Leadership Forum: It Must Be About Leadership

By Commander David P. Wroe, U.S. Navy, with Commander Jim Von St Paul and Command Master Chief Michael Leggett, U.S. Navy

Most surface warfare officers will receive sparse leadership training through their careers and will experience formal 360-degree feedback only three times over a 15-year period—between their first and second division officer tours, before their department head schooling, and during their XO/CO pipeline. An average chief’s mess in a destroyer will have one or two graduates of the Senior Enlisted Academy—likely only the command master chief. This means most junior leaders in the fleet have limited access to formal training, such as the all too often underwhelming petty officer indoctrinations held at individual commands.

Junior sailors expect good leadership and thrive under it. They want a positive deckplate leader who sets clear expectations, lives to the standards, and holds subordinates accountable. During check-out interviews, separating sailors often mention the positives of a command, but note they chose to leave the Navy because of their divisional microclimate—the poor leadership from their leading petty officer, chief petty officer, and/or division officer. Peer and immediate supervisor leadership set the tone in a division and other crucial microclimates.

We need to develop leadership in the Navy’s most junior petty officers and junior officers and teach them to lead their peers. This is a difficult skill set to master, but one that the Navy needs more than ever.

Recently I sat with a group of 15 petty officers in a single technical rate as part of “Division in the Spotlight” (DITS) to discuss current challenges. All these sailors arrived to the command preselected to E-4, and some to E-5. All expressed a desire to do right by their shipmates and the command. They spoke about stepping in, intervening when a fellow sailor was about to get hurt by not properly using a tag out, stopping someone from taking sexual advantage of a shipmate, or pulling keys to prevent a potential driving under the influence of alcohol violation. For the behaviors at the far end of the spectrum, there was a clear line in the sand that demanded action. Navy-wide training in intervention has been a success.

For behaviors on the other side of the spectrum, however, the resounding feeling among these sailors was that the potential social cost was a significant barrier to action, and they lacked the skills to successfully overcome that barrier. Developing these skills involves more than admonishing them to have more integrity and courage. If we want to empower junior sailors or officers, we must address this area. One of my E-5s put it candidly, saying in “no way was he trained or ready” to be a leader of peer or near-peer sailors. He and his shipmates want the tools to help them be leaders now and better leaders of our Navy in the future. We owe it to them to help them make this happen.

One option is for the Navy to provide petty officers and junior officers leadership and ethics training outside the command, in fleet concentration areas such as Norfolk, San Diego, and Great Lakes, through dedicated detachments of the Naval Leadership and Ethics Center. While they could not wholly replace command-delivered petty officer leadership or indoctrination because of throughput constraints, these detachments could provide a version of petty officer basic, intermediate, and advanced leadership from E-4 through chief petty officer. Competitively billeted for “early promote” sailors—and with graduates provided qualitative points for selection to recruiting, recruit training, and perhaps even selection to chief petty officer—this program would help the Navy to identify its best junior leaders and assist them in becoming better at this difficult but critical skill. The return on investment is a leader for peers to emulate and a junior sailor or officer prepared for leadership opportunities later in their careers. This training could be available during a tour, part of “block 1” or “block 2” training, or as intermediate stops between tours. Curriculum would be adopted from the current senior enlisted and officer courses, to include 360-degree feedback.

As clear as is the need for more formal leadership training for sailors and junior officers, it is a goal for tomorrow. Today, within the lifelines, commanders and leaders can do more to develop leadership skills—putting real energy into command indoctrinations, petty officer indoctrinations, chief petty officer 365s, and wardroom training. Command-level programs such as the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute command climate survey and afloat cultural workshops can be tailored to dive deeper into divisional microclimates and the impact of junior leadership development as part of DITS. This best practice in use by several ships is modest but valuable. Questions are provided to the members of a division during their week in the spotlight. (See Figure 1.) Feedback is compiled, with names removed, and routed to the command master chief, XO, and CO for review.

As the CO, I use the survey results as talking points during my sit down with the division. After the DITS out-brief, I read the survey results to the division officer and divisional chief, and we discuss the value of feedback and how to use the information to grow. I have seen dramatic changes in divisional microclimates and leadership development with this simple tool in just four months, to the point that using the survey with a division outside the DITS schedule is often a first step to work through rough spots.

In addition, we can increase awareness of the importance of subordinate and peer leadership at all ranks. Discussing leadership at every level (E-4 through O-3), as well as periodically revisiting the topic during DITS town hall–style meetings, can accomplish this. The key discussion points in both forums address the following questions:

• What are your expectations of your subordinates, peers, and superiors in terms of professional and personal conduct?

• What will you do, as both a leader and subordinate, to ensure these standards are upheld?

• What actions can and should you take if your subordinates, peers, or superiors fail to meet these standards?

These questions spur open and honest debate and shed light on the importance of leadership at all levels of the chain of command.

Destructive behaviors and unprofessional conduct detract from the Navy’s ability to fight and win. For an organization that values leadership so highly, we have woefully underprepared most of our force—our junior sailors and junior officers—for success. We must dramatically improve the training of such a critical mass of our force to correct issues of the day and prepare them to be the middle and senior leaders in a more challenging tomorrow.


n Commander Wroe is commanding officer of the USS Cole (DDG-67). Commander Von St Paul is the Cole’s executive officer, and Master Chief Leggett is the Cole’s command master chief.



(Answer options: Strongly Agree, Agree, Neither Agree nor Disagree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree)

• I feel happy at work.

• I have a clear understanding of my career promotion path.

• I have a good work-life balance

• I would quit this job tomorrow if I could.

• I feel valued in my division.

• I will reach my full potential in my division.

• My divisional leadership takes my feedback seriously.

• My divisional leadership is transparent.

• I feel comfortable bringing issues (work-related and personal) to my chain of command’s attention without fear of reprisal or retaliation.

• I am confident my divisional chain of command will take appropriate actions when notified of professional or personal problems.

Open answer questions:

• How would you describe your Chief?

• How would you describe your Division Officer?

• What three words best describe your Division?

• What is the Command’s mission statement?

Note: Developed by Chief Hospital Corpsman Curtis Null III



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