A recent Navy Times article examined disturbing advancement data for sailors assigned to the decommissioning crew of the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) (“Big E Sailors See Few Promotions, Many Failures” by Lance M. Bacon, 6 July 2015). The article reports that Enterprise sailors experienced advancement rates as low as half the Navy average. Even worse, the test-failure rate tripled over the past year. Several factors that contributed to these statistics were noted by crew members, and they are apparently being addressed by the chain of command.
According to one chief petty officer, leadership efforts on board the Enterprise are “evident and exhaustive.” That description is the very essence of leadership.
Leadership must be evident and can be in many ways. It starts by being there. The popular axiom “the world is run by those who show up” tells us succinctly that those who are present make the decisions, good or bad. It is they who set and implement strategy, chart the path toward success or failure, and teach future leaders how to lead. Those who do not show up surrender decision-making much the same as those who are present but remain disengaged. Presence alone is not leadership; active, visible, and positive engagement is needed.
Subordinates must see leaders who are proactively engaged in the mission and with the professional needs of those in their charge. By enabling juniors to help themselves, and doing for them when they cannot do for themselves, leaders demonstrate that they care, that they are approachable, and that their people matter. Many leadership tasks necessarily take place behind closed doors, but even then, followers can sense when leaders are working in their best interests.
The importance of leadership by example cannot be overstated. Junior personnel learn more about leadership from their own leaders than any other way. The most evident behaviors will be emulated. Subordinates will mimic good and bad examples, so leaders must display, tolerate, and reward only positive leadership.
As the chief on board the Enterprise suggested, leadership must also be exhaustive. Our leaders face many demands, and there is often not enough time in the day to handle every situation. Leaders must balance and prioritize countless responsibilities, and that includes making time to address subordinates’ professional needs. The end of the work day is not an excuse for failing to properly deal with a situation. The vital importance of leadership in organizational success demands that some days will be longer than others. Leaders’ working hours are not set by a clock; they are determined by the requirements of the unit and the crew.
Exhaustive leadership means not accepting one failed attempt before giving up on a goal. Roadblocks to success must be met by renewed strategies to address a problem in different ways, seeking success through whatever allowable means available. Not all goals can be accomplished and success is not guaranteed, but leaders who exhaust all options do not fail. The difference between victory and defeat often comes down to sheer persistence. Failure, on the other hand, comes from giving up before every option is attempted.
Effective leadership is exhaustive and sometimes exhausting, but great leaders go above and beyond for their people. Still, leaders must ensure their responsibilities do not become all-consuming. Setting aside time for family, personal development, and rest is critical to restoring energy for the most demanding days.
The traits discussed here are crucial not only to organizational success but also to leadership development. Teaching leadership is difficult because so much of it is learned by observation, experience, and trial and error. Individual attributes can be lectured about in a classroom, but true learning comes when they are experienced on the deckplates.
Organizationally, we get the professionalism and leadership we demonstrate and accept. Unambiguous examples of positive leadership that go above and beyond expectations are no different. The demand for and demonstration of these traits ensures current and future success.
Many commands and sailors face issues like those currently confronting the crew on board the Enterprise. These challenges demand immediate attention and proactive leadership. Whether those challenges are operational or a mix of personal and professional, the way leaders at every level address them is a lesson to future leaders and impacts how they address similar challenges throughout their careers. Success now and in the future requires leadership that is evident and exhaustive.