to work (the chain of command). Nobody I know joined the Navy to clean during field day, wait in line to get a tag-out approved, or wear a giant face shield to use a vacuum cleaner. They wanted to be part of a team, accomplish an awesome mission, see the world, and support themselves and their families while doing so.

The division officer must help sailors understand how their many small assignments contribute to the ship’s execution of its tasking. More than any other member of the wardroom, he should understand how the sailors in his division work, what annoys or motivates them, and what they need to get their jobs done. He is not their buddy, but is as close to one as allowed. So when the officer has to set the standard and make things tougher for his own division, his sailors see a momentary betrayal of what they thought was a friendly relationship. If we do our job as officers, we treat that tougher standard as our own—regardless of where it came from. We take the idea of the “damn XO” and make it the “damn JG.” But by doing this, sailors often see us as enforcing that standard merely because we think the command is infallible. And the more we relay how important it is, the more we’re seen as just drinking the Kool-Aid.

Getting a group of sailors to buy into an idea is hard enough, but the real challenge is doing so when junior officers themselves are hesitant about that idea. This is the true test of ownership—treating a command policy as one’s own despite any reservations. It is the easiest time to stumble as a leader, and the most likely place to get called out.

For a new officer, making it understood to sailors that you agree with them on how unnecessary, unfair, or ineffective a policy will be seems like a logical choice; this way they will want to work for you. You might think that if they know your hands are tied that you’ll get them to do their job and stay on their good side. Drop the names of a couple department heads, and—voilà—you have succeeded as a division officer. Like many other junior officers, I have been guilty of this offense, not because I wanted my sailors to like me or I wanted to look good to the chain of command, but because it was fast and easy, leaving more time to write that casualty report or study for another exam.

Junior officers are so busy keeping up with qualifications, training, standing watch, and collateral duties that every second counts. In the submarine force, for example, engineering division officers, who often take over their divisions soon after reporting on board and in the midst of qualifying, are so strapped for time that they rarely get a chance to know their division outside of binders and training sessions. A nuclear division officer will without a doubt know the status of his sailors’ qualifications or collateral duties, but he won’t be able to tell you their hometowns. It’s no wonder, then, that we occasionally might take the easy road just to get the job done. The only ways to fix that are to either alleviate the workload or learn by trial and error. Since we still have a job to do, the only way we can start owning our standards is through experience.

Challenges to New Officers

As we mature as officers, we learn the importance of owning up to a policy or a standard, but just as quickly we hit the next obstacle: sailors calling us out for not believing what we preach. Confronting that attitude becomes even more difficult when they’re right. At some point every officer has to enforce a standard with which he does not agree, and sailors recognize that. Many officers have had the experience of thinking that a new policy sounds like a great idea when they first learn about it at officer call or in a one-on-one chat with the department head. But then we tell our chief and division, and as the words come out we think, “This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever said to a group of people.” We stumble along, determined to convince this bright group that we are right. But they know we’re hesitant, and the more we push, the more we are seen as drinking the Kool-Aid. They try to unearth our true attitudes and it becomes tempting to say: “Look, the engineer is making me do this, so let’s just get it done,” and go back to your other duties. In a high-paced tactical situation, that may very well be the correct response. But in most other instances the necessity for teamwork outweighs the need to make rapid decisions. It takes time, experience, and a well-developed relationship between a group of sailors and a junior officer to erase a culture of asking who is responsible for a standard and instead seeing it come from the officer and adhering to it.

It is also difficult for officers to be taken seriously when they are too new to the ship or to a specific job to provide real backup. We report to ships and squadrons having completed college, flight school, and nuclear-power school—all academic challenges. For the majority of us who did not have the privilege of serving as enlisted sailors prior to commissioning, academic challenges are all we’ve ever known. We thrive on breaking out technical manuals, memorizing drawings, and studying for written exams. But that’s not what we are on board as officers to do, and it’s not the leadership our sailors need.

The engineering-heavy nature of operating ships at sea requires officers to have a solid technical background. However, no matter how many hours a JO spends studying or how perfect his system drawing is, he will never operate that system himself and therefore will never have as deep a working knowledge of the ship as the system experts for whom he is responsible. Everyone knows that, so JOs are never really expected to know anything. Instead we place so much emphasis on the administrative requirements of running a division—the binder reviews, the zone inspections, the command ticklers—that division officers become little more than messengers between the chiefs and the department heads. And since we don’t have the technical experience of either, we’re never really held accountable for anything. We see that and think we’re not taken seriously, that we’re not really expected to lead from the front. And sailors sense that and think that junior officers don’t really make decisions, so any new standard must have come from someone else.

This makes it difficult for a JO to back any standard as his own, and is yet another way we’re seen as drinking the Kool-Aid. We need to emphasize the personal challenges of being a division officer as much as we do the technical challenges. Being in charge of a division of (insert rate here) is easy. Being in charge of a division of sailors is the hard part. Once we treat the two equally, the division officer can actually be an important part of the process, and can start to make his voice an important one. Once his voice becomes important enough to listen to, the next step is getting people to believe what he says.

Establishing a Smoother Rhythm

So how can a junior officer convince his sailors to buy into something not just because the lieutenant said so, but also because it makes sense? A common theme in leadership courses is the difference between people working for you and people liking to work for you: One is essential while the other is an unnecessary extra benefit. Despite what the books say, that difference does not always translate into the real world. If people like working for you, a team can grow and develop a rhythm that makes things run smoothly. If a sailor does his professional duty without enjoyment, the minimum requirements can be met, but no long-term improvement will occur. The more a junior officer can interact with his division, the better that relationship can be.

This is not to say time alone makes a division officer better; an understanding of each others’ jobs and a willingness to talk to and confront the chain of command on issues are absolutely critical to a junior officer running a division. But the stronger the relationship and the steadier the rhythm, a sailor will be more likely to listen to his division officer’s point of view. Combine that understanding with a daily outward positive attitude, and our sailors are that much more likely to understand what we are saying. The division officer has the unique ability to show his sailors that maintaining a standard can, in fact, be desirable. Once this happens, the division officer won’t be perceived as drinking the Kool-Aid anymore, but as having a good point.

A 20-year-old seaman is not going to think: “Lieutenant Perry only talks to us when he wants us to do something, but the command likes him so I’ll listen to what he has to say.” He will think: “Lieutenant Perry goes to the department head to get what we need, comes through our space and cracks a few jokes sometimes, and offers to get us food when we’re stuck working late. He seems like he knows what’s important, so I’ll listen to him.” This does not mean that a division can be bought off with food or small talk, but that sailors respond to officers who take care of them. Sailors are real people, and if we treat them as such, they will respond in kind. Being the nice guy isn’t always the right answer, but that doesn’t mean it never is.

While we strive to get sailors to be willing to understand us and not just blindly obey orders, we must remember that communication is a two-way street. To get them to buy in, we have to listen to them, take their feedback, and use it to improve the overall plan of attack. Sailors are the system experts for a reason, and we should never refuse them the chance to voice their opinion just because we might be wrong. The more a sailor realizes that his division officer will listen to him and reason with him, the more trustworthy that relationship is, and the more likely that both sides can understand each other’s point of view. This is what creates true efficiency—not a soulless chain of orders with perfect obedience at each stop, but a team that encourages constructive criticism and the mentality that even a junior sailor can point out a problem. When the team feels that way, and if the junior officer is the one promoting that the most, then everyone will buy into the mission.

The problem of owning a problem and tackling it without complaint is not new. It has always been a challenge and will continue to be a burden for even the best junior officers. Like the innumerable other trials we face, there are factors we cannot change, so we must take a step back and look at how we, often some of the most inexperienced people on the ship, can make a positive impact. Having the ability to convince sailors to buy into a mission is not something that a junior officer can master by walking across the brow for the first time. It takes a lot of time, experience, and patience. I have yet to gain an appreciable amount of any of those traits, but I have learned that the more you can get a team to work with you, the more likely they are to work for you. Be the most motivated one in the division, and soon enough they will start paying attention. A positive attitude is a force multiplier, and using it the right way can get a team to buy in without reservation. Kool-Aid can be an acquired taste, but with enough teamwork, it doesn’t have to taste bad.

Lieutenant Perry is a 2010 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. He recently completed his division officer tour on board the fast attack submarine USS City of Corpus Christi (SSN-705), where he served on a Western Pacific deployment as well as in a variety of junior officer billets. He is currently assigned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations staff in Washington, D.C.




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