Self-Control Empowers Individuals and Organizations

Vice Admiral Al Konetzni, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Self-control is a difficult concept to internalize. Perhaps “The Silence”—a 2016 movie starring Liam Neeson—can bring some clarity to the issue. In the movie, two Jesuit priests—on a mission in 16th Century Japan to preach Christianity—undergo gut-wrenching agony as they face the decision to give up their faith and become apostates. Thank goodness most issues we face in our lives do not come close to the life or death decisions faced by these priests.  Even so, we face a myriad of decisions during our lifetimes.

For these decisions, it took me the better part of my life to realize that I am the master of my ship. Until I was about 40 years old, I readily blamed others for what, in reality, were my decisions. Hell, I even blamed my parents for “making” me attend the U.S. Naval Academy in June 1962.

After some soul searching, it dawned on me that I made the decisions impacting my short- and long-range goals as well as the everyday decisions in my life. It was not my parents, my Navy seniors, the government, or teachers who decided who I was to become. It was eye-opening to discover there is little in life I do not control.

I decided to stop making excuses such as “I had no choice, the boss wanted it that way!” I also ceased asking the question, “Why did he do that to me?” Once one deletes the blame game or rationalization from one’s playbook, decisions and their outcomes become clear and generally can be made in an intellectual manner with little emotion.

This self-control process is easier to implement if the senior leaders in an organization foster an atmosphere that cherishes openness, honesty, and fixing appropriate blame without killing the messenger or subordinates with dissenting views. With that said, self-control is a personal trait and can be exercised by each of us at any age and in any organizational position.

Clearly, it is foolish to voice an uninformed opinion. On the other hand, there were many times when I sat in meetings listening to my seniors propose courses of action I knew were ill conceived, insufficiently studied, and intellectually bankrupt. My self-control gave me the courage to speak up, respectfully, to alter the outcomes! 

There are numerous examples when the Navy lacked self-control, giving rise to compounding problems: the birth of the littoral combatant ship; the failure of Task Force Excel to provide relevant training to our sailors; and the constant, unnecessary changes to Navy uniforms, ethics training, and the physical readiness test.  Surely some of those decisions could have been avoided if intelligent people had had the self-control to speak truth to power.

Self-Control Makes the Individual and the Team Better!

Before I took command of the USS Grayling (SSN-646), I had adopted the philosophy of self-control—no one else was to blame and I am responsible for my decisions. Soon after taking command, however, I sensed that the ship’s wardroom and crew were missing the strength of this philosophy. So I worked to turn that around.

One event that comes to mind occurred during a Mediterranean deployment in the Spring of 1983. As commanding officer of Grayling , I was reviewing some engineering reports and logs in my stateroom. My attention focused on a whole ship survey that was completed in about five minutes. This type of housekeeping survey generally took an hour or more to complete.

As I contemplated this incongruent log entry, the sailor who had completed the survey walked by my stateroom. I asked him how he could have completed his survey so quickly and he instantly replied that he had falsified the log.

Immediately I knew my seniors would expect me to remove the sailor from the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program and submarines.

I agonized about what do to for a while and realized that I needed to display self-control in this instance if I were to get my crew to understand the concept and get my leadership on board. As a result, I took this young sailor to mast and fined him and reduced him in rank for falsifying a log. I did not, however, remove his nuclear and submarine qualifications because he had so quickly and honestly admitted his failure.

The lesson in self-control for my crew was superb. They saw that I took action, but they also saw that I didn’t kill a good sailor’s career for one mistake. They knew I would be counseled strongly by my seniors for not disqualifying the sailor. I think my crew saw that there are degrees of accountability and that one must evaluate all the details and not just blindly comply with rules to please the chain of command.

I was strongly counseled by my seniors, but my crew learned that we must create an environment that fosters openness and honesty. My command tour became a treasure after that event because my crew opened up, shared and accepted opinions openly, and they knew they were part of something that was much bigger than themselves as individuals!

Every officer, chief, and petty officer in the Navy must understand that they are in control of their own lives and careers. Together we all can lead organizations— divisions, departments, ships, or event fleets—that control their own destinies to make the Navy better as a whole. 


Vice Admiral Konetzni , known as “Big Al, the Sailor’s Pal,” served as the deputy and chief of staff to the Commander, Fleet Forces Command, before retiring from the Navy in 2004. His previous assignments included Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet. In 2016, he retired as vice president and general manager of Oceaneering International Inc.’s Advanced Technologies Marine Services Division.

 

 
 

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