History teaches us that leaders who successfully command armies and navies are extraordinary individuals, capable of convincing their fellow countrymen to follow them into battle and, in many cases, to their deaths. There are great stories of individuals rising to the occasion and leading the masses toward victory, but there are just as many untold stories of leaders struggling and failing to maintain decorum among the ranks and in their personal lives.
Anecdotes of bravery, courage, innovation, and perseverance are common, but the decorum of subordinates and personal conduct of the leaders are rarely discussed. Victory and mission accomplishment usually are the culmination of great leadership, but enforcing discipline and order—the darker side of leadership—is equally (if not more) important. General George Washington explained:
Nothing can be more hurtful to the service, than the neglect of discipline; for that discipline, more than numbers, gives one army the superiority over another. . . . Discipline is the soul of the army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak and esteem to all.
Correct Early, Uphold Standards
Leadership is not just about motivating and inspiring subordinates to achieve great success; it includes the responsibility to honestly assess and adjudicate their behavior. It is too common for commanders or officers-in-charge to be timid in documenting and evaluating their subordinates, believing that they will improve with time, that the infraction was a minor one, or that they will learn from their mistakes. This creates the perception that substandard conduct is acceptable. In addition, failure to document misconduct along with inflated fitness and character reports can allow a person of questionable integrity and competency to be retained and promoted to the highest enlisted and officer ranks.
Dishonest evaluation of a subordinate’s skill set or conduct does not do the subordinate any favors. Without honest feedback and guidance, an individual and an entire unit can fall away from acceptable standards of conduct while under the delusion of being on the right track. While it may be easier to avoid the unpleasantness of imposing consequences on those who fall short of the standard, service members cannot “grow out of” behaviors if they are not made aware of their shortfalls.
In attempting to “go easy,” the officer facilitates the continued service of someone who is inadequate and opens the door to additional issues. Letting one instance of misconduct or poor judgment slide may open the flood gates, as other subordinates may surmise that what is good for one is good for all. People need to know they will be held to a specific standard and that failure to meet and adhere to that standard will result in consequences.
Seek, Respect, Not Love
Some junior officers struggle to enforce standards. Every officer undoubtedly wants to be a good leader; however, many struggle with the reality that a good leader is not always well liked. Junior officers especially are sensitive and do not want to be disliked. Therefore, it must be stressed, both in writing and teaching, that being liked, making friends, and having the adoration of subordinates can be contrary to mission accomplishment.
While we can teach junior officers about good order and discipline and the need to reconcile service standards with the varying challenges of individual subordinates, they have emotions, desires, egos, and other shortcomings standing in the way of promoting good order and discipline.
Young naval officers—despite only being their mid- to late 20s—must take responsibility for the well-being, development, and disciple of multiple individuals, some of whom may have more time in the service (and on the planet) than they do. Too many remain inactive in the face of poor behavior and inadvertently condone the conduct and facilitate continued transgressions.
Subordinates expect (even demand) their leaders to act. When a leader fails to hold someone accountable, it sends the message that the leader is not serious. Discipline problems spread because subordinates take their cues from what their leader does and not from what their leader says. If junior officers want respect, responsibility, and results from their units they must hold subordinates accountable for their actions, good and bad.
Teach One, Reach One
The first step to ensuring junior officers understand the processes, procedures, and ramifications of military justice is to educate them early in their careers. Currently, judge advocates and administrative personnel conduct mandatory training courses for field-grade officers about to take command. In these courses, staff officers teach senior line officers how to manage and address instances of misconduct. Unfortunately, by the time this instruction is given, officers already have begun to develop their own views on military justice based on their limited experience and without the full gamut of resources available. The one- to two-hour class presented during Officer Candidate School, the Basic School, and/or other Military Occupational Specialty school is insufficient to address an area of responsibility that will consume much of the junior officer’s time.
At each stage of their professional development, to be considered professional military education (PME) complete, officers from ranks of O-1 through O-4 should be required to complete rank-appropriate classes in command investigations, nonjudicial punishments, courts martial, and administrative separations, as well as general topics on counseling and documenting the performance of subordinates. These courses should emphasize military justice, good order, and strict discipline as they relate to mission capabilities and holding subordinates accountable.
In addition, prior to exercising their nonjudicial punishment authority, serving as a court-martial convening authority, summary courts-martial officer, member of a courts-martial panel (jury) or separation board, junior officers should be required to attend a proceeding of the same. The experience of seeing these processes from beginning to end, followed by an opportunity to discuss why certain actions were or were not taken with the commanding officer, judge advocate, and support staff, will provide insight into the system that governs judicial and administrative actions. This will produce well-informed, experienced officers capable of making enlightened decisions about discipline and misconduct in their units.
Discipline to Win
In an era where cheating scandals, inappropriate email traffic, sexual impropriety, abuse of security access, social media indecency, bribery, and the compromise of sensitive documents and information are flooding the news channels, it is understandable why outside parties could suspect a breakdown in ethics within the naval/military service. Notwithstanding that these violations do not represent the majority or the norm, these instances of misconduct are illustrative of the gradual departure from the standards, which is perpetuated by some officers who fail to live up to and strictly enforce the rules and regulations of the service.
Standards and discipline are the foundation of what is professionally, legally and morally correct. The absence of discipline and standards negatively affects our ability to accomplish our mission and to lead those under our charge, diminishing the sustainability and readiness of the service. Naval officers must overcome their desire to befriend subordinates and embrace the dark side of leadership to achieve and sustain the good order and discipline necessary to survive, fight, and win our nation’s wars.