Leadership Forum - Invest in Initiative

By Lieutenant John F. Tanalega, U.S. Navy

Overcoming Perfectionism

Perfectionism can be useful. It can drive an individual toward self-improvement and lead to an honest assessment of one’s own abilities and shortfalls. Personal benefits aside, the organizational consequences of institutionalized perfectionism are extraordinarily negative. Senior leaders who desire perfection above all else are more likely to tell subordinates not only what they should do, but exactly how they should do it. Instead of developing an instinct for how to act, this leadership style trains an officer to seek guidance at every moment.

Taken to an extreme, perfectionism results in a zero-defect mentality: “thought processes and actions . . . in which a leader goes to great lengths to ensure the total absence of defects, mistakes, or flaws within his command to the point that he centralizes all decisions at his level, minimizing or overshadowing subordinates’ control.” 3 Today, the zero-defect mentality permeates the fleet and risks creating servile automatons rather than professional naval officers.

Ships distinguish themselves by flawlessly completing inspections, exercises, and pre-deployment work-ups. If ships prepare for these events blindly—without effectively communicating objectives and underlying purpose to the crew—their meaning and value are lost. Immediate superiors demanding perfection above all else are more likely to closely scrutinize the commanding officers under their command, demanding daily updates about minutiae. Those captains are compelled to apply similar scrutiny to their department heads, lest they incur the wrath of their superiors. Gone unchecked, this wave of unmitigated perfectionism pervades the chain of command. For junior officers, judgment and prudence, best honed in practice, are smothered. Where officers once learned to manage risk, they now are encouraged to avoid it. While a ship may appear to complete its training cycle successfully, too much time is spent calming the fears of superiors. Much of the utility in making the ship battle-ready is lost in the flood of e-mails and briefs designed solely to allay the fears of immediate superiors.

Combating perfectionism while developing leaders who can think independently requires a ship to focus on the purpose of each inspection, exercise, and training, instead of completing an event for its own sake—an act known colloquially as “checking the box.” Too often the word from above is, “ATG [Afloat Training Group] is going to evaluate damage control next month and we need to be ready.” Sailors have a way of doing what they are told. They may prepare every day for the inspection, but what happens after the ATG is gone and the event is deemed successful? The focus shifts to the next ATG event, and the ship accordingly redirects its efforts to another series of boxes to be checked. A ship that was built to fight is instead trained simply to pass inspections.

Officers who look beyond the inspection and focus on the importance and underlying reasons behind it provide greater motivation to those they lead. Every sailor who enlists is a volunteer and wants to do something of importance. Recruiting commercials do not advertise “America’s Navy, Checking Boxes.” Division officers and department heads who direct focus on damage control and other mission areas consistently and because they are important—not merely because they are required and subject to ATG scrutiny—communicate sincerity to their sailors. These sailors will be motivated because they know the lives of their shipmates may depend on their training. A good ship can pass an inspection, but for a great ship, a successful inspection only punctuates what is an ongoing attitude of continuous readiness.

A perfectionist mind-set also tempts the chain of command to constantly supervise division officers to ensure their tasks are completed flawlessly. This smothering is counterproductive. To develop independently thinking officers we must leave as much as possible to their individual initiative. This requires teaching and mentorship from the wardroom and the chiefs’ mess and the opportunity to make and learn from mistakes. Commanding officers, executive officers, and department heads must be willing to accept the risk of less-than-optimal results so their subordinates have room to lead and learn. Let division officers plan to meet a goal, lead its execution, observe the result, and make corrections for the future. Quality of work that may be lost in the short term is marginal when compared to the long-term reward for investing in mutual trust and leadership skill.

Constant Communication

If perfectionism stunts independence and initiative, constant communication stifles them. If a battle like Midway were fought today, the National Security Council would be sequestered in a war room, huddled around a display, eagerly awaiting news. Commander, Pacific Command, aware of this, would be compelled to provide continuous situation updates, and individual strike group commanders would be as focused on feeding information up the chain of command as they would be on finding and destroying the enemy. This would drive them to be overly cautious and ultimately ineffective. Why would this happen? Put simply, in naval operations we currently lean on the telecommunications crutch because we are curious and it is available.

We must provide commanders with greater freedom to act because the next war will invalidate our current assumptions. The electromagnetic spectrum, which we are accustomed to using freely, likely will be the first contested battlespace. 4 Communications could become our greatest liability, because they are subject to jamming and exploitation. Radio silence may, as in days past, be the norm. Unable to constantly supervise, operational commanders will have to trust mission execution to their subordinates. Commanding officers, who once required permission to execute daily tasks, suddenly will be entrusted with the authority to launch missiles offensively. When Commodore George Dewey steamed from Hong Kong to victory in Manila Bay, his only order was a dispatch stating: “War has commenced between the United States and Spain. Proceed at once to Philippine Islands. Commence operations at once, particularly against the Spanish fleet. You must capture vessels or destroy. Use utmost endeavors.” 5 Commanders in the next war may have to operate with similarly brief orders.

The Army’s doctrine of mission command—the conduct of military operations through decentralized execution based on mission-type orders—provides a framework for future operations. 6 The goal is “enabling disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent” to create a flexible command-and-control structure better able to adapt to changing circumstances. 7 Though relatively new to Army and joint doctrine, mission command represents a return to traditional naval thought. As Admiral Spruance wrote after World War II, “There are too many variables possible in war for everything to be foreseen and planned for ahead of time . . . the man on the spot must know where he fits into the operation, and he must be able to act on his own initiative.” 8

Independence and initiative—the prime movers behind mission command—only can be honed through experience. They must be instilled in every officer early and often. We must trust division officers with the opportunity to treat their divisions as their commands because the captains and task force commanders of tomorrow are in our wardrooms and on staffs across the Navy. Giving them such latitude does mean, in the short term, risking less than perfect inspections. Conversely, failure to empower junior officers risks dooming our Navy in the long term. We risk having batteries of railguns stowed and Standard Missiles resting in their launchers for want of commanders with the wherewithal to use them.

Invest in Initiative

We will win the next war at sea only if we invest in initiative. Far too often, junior officers cite the zero-defect mentality as a leading reason for leaving the service. 9 Each of us has an opportunity to reshape the culture. Acting in our wardrooms, in ships and squadrons across the fleet, we can change how the Navy operates, if only in our immediate surroundings. We can reinforce the sense of independence that has served the Navy well in battle for more than 240 years. We can keep alive the spirit of officer initiative that drove 25-year-old Lieutenant Stephen Decatur to sail the Intrepid into Tripoli; that spurred Lieutenant John Bulkeley’s daring seamanship of PT-41 in the Philippines; and that motivated Ensign Charles Smith to keep the guns of turret 2 on the USS Houston (CA-30) firing until the last.

We must develop leaders who are accustomed to uncertainty, practiced in managing risk, and ready to act independently. Future victories will depend on the education of today’s junior officers, and that education begins when they stand before and in command of their first division.

1. Naval History and Heritage Command, “U.S. Navy Active Ship Force Levels, 1931–1937,” US Ship Force Levels, www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/us-ship-force-lev... . United States Navy, “Deployable Battle Force Ships,” Status of the Navy, 27 September 2016, www.navy.mil/navydata/nav_legacy.asp?id=146 .

2. E. B.Potter, Nimitz (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1976), 61.

3. LTCOL Robert Kissel, USA, “The Hidden Cost of Downsizing,” Marine Corps War College, www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a525755.pdf .

4. Captain Patrick Molenda, “Silence on the Net,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 141, no.5 (May 2015), 34.

5. William J. Lawrence, A Concise Life of Admiral George Dewey, U.S.N. (New York: News Agent New York, 1899), 45.

6. Joint Operations, Joint Publication 3-0 (JP 3-0), 11 August 2011, II-2.

7. Mission Command, Army Doctrine Publication 6-0, (Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army, 2012), 3.

8. Thomas B. Buell, The Quiet Warrior (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1987), 245.

9. CDR Guy Snodgrass, “Keep a Weather Eye on the Horizon,” U.S. Naval War College Review, no. 67 (2014), 73.

10. Buell, The Quiet Warrior, 144–45.

11. Ibid.

12. Ian W. Toll, Pacific Crucible (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012), 401.

13. CDR Arthur A. Ageton, The Naval Officer’s Guide (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1943), 227.

Lieutenant Tanalega, a surface warfare officer, is currently studying Operations Research at the Naval Postgraduate School. He previously served on board the USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53) and the USS Dewey (DDG-105).


Preparing Admiral Spruance for Point Luck

In the predawn hours of 3 June 1942, the morning calm on board the USS Enterprise (CV-6) belied the gathering tension of an impending battle. Search planes had scanned the sea for Japanese ships the previous day but sighted none. At 0545, the word finally came. Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, his task force on station at Point Luck, received reports that Japanese carriers were 180 miles northwest of Midway. 10 He reached a critical decision point. He could launch his dive bombers and torpedo planes as soon as they were within range, but in doing so would limit their fighting time once they found the enemy. Conversely, delaying the launch could mean sending hundreds of pilots into combat on potentially stale reconnaissance reports or, worse yet, letting the enemy strike first. The senior task force commander, Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher in the USS Yorktown (CV-8), was not within sight, and to observe strict radio silence Spruance could not contact him. 11 The decision to strike was his. No guidance was available, aside from Admiral Nimitz’s necessarily broad guidance to “be governed by the principle of calculated risk.” 12 With due deliberation, he made the decision to strike, and history proved it to be right.

However, that was not the first time Spruance had to make tough decisions with no supervision. As a lieutenant, after having served only three years at sea, he had his first command, the USS Bainbridge (DD-1), patrolling in the Asiatic Fleet with only rudimentary radios and sporadic communication with his superiors. Leading his officers and crew, Spruance experienced the unique challenges that command brings well before he was a flag officer. This was common during World War II. The first edition of The Naval Officer’s Guide advised junior officers that “In peacetime, the line officer of the Navy may expect with considerable certainty that . . . he will be ordered to command a ship, usually a small craft as a lieutenant or a destroyer as a lieutenant commander.” 13 Any ambitious line officer was likely to have early command and would be faced with making decisions without supervision. Early command solidified confidence and fostered individual initiative and independent thought. The fleet of increasingly obsolete destroyers, minesweepers, and gunboats served as the incubator of leaders who led the Navy through World War II. Command experience, early and often, laid the foundation for bold, independent action required for success in battle.



Conferences and Events

View All

From the Press

23 February - Seminar

Sat, 2019-02-23

David F. Winkler

3 March - Lecture

Sun, 2019-03-03

Stephen A. Bourque

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 140 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership