U.S. Navy warship commanding officers (COs) are given a great opportunity during their command training in Newport, Rhode Island, to think deeply on the many issues of leadership at sea. In the relative safety and comfort of an academic environment, temporarily freed from the exhaustion of sea duty, they are encouraged to collect their thoughts and share them openly. Though the exercise is worthy, what most students take away is the realization that sailors do not remember their former captains’ command philosophies.
Sailors of different colors, creeds, sexual orientations, and gender identities stand watch on today’s ships. As worthy as the Navy’s commitment to meaningful diversity is, it comes with the cost that people of such varied backgrounds and experiences often lack the common history—regional, religious, educational—that can provide shared commitment and inspiration. What today’s sailors do have in common is a yearning for something more than tired recruiting lines or mere uniforms to bind them. To be a team, these individuals need and want to develop a shared, visceral “honor, courage, and commitment.”
When I assumed command of the USS Scout (MCM-8), I experienced this crew need firsthand. The Scout was a ship in need of a mission. She had spent nearly three years in a prolonged maintenance period, tied to the pier, lurching rather than driving toward operational readiness. The ship’s official motto, “Pathfinders—We Lead the Way,” had been rebranded “Pierfinders—Can’t Leave the Bay.” The ship’s engineering plant was nearing obsolescence, and more than a few sailors felt they were nearing it, too. Nevertheless, they showed a certain toughness—a profound grit and a genuine desire to get back in the fight.
Over those three years at the pier, nearly every experienced sailor had been replaced at least once. Most of the crew that welcomed me to command was made of recent boot camp graduates and officers and sailors whose first experience on a mine countermeasure ship was the day they checked on board. They made it work, as sailors do. They put in genuine effort as the ship was repaired, but there was luff in the sail. We needed to find a shared identity.
I knew our sailors needed to wake up each morning convinced of their own self-worth and to value the sometimes-unglamorous work of keeping an old, wooden minesweeping ship ready for action. Our crew needed to stomp out naysaying and open themselves to inspiration, but I was unsure how to accomplish it.
My breakthrough came in realizing that devising a command philosophy did not mean thinking about what the captain wanted to say, but instead thinking about what we all—captain included—needed to hear. The idea of a very active command charter, not a passive command philosophy, began to take shape. It took 30 days, and it changed everything.
Day 1: Deciding What We Were Trying to Build
The U.S. Navy is a young person’s arena. Even the “gray beards” are laughably young. With this in mind, we—the ship’s executive officer (XO), command senior chief, and I—assembled the crew on the pier and asked them to suspend any youthful cynicism for at least the next five minutes. We discussed, simply and frankly, that together we would build our own covenant, for this USS Scout at this moment in time.
We discussed that the ship was an empty hulk without its crew. If the Scout were to be lifeless, it would be because we each were not carrying our loads. All of us eventually would find ourselves in harm’s way. As the CO, my job was nothing more or less than to make them absolutely ready, but owning that readiness belonged to us all. Our crew had never looked so intent. They were listening.
Day Two: Write It down and Stick It on the Board
“How do you know when you’re ready for combat?”
We struggled with this opening question. Some of our sailors betrayed a reliance on their encyclopedic knowledge of Kung Fu movies. Others, without quite saying so, plainly thought they had some untapped reserve of toughness that our duty on the minesweeper could not possibly bring to the fore. The reality is that combat does not so much build character as reveal it. The person you are in peace is the person who shows up in crisis. There is, manifestly, no difference. We as a crew needed to understand this.
One brave sailor raised his hand and said, “Sir, I don’t know. I’ll be honest; I’m not getting that sense of purpose you’re talking about.” I jumped in and asked, “What’s going to make you ready? What makes for an effective combat team?” Those were the right questions, and our efforts began to gain steam. We passed around yellow sticky notes and agreed to write down every thought we had on the subject. “Write it down and stick it on the board!”
Day 14: Consolidate Input and Form Working Groups
We opened the floor to ideas, questions, random thoughts, and general input for two weeks, collecting more than 200 notes on the board. At the end, like children with a bucket of Halloween candy, we unceremoniously dumped this fantastic stream of consciousness all over the floor. It quickly became clear that some had approached the process with seriousness of mind and purpose, while others offered creativity and humor. The inputs were as varied as the sailors themselves:
• Be mindful of our mission, in every turn of the wrench.
• Get more macaroni and cheese on the menu.
• We need to train more.
• Everybody love everybody.
• Do it right, or do it twice.
As diverse as the notes first seemed, eight central themes emerged, eight values we wanted to instill in one another and were passionate about as a team. (In fact, there were only six, but our ship’s number is eight, so I deviated from the collaboration to make the command decision to add two more.) The list became: creativity, fairness, grit, humility, humor, initiative, mindfulness, and teamwork. Underlying all was a commitment to our personal and organizational integrity.
In retrospect, some of these were predictable, but—to our embarrassment—without this exercise we would not have thought to include humor. The good-natured jokes changed the mood of the exercise, and, in all seriousness, the ability to endure a true test with good humor is an essential trait.
Once we agreed on the eight values, we split into smaller groups. We counted off, one through eight, and chose leaders and teams to develop a mission statement for each value and a list of ways to foster it.
Day 21: Discover, Develop, and Share the Values
This is the point at which it became “we” doing it, not just something that the captain thought up and the crew played along with.
Each team was supposed to take one week to meet and think in depth about its respective value. At the end, they needed to present a mission statement, a few short paragraphs on their value and its importance to the ship and to our warfighting mission. In particular, teams were to consider things such as: what the ship and crew would gain for having developed it; how to build its quality; practical ways to grow as a team; exercises, activities—whatever might sharpen us into better warriors.
After a few days, we found progress wanting. Nearly everyone needed to be convinced to take it seriously. With all the important “real” ship’s work to be done, the captain’s “Kumbaya exercise” was not at the top of the list. But the XO, command senior chief, and I persisted, and minds began to open again.
Pathfinders on the Scout were expected to participate in building a command in which they could be enduringly proud, not a ship of sailors content to criticize from the sidelines. If they did not like something, this was their opportunity to do something about it. By the end of the week, we all were figuring it out together.
On an overcast Monday morning, we stood together, and each team tried to read its mission statement aloud, even as shipmates gave them a hard time for reading too softly. We encouraged them to continue, and thunderous clapping and slaps on backs provided the event’s soundtrack. When the last mission statement had been read, we told them their words would be used to craft our “Command Charter,” our shared commitment to our mission and to each other. Because of their efforts, that meeting would be the last we would have without a charter.
Day 22: Write It
Borrowing the themes generated in our focus groups, the command senior chief, XO, and I sat down to brainstorm. We listened to each other and jotted notes. Then one evening, I pieced together our first draft.
The first draft went to family, friends, mentors, and most important, the Scout’s command senior chief and XO, with a request that all pull no punches or worry about damaging my ego. They took a loosely bound compilation of ideas and pounded them, one comment at a time, into something in which to believe.
Day 30: The Command Charter
Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy go through six weeks of indoctrination in a process called “Plebe Summer.” Much of the experience feels like an elaborate push-up contest, and nearly all of it ends up a foggy memory. A few memories endure, however, especially an address each incoming class of midshipmen hears and remembers called “The Body Bag Speech.”
In respectful but rough tones, the senior midshipmen lay a body bag on the floor and share an elaborate story of leadership, highlighting in a way designed to be arresting decisions that lead to one of two outcomes: either the body bag will remain just a bag or it will be filled with human remains. This speech draws attention to the importance of your decision making as a leader. Midshipmen are supposed to begin to understand in that moment the significance of the responsibility for which they have volunteered. They will be charged with life-and-death decisions. The Body Bag Speech offered a poignant model for presenting our final Command Charter to the crew.
On a Monday morning, I delivered the speech with as much sense of occasion as I could muster. We reflected collectively on those friends and family we had lost to combat, ten names in all, including the father of one of our sailors killed by a Taliban fighter with an improvised explosive device. We held a moment of silence, and it proved tremendously sobering, particularly for our most junior sailors.
After honoring the fallen, we snapped to attention. The ship’s XO and command senior chief held an oversized copy of our new Command Charter upright on a table draped in white cloth, and as I read it aloud, the Naval Station loudspeakers then began playing the National Anthem in the military’s traditional observance of morning colors. The Scout’s crew reflected quietly on the charter’s words as the U.S. flag was raised in front of them. After the final note, we formed a line, uncapped a fountain pen, and each of us signed it. Because captains traditionally sign in blue ink, that was the color we all used to sign, as captains of our own action and intention.
Today: Did it work?
Sailors on the Scout know their Command Charter. They may not be able to recite it verbatim, but they can recount in detail its process and its substance. They remember being involved, and that is worth celebrating.
While it may be that an exercise like this is unlikely to alter significantly the life trajectories of our crew, for the Scout, writing the Command Charter is part of our collective legacy, a meaningful shared memory. When the conflicts and demands of difficult moments pull us apart, we have this expression of our joint effort to pull us back together. In crafting an active Command Charter, we moved from a passive command philosophy to an active focus on the one thing that can truly get a warship ready to fight: the sailor.