Rucker (right)—observes replenishent at sea from the starboard bridge wing on the USS McCampbell (DDG-85). (PHOTO Courtesy of the author)
In 2006, the surface Navy announced its transition to “Fleet-Up” for lieutenant commander and commander commands, where an officer serves as executive officer (XO) for 18 months before assuming command for a follow-on 18 months on the same ship. Previously, officers served distinct XO and commanding officer (CO) tours, typically with a shore assignment separating them. I was the first XO of the McCampbell (DDG-85) to fleet up to CO, and my experiences might be helpful to others.
Establishing Command Priorities
You need a vision. Your command philosophy is your pre-game strategy that will inform, influence, and shape everything you hope to accomplish while in command. Under the traditional career track, the incoming CO likely was an unknown quantity. In contrast, the crew knows the Fleet-Up CO—or at least thinks so. What they may not realize is that as XO, you were executing your CO’s vision. So although they understand aspects of your personality and style, the crew by no means fully knows you and what your priorities will be as captain.
As a Fleet-Up CO in my ship, I realized I could not simply take command on Friday and then come to work on Monday executing business as usual. So that Monday morning, I reintroduced myself to the crew. Thus began a tornado of re-engagement with the crew at every level, cadre, and rank, individually in groups, where I outlined my vision and philosophy for the ship.
Three months in I still was working to ensure that pivot took hold. Your command philosophy won’t stick with a one-time rollout. For it to permeate into the deckplates, you will need to over-communicate your guidance at every level and in all things. This includes living your philosophy and talking about it in some fashion at every opportunity. Use every avenue for feedback (e.g., paygrade calls, division-in-the-spotlight, pre-event briefings, CO’s calls, walking around, etc.) to ensure your priorities and expectations are understood by your people. It also is worthwhile to develop a few pulse points to ensure your department heads, division officers, and the chief petty officer (CPO) and first class mess are aligned and leading with a common focus. In my experience, it is frequently within this group that your priorities and guidance can get muddled, hindering clear transmission to the crew. Getting your words to take root in your ship and crew just takes a little patience and a lot of repetition.
• Stay alert for billet-rank roll down. There is an appropriate time and place for the delegation of positional responsibilities and duties to more junior personnel. For some billets this should be a controlled process requiring your approval, lest you find key positions within your command unexpectedly turned over to junior, untrained, and inexperienced Sailors.
The turnover from senior leaders to more junior Sailors often includes a promise to train the junior Sailors in the job and provide the requisite oversight to ensure success. Unfortunately, you sometimes may find the turnover was long on promises and short on mentorship and training, leaving your young Sailor to figure it out on his or her own. I had one experience as XO where I did not watch this closely enough. Previously, the McCambpell had delivered a superb performance during her 3M certification. A little more than a year later, we had our local Afloat Training Group visit for a mid-cycle spot check, and we came up wanting. As I reflected on this stumble, I discovered we had experienced a “billet-rank roll down” across numerous 3M-centric billets. So with the commitment of the CPO mess, we went to work to implement some permanent changes that would prevent it from happening in the future. These changes included assigning two top, early promote E-6 Sailors—one to run our Damage Control Petty Officer Division as lead petty officer and the other to serve as assistant command 3M coordinator. Both had instant credibility across the command, which helped translate 3M to the junior Sailors. Later that year the crew delivered a big win at the next certification.
As CO (and XO), your visibility and approval on what key positions get changed out, when they shift, and who the replacement will be are important to ensuring there is rigor in the process.
• Your CPO mess is vital to success. Your CPO mess is the most effective engine for coordinating and executing command activity. It is important to convey to them that they have authority, responsibility, and accountability for ship 3M/material readiness, Sailor readiness and Sailor/divisional/departmental training in the pursuit of command combat readiness. They also own the maintaining of good order and discipline throughout the command and are vital in helping you forge a professional work environment. Involve your CPO mess in all aspects of shipboard planning, communication, coordination, and execution, to include discussing your philosophy at the inception of your command tour. In addition, your command master chief (CMC) is vital to this effort so ensure he or she is deeply involved in discussions regarding the CPO mess, crew and command.
• You are the lead trainer in your ship. Beyond CO-led leadership training with the wardroom, consider conducting professional leadership training with your CPO mess and your crew (by peer rank groups). You have plenty to teach them. This also is an opportunity to reinforce your command philosophy. Don’t be afraid to tackle vexing issues or tough topics within the command. Your Sailors can handle it, and you likely will get a better feel on how to address those issues after engaging with them.
• Define morale. Everyone may define morale a bit differently, but as CO, it is imperative that you settle on your own definition. I define it as the fighting spirit and esprit de corps of your ship and crew to win or succeed in combat (or any other mission, operation, certification, etc). Early in my tour, I discovered that a subset of my junior enlisted Sailors believed morale equated to their personal happiness. Nowhere in their “definition” did the value of teamwork or the importance of mission success factor. I pondered this disconnect, and what I came to realize is that morale often is greatly misunderstood, especially by our very junior officers and enlisted. Many could not even satisfactorily define it for themselves. Unfortunately, the concept of morale is not something formally taught in boot camp, commissioned officer accession sources, or any other training class. Consequently, your Sailors may gravitate to a definition more closely aligned to their individual happiness than to the crew, ship or teamwork. While some may presume this latter definition “turns the fun lamp out,” I think this is untrue. There is room for fun in building esprit de corps—whether it be swim calls, steel beach picnics, Captain’s Cups, etc.—but care must be taken to avoid getting trapped in a transactional relationship where we must “give” something to our crews to “get” some level of performance.
Leading as a Fleet-Up CO
• With Fleet-Up, assumption of command requires a rapid mental transition. Letting go of the routines and actions you developed as XO may be difficult, but you must break with those habits. First, your XO needs that space to do his or her job, develop the necessary relationships with the crew, and carry out your agenda. Second, if you don’t vacate that space there will be two people focused inward on the organization, and as CO, you need to be operating at the next level, thinking big picture and looking outside the command lifelines.
• You may have to let go of some of your past XO projects. As XO, you likely implemented a number of initiatives you particularly liked. Be careful of becoming wedded to those ways of doing business as your new XO is a different person who will encounter unique circumstances and might even have a better idea how to address an issue. Harness the full creativity of your XO. As an example, my XO came to me with an idea for a four-to-five-week command indoctrination program for new sailors. In his plan, sailors would belong to the Command Indoc Division until they completed all their basic, key qualifications. I sensed this proposal would cause significant consternation within the command, especially in the CPO mess, but the XO had a great idea, was passionate about it, and had a solid plan. So I told him run with it. He delivered a success that greatly contributed to improving combat and crew readiness.
• The XO is your primary advisor and back up. Use him or her to support you in complex events such as sea and anchor transits and replenishments at sea. Your XO can provide the varsity-level experience/perspective you may need to assist you in safely executing a major at-sea ship evolution. A case in point occurred during our docking in a small/crowded oversea port, with a harbor filled with shoal water and minimal maneuvering space. As we made our final approach to back into a tight berth that was bracketed with shoal water, I asked the XO to man the Voyage Management System (which displays electronic nautical charts) to let me know whether I needed the tugs to push more to clear the shoal area while I maneuvered us past the other moored ship to the pier. I trusted his judgment and experience to provide me timely information to ensure a safe mooring. In command, you cannot do everything yourself; your XO is there for support.
• The formality of the CO/XO relationship is critical. Under the traditional CO/XO system, there typically was five or more years of service difference between the commander command afloat CO and the XO. Under Fleet-Up, however, the CO and XO likely are near peers in seniority and possibly are year group peers. This greatly increases the probability they will know each other and might even be colleagues or friends. Not managed appropriately, this can generate an unhealthy CO/XO relationship. Because the CO and XO dynamic is the most vital one on the ship, that working relationship must be a formal one for the proper functioning of the ship.
• Trust your intuition. Often you will find your intuition recognized something was amiss before you realized it consciously. It could be the inflection in your officer of the deck’s voice when making a report or the sudden increase in the pitch of the engines that makes you wonder for a moment whether you should go to the bridge. Whatever the circumstance, listen to that voice. There’s a good chance you will be right. One afternoon in the East China Sea, my officer of the deck called to inform me that visibility had decreased but still was good enough that the dozens of fishing boats around us could be seen. Thirty minutes later, I received a second call, similar to the first, but there was something in the officer’s voice. So I decided to go to the bridge. Arriving five minutes later, I watched the visibility suddenly decrease sharply as we entered a fog bank. Within ten minutes, the 40 or more fishing boats that had surrounded us disappeared as visibility reduced to such a pea soup that I couldn’t even see my 5-inch main gun on the foc’sle. What ensued was a two-hour ordeal in which we had to maneuver through hundreds of densely packed fishing boats that could not be seen visually or on radar. I was glad I had listened to that little voice and come to the bridge when I did.
• Keep calm when things go bad. When your team is distressed (and possibly panicked), they will look to you to be the steady and calm eye in the storm. Exude that and they will steady themselves.
• The manner in which you receive bad news is eminently more important than how you take good news. Master your emotions and outward reaction so your people will be comfortable (and encouraged) to bring you bad news. It’s a thousand times worse if they are scared or discouraged from telling you bad news, which may cause them to go to extraordinary lengths to hide or otherwise not report it.
• Do not accept a casual response to an event failure in your chiefs and officers. Early in my CO tour, one of my division officers reported that we had failed the final graded evolution for the Flight Deck Firefighting Team Trainer course that certifies the team to battle a helicopter fire on deck. Although the failure was disappointing to me, a more alarming red flag was my officer’s nonchalant attitude toward the failure. He didn’t seem to think it was a big deal. An hour later, as I walked the ship, I ran across one of my petty officers (and a reliable barometer for the ship) who had participated in the failed event. This normally chipper, even-keeled Sailor looked more dejected and deflated than I had seen her in nearly two years. This was my second red flag: losing is demoralizing and can be a sharp blow to crew morale. I realized we had failed to set our Sailors up for success and needed to reverse this failure before permanent doubt crept in. We quickly regrouped, addressed the deficiencies on the Flight Deck Firefighting Team through effective training and hit a homerun on the course a couple weeks later. After the XO, CMC, and I consulted, we engaged with our CPO/officer leadership about the danger of becoming desensitized to failure, especially the impact failing can have on the crew’s ability to perform successfully in the future. Although we all understand that despite our best efforts, our ships and crews might come up short sometimes, we cannot allow them (or ourselves) to become casual with failing. As the adage goes, “Winning is contagious, but so is losing.”
• Be careful of the emotional high and the lows of command. There will be plenty of both fantastic days and bad days. Maintain an even emotional keel. Certainly allow yourself to enjoy those good days, but firewall yourself from the emotional storms that can come from a terrible day. This is essential because you likely will need to be the first person to bounce back and reinvigorate/reset the crew.
• Mind your own sleep. No one else can do this for you, so you have to be tuned to your own sleep patterns and fatigue levels. Encourage your XO to get a regular night’s sleep because you never know when you may need to call on her or him to join you for an emergent event/situation on the bridge or in the combat information center when you are fatigued. Do not try to be superhuman yourself; if you need a catnap during the day to recharge from a night of heavy contacts, frequent phone calls, and interrupted sleep, take it.
• Be disciplined in your watch bill assignments. Don’t place Sailors in key command-and-control watch stations if you are not confident they are ready. Also, consider signing all of your watch bills, including the in-port ones. Even if you only do this for a short time, it will give you a glimpse into the standards, performance, and consistency of your in-port watch bills across every duty section.
• Take care of your fellow COs on the waterfront. Help to build a strong CO waterfront camaraderie and support network and do your best to support your fellow waterfront COs. On occasion, they or their people will come to the ship with a request for some type of assistance (parts, people, etc.). Unless it is contrary to some rule, make all efforts to lean toward yes and grant their request. Consider that if your fellow CO is asking you for support, he or she is in great need, and you should find a way to help.
• Reach out when bad things happen on fellow ships. Occasionally something unfortunate may happen to one of your fellow COs on the waterfront (sailor injury, equipment casualty, etc.), which can precipitate an inquiry, investigation, or worse. When these things occur, there sometimes is a tendency for people to “distance” themselves from the affected person. Resist this behavior and reach out to your colleague and offer support (even if just a sympathetic ear). Knowing someone took the time to check in can be immensely uplifting during a particularly stressful time. When a fellow CO’s ship suffered a mishap, I’m glad I was there for the late night phone call during the investigation, when he felt no one on his ship understood what he was experiencing. Because of the absolute accountability of command, sometimes only another sitting or former CO can understand what it’s like to have your command’s and Sailor’s mistakes examined under the glaring light of investigation, an experience a CO will feel very keenly and personally. When my ship experienced a substantial engineering casualty that sidelined us for several months, even though it turned out to be a class-wide problem, I too felt these emotions during the immediate aftermath and investigation. That’s when the fellow CO safety net is needed, and I was grateful for their support. Remember, “there but for grace go I.”
• Preserve your decision space. Do not allow yourself to be rushed into making a policy or a non-urgent decision prematurely. In general, people will look for you to make a decision on their timeline, but you are not obliged to do so. Some presume not making a snap decision is indicative of unnecessary hesitation. This is not case. Being appropriately thoughtful and deliberative is the hallmark of a leader, not a weakness. You’ll know the situations where an immediate decision is required.
Your command afloat tour will race by at flank speed. It will offer you a level of independence and freedom of thought and action you will not previously have experienced. It will demand fortitude, patience, and grit, but you will derive tremendous satisfaction and inspiration watching your crew thrive and succeed. Take time to enjoy this rare opportunity, and don’t forget to take lots of photos. Have fun and let your Sailors and officers see that you genuinely like being the CO and have a high level of job satisfaction. Command afloat really is the best job in the Navy.