Leading the Rebound

By Commanders Bob Alpigini and Patrick Jankowski and Captains Jennifer Couture and Ryan Tewell, U.S. Navy

The sudden relief of a command’s most senior leader can damage many elements that contribute to operational effectiveness, and critical command functions and standards—including command vision and identity; crew training and morale; wardroom and chief petty officers (CPO) mess functionality; and family support—can erode quickly. Poor culture not only leads to subpar performance but also generates a defeatist attitude and hurts unit identity. Assessing the damage and making repairs are the new CO’s primary tasks.

The fundamental pillars of the rebound are simple: rebuild trust; hear your sailors; assess the state of the command; and lead the rebound. While this article lists the pillars sequentially, they must be addressed near-simultaneously. Rapid and meticulous implementation is essential to rebuilding commands whose cultures have been damaged.

Rebuild Trust

Following a CO’s relief, sailors often feel let down or betrayed. Whether the cause of the relief was professional or personal, trust between the command and sailors has been broken. If that loss is left unaddressed, it can feed cynicism. The first priority of the rebound, therefore, is rebuilding trust across the command. Ensuring sailors know the command triad consistently has their best interests in mind creates an environment in which the unit can thrive and succeed.

The basics of CO trust are simple but require constant adherence:

• Do what you say you are going to do.

• Ensure safe and standard operating procedures.

• Provide a fair and just working environment for all subordinates.

• Maintain consistent good order and discipline enforced with predictable consequences.

Trust is not rebuilt easily or quickly, and repair of the command–crew relationship requires the dedicated focus and determination of the entire command triad. The new CO must provide clear command philosophy and direction to ensure the XO and CMC are aligned seamlessly. The triad then must work together across the ranks to rebuild trust. At one of the authors’ units, the triad committed to resolving maintenance issues at the lowest level, which they felt the previous regime had not done. This commitment was tested almost immediately, and the CO elected to let established maintenance and safety processes work, despite pressure from the CPO mess. In time, many sailors, including CPOs, cited this decision as the point they knew the new CO was serious about changing the unit’s culture.

Hear Your Sailors

The new CO will need to gain a clear understanding of the facts and context of the relief to establish a navigation plan for the unit. There will be plenty of gossip available, but only the facts should inform this plan.

Listening to sailors is not enough; the new CO has to hear what they are saying. Giving voice to their opinions will be cathartic for the crew and is a priceless tool for assessing the command. Given the opportunity, sailors will be brutally honest in their assessments, which can help the CO identify problems or barriers that might have accumulated. The energy invested in listening signals to sailors that their opinions and ideas are valued.

New or unknown problems should not come as a shock. There will be previously undiscovered procedural, personnel, and materiel issues that need to be addressed. The new CO’s ability to hear both the good news and the bad is vital in understanding what is broken. Do not shoot the messenger! In addition, the CO must be forthright and open in discussing problems. Sailors are sharp; they have observed the command’s functionality (or lack thereof) for some time, and many already have drawn conclusions on what needs to be fixed.

Not every conversation or suggestion will yield golden veins of information, but in their totality, they will paint a clear picture. Taking action on concerns raised in feedback sessions is a critical tenet of building trust. The crew needs to know that providing feedback was not a wasted exercise and that something meaningful will result. Opportunities to provide responses to crew feedback can come in many forms, such as a 1MC address, Plan of the Day note, CO’s call, publication of a CO’s note, or one-on-one meetings with the triad.

Assess the State of the Command

With challenge comes opportunity. Regardless of the reason for the previous CO’s relief, the message inferred by sailors probably will be that the command as a whole failed. This recognition that change is needed, however, presents an opportunity to solve lingering issues and reinstill the pride and culture that will sustain success into the future.

Assessing the state of the command will require a mix of hard data on operational performance and soft information on command culture. Hard data is the result of daily operations, training events, and material condition. COs must assess the command’s ability to operate safely and effectively; determine whether training is meaningful and productive; and evaluate the command’s systems and gear to determine if they are up to standards. Assessment of the hard data must be uncompromising and dispassionate. While it will be tempting to justify, sugarcoat, or delay acting on the realities, this will be counterproductive to building trust and will erode command culture.

Soft information is the sense of the command that the triad gathered from hearing the crew. One way to gain insight into command culture is by examining key personnel. A perceptive CO quickly will identify personnel who are catalysts for success and those who are roadblocks. The command’s stakeholders—including, but not limited to, the triad, department heads, the maintenance master chief or Top Snipe, and senior enlisted leaders—must drive the vision on the deckplates and work through the positive catalysts while reforming (or rolling past) the roadblocks. These crucial stakeholders translate the command vision to the reliable, positive, and dynamic deckplate leaders who will do the hard work of command transformation.

Another way to examine culture is through external, objective inputs. Mentors, senior officers, and peers, including fellow COs, can be useful sounding boards. Others who previously have been part of effective command cultures are barometers of promising improvements and emerging areas of concern. Big Navy also maintains a bevy of resources to help analyze the command. To address critical issues of safety and culture, the Type Commander and Naval Safety Center can conduct an Afloat Culture Workshop for the new CO. Past and current command climate surveys can be analyzed by the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute to help identify trends and suggest solutions.

Establishing a set of analytic processes, such as climate surveys, that get to the root cause of climate and culture concerns will be a cornerstone of the way ahead. The new CO must develop a plan of attack and work in concert with the XO and CMC to implement it rapidly.

Lead the Rebound

The CO, leading from the front, will be the core of the command’s culture of success. Hearing sailors and analyzing the organization are ongoing processes by which the new CO can form a dynamic command philosophy, which, when executed predictably and consistently, is invaluable in repairing a damaged command culture.

Acting predictably does not mean acting slowly. The CO must act decisively to create momentum for change. Setting short-term, attainable, mission-related goals will rack up a few quick wins to get the command moving in the right direction.

Celebrating small victories will help the crew see the progress being made. There will be some setbacks, but team victories should be enjoyed. Recognition can come in many forms, but always praise in public. Simple CO deckplate “atta boys” or 1MC announcements are easy; a command coin or spot Navy Achievement Medal are more significant means for reinforcing standards of success. At the same time, the CO should avoid patronizing the crew; praise should be earned. Reinforcing words with actions that identify successes will solidify the command culture.

During the early stages, the CO should be prepared for a testing period from the “roadblocks.” These sailors may push back against the new vision, philosophy, and plan. In a high-functioning command, other stakeholders realign these personnel, but while the command is rebuilding, it may require some direct interaction with the CO.

Leadership must convey the clear message that each member of the unit is responsible and accountable for creating a positive and constructive command culture. Ultimately, the goal is to bring the roadblocks on board with the vision for success. To that end, command leadership must not hesitate to reform roadblocks with focused leadership, counseling, and formal documentation. Swift action to restore performance standards, integrity, and communication will force roadblocks to join the team or be left behind. While it may not always succeed, engagement with roadblocks is always worth the CO’s time and effort.

During the rebound, there also will be some subordinate leaders whose leadership styles or philosophies are at odds with the new command standards. More often than not, these well-meaning members just need a nudge in the right direction, but occasionally, they are sources of conflict within the command. The CO must identify these individuals and confront their behavior immediately. The timeline for remediation should be short because tolerance of bad leadership behavior will be understood by the crew as tacit approval. Regardless of rank or skillset, if a subordinate leader is toxic, it is the CO’s obligation to remove that individual. This can be a sensitive challenge that the CO should discuss with the immediate superior in command, who can advise and assist.

What Success Looks Like

A leadership dismissal can create a culture of disappointment and apathy, but over time, good leadership can rebound and build a culture of excellence and sustained success. While measuring that success depends on where the command started, there are some indicators and benchmarks of progress. Command training and inspection events are the most obvious. The ability of each level of the command to self-assess and make corrections will inevitably lead to positive inspection results. Command culture is back to full strength when the critical mass of sailors has become self-regulating and capable of properly teaching subordinates and peers “how we do things around here.”

The command will have turned the corner when it is able to move from merely operating safely to operating effectively, and then proceed to more advanced goals such as tactical innovation. A lighter but still useful indicator appears when the CO’s suggestion box starts to reflect less critical matters (some of ours included concerns about breakfast portion size, crazy hat day, and the zombie apocalypse).

Our perspective on leading the rebound reflects the experiences and challenges we faced as COs and XOs. We made many mistakes, and arrived at these lessons through trial-and-error. While our recommendations are not all-inclusive, they are offered to provide prospective COs starting points from which to consider the application of basic leadership tenets as they relate to these extraordinary circumstances. Rebuilding a command can be exhausting, but in the end, an effective rebound is possibly one of the Navy’s most extraordinary measures of success.

Commander Alpigini is a surface warfare officer who previously commanded the USS Stout (DDG-55). He currently serves in the Joint Staff, Joint Operations Directorate, J35.

Captain Couture is a surface warfare officer and former commanding officer of the USS Kauffman (FFG-59). She currently serves as the Chief of Naval Personnel’s Special Assistant for Legislative Matters.

Commander Jankowski is a naval aviator who previously commanded Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 71 and served as executive officer in HSM-73 and HSM-71. He currently serves as the Maritime Branch Head, Air Warfare Directorate, OPNAV N98.

Captain Tewell is a naval aviator and former commanding officer of HSM-71. He currently serves as the Senior Navy Advisor for Force Development in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.


Create Avenues for Crew Feedback

The new CO needs to be active and engaged around the command. Being available, approachable, and attuned to details that reveal the state of the unit will pay dividends. To that end, the CO should:

• Visit control stations, workcenters, and training venues to observe and encourage direct feedback. Allowing direct-to-CO feedback from all levels in the chain of command ensures members who once may have gone unheard are now empowered. 

• Conduct CO’s calls by paygrades. Sailors will be more likely to discuss concerns when their seniors are absent. If the calls begin with the most junior personnel, the CO will have the opportunity to debrief more senior paygrades on areas of concern or targets for action during later calls.  

• Seek unvarnished feedback from CPOs and officers. This happens most effectively with CPOs in the mess with no agenda, a cup of coffee, and a notebook in hand. We found the chiefs spoke most freely after a few of these sessions, when some trust had been built.  Likewise, the new CO can open dialog with his or her officers in the privacy of the wardroom, or perhaps off-site for lunch with the junior officers and/or department heads. These opportunities provide unrushed time in a relaxed environment where leaders can offer recommendations on the future path for the command.

• Implement a CO’s suggestion box, where crew members can leave feedback anonymously. As a rule, the crew must understand that the CO personally receives and reads every note a sailor submits. It should be understood that, although the CMC may read them en route , the CO gets all of the input unfiltered.


Don’t Empower, Emancipate

Empowerment is a necessary step because we’ve been accustomed to disempowerment. Empowerment is needed to undo all those top-down, do what you’re told, be a team player messages that result from our leader-follower model. But empowerment isn’t enough in a couple ways.

First, empowerment by itself is not a complete leadership structure. Empowerment does not work without the attributes of competence and clarity.

Second, empowerment still results from and is a manifestation of a top-down structure. At its core is the belief that the leader “empowers” the followers, that the leader has the power and ability to empower the followers.

We need more than that because empowerment within a leader-follower structure is a modest compensation and a voice lost compared to the overwhelming signal that “you are a follower.” It is a confusing signal.

What we need is release or emancipation. Emancipation is fundamentally different from empowerment. With emancipation we are recognizing the inherent genius, energy, and creativity in all people, and allowing those talents to emerge. We realize that we don’t have the power to give these talents to others, or “empower” them to use them, only the power to prevent them from coming out. Emancipation results when teams have been given decision-making control and have the additional characteristics of competence and clarity. You know you have an emancipated team when you no longer need to empower them. Indeed, you no longer have the ability to empower them because they are not relying on you for their sources of power.

Ultimately, the most important person to have control is yourself—for it is that self-control that will allow you to “give control, create leaders.” I believe that rejecting the impulse to take control and attract followers will be your greatest challenge and, in time, your most powerful and enduring success.

−Captain L. David Marquet, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Editor’s Note: In this excerpt from Marquet’s Turn the Ship Around! (Penguin Publishing Group, 2013) the author describes one aspect of how his team employed an innovative bottom-up approach to lead a rebound on the USS Santa Fe (SSN-763).

Deal with “Roadblocks”

The small minority of individuals who are roadblocks to progress can have a significantly adverse effect on the command if left unchecked. In one of the authors’ units, a climate survey revealed a chief who was a roadblock to both operational and cultural improvement because of a negative attitude and leadership style. Difficult and time-consuming counseling with the triad revealed this was a result of lost trust in previous leaders. Both sides agreed to take steps forward, trust was rebuilt over time, and a dramatic change took place. An ensuing climate survey identified this chief as a tremendous mentor for junior sailors and a reason that the acommand culture had improved!



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