Tapping the Power of the Chiefs

By Fleet Master Chief Paul Kingsbury, U.S. Navy

The collective strength of a power base is derived from the position, character, experience, and personal network of the individual, and the sooner young officers learn this and start to develop their own power bases, the more quickly they will become effective leaders. Although young naval officers are assigned to positions of leadership (positional power), they normally have not yet developed their other power bases, commensurate with their position, that build the credibility they need to lead. Consider the types and depth of the power bases available to young officers:

Expert power (often captured as competence) is the power we have based on what we know or are perceived to know. Young officers have some educational foundation, but they lack the technical, institutional, and life experience—knowledge of Navy policies, processes, and warfighting tactics and systems—that provides them with the competence required to lead and manage effectively.

Personal power most often is gained through the demonstration of character or other intangible personal connections that make others want to be like us. The fact that these young leaders were selected to receive commissions indicates they have a solid foundation of character development, but they still require growth and must demonstrate and earn the trust of their people by their actions.

Reward and coercive power builds the capacity to influence through the offering of rewards or threats. Small-unit leaders will have some amount of reward and coercive power, but they typically lack knowledge of the tools available to them and the situational leadership experience to apply them.

Information power is gained by giving or withholding information, and connection power is the ability to influence others through access to other people’s resources. These days, young officers have much more access to information than prior generations of leaders; however, they may not be familiar with the most valuable and efficient sources of naval information. And since they are new to the Navy, their personal networks are limited.

Given this perspective, the goal of division officer education should be to help young officers develop all their power bases commensurate with their positional authority as quickly as possible, so they can lead their units competently and effectively. Most important, young officers should strive to strengthen their expert power (competence) and personal power (character). These power bases, more than any others, yield the credibility required to gain trust with their chiefs and their divisions—trust that is vital to influence others successfully.

Because their power bases are immature, new naval officers rightfully rely on the experience of their chiefs in decision making. These young officers may have to give orders that chiefs will see through to execution—orders that may involve risk calculations that could result in the loss of sailors’ lives. Although they lack the positional authority of the division officer, the chiefs’ other power bases are much more developed and influential:

• Chiefs have more expert power gained through years of institutional, technical, and life experience, and many have earned degrees, as well.

• Chiefs likely have solid character and benefit from a connection with deckplate sailors that junior officers typically do not have unless they are prior enlisted.

• Chiefs have years of experience observing and using reward- and coercive-based influence tactics. They also have access to additional reward and coercive power vested in the chief petty officer (CPO) mess in the form of recognition, advancement, and disciplinary boards.

• Through their relationships with the CPO mess, chiefs’ expert and information power bases are amplified, which enables them to shape command behaviors and standards.

Through a strong, positive relationship with their chiefs, division officers are able to access the collective knowledge, experience, and networking power of the CPO mess. Since chiefs serve in key developmental and advisory roles to their division officers, approaching officer training from the context of power base development can help them better tie their effort to expected outcomes.

The Chief-Division Officer Relationship

Young officers and their chiefs must understand, respect, and reinforce the role each plays in divisional readiness, while grasping the strengths (and weaknesses) each brings to the division. They should prioritize this relationship, set aside time to develop it, and communicate with each other candidly and frequently. Young officers report to their commands energized and excited to learn and lead. They often hear stories about chiefs, and though they may report respecting the relationship, they probably have some trepidation as well.

The roles and responsibilities of each party must be continuously reevaluated and adjusted as young officers grow into their leadership role. Infantilizing young officers does not serve the interests of the Navy or the division well, and chiefs who insist on performing division officer duties allow their primary role to atrophy. Unfortunately, some young officers are more than willing to pass their responsibilities to the chief so they can focus on tactical warfighting skills, and many chiefs are more than willing to fulfill division officer roles, generally at the expense of their more important management and deckplate leadership activities. Conversely, inexperienced officers who try to take over chief functions risk disenfranchising their chiefs and may find themselves on their own. As a result, they also risk failing to build expert power.

Successful chief-officer relationships build competence. Chiefs should use a variety of education approaches—including discussions, walk-arounds, modeling, and paperwork reviews—to expose young officers to situations that require the use of power and influence. Chiefs should consider how they define successful division officer training. One metric chiefs can use is whether, as a result of their advice and guidance, the young officer can speak confidently and competently to his or her division, without the chief, and be received with credibility. Another metric of success is whether the officer can successfully and competently assess the division’s material and personnel readiness and brief the department head or commanding officer without the chief present.

The effectiveness of the chief-officer relationship also shapes the perception and valuing of the CPO mess. Young officers who are fortunate to work with strong chiefs will become the department heads, executive officers, or commanding officers who continue to recognize the value chiefs bring and who provide the support for chiefs to maintain their units at the highest levels of warfighting readiness. Furthermore, they will advocate for and encourage the CPO mess to fulfill their important officer-development obligations.

Young officers should understand power and influence and insist on being taught how to plan, organize, and assess material and personnel readiness while learning the complex dynamics of naval leadership. Chiefs should take ownership for and understand the importance of developing confident leaders who have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to lead their divisions—and eventually commands and fleets—and who can make the hard and effective risk decisions needed to win in denied and contested naval environments.

Master Chief Kingsbury enlisted in 1987 and was selected as a command master chief in February 2004. He has served as command master chief of the USS Juneau (LPD-10), Strike Fighter Squadron 211, Joint Region Marianas, Navy Region Japan/U.S. Naval Forces Japan, and the Naval Safety Center. He assumed duties as fleet master chief, U.S. Fleet Forces Command, in December 2015. This essay won second prize in the Fall Enlisted Prize Essay Contest sponsored with Textron Systems.


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