“Ensign, you’re going to stand right here and watch that boat,” my captain ordered me, “and you’re not going anywhere until they’ve moved away from the ship.”
“Yes sir,” I replied and dutifully took my position at the rail to watch the small boat come alongside our ship and simulate planting a bomb as part of a scheduled drill. It was all very logical—the captain was a direct sort of man, and he did not trust the small boat not to ding up the side of his vessel. Our ship’s participation in the base security drill was limited to serving as the target, and this was a fairly easy task for me as a newly minted in-port officer-of-the-day—make sure they do not scrape our paint. Check. It unfolded as planned: The boat came alongside, its crew placed the “bomb” (a sticker), and they pulled away. As I turned to leave, the captain approached again, this time with four or five civilians in tow. “Why don’t you stop wasting time,” he asked, “and see if you can actually find some real work to do?” This type of over-the-top, public mistreatment of his junior officers was typical of this man, and I was unfazed by it. “Yes, sir,” I responded, as the captain began walking away with his visitors—presumably a very distinguished group if the commanding officer himself was escorting them. One of the civilians lingered and approached me as I turned to leave. He smiled and extended his hand, which I shook. “Now you know how not to treat people when you get there,” he said.
I never learned his name. But I still think back to that moment, more than a decade later, even having held command myself. I learned more about leadership from a stranger whom I encountered for only a few seconds than I did from my first commanding officer, with whom I served a full year. That captain spent nearly 30 years in the military, holding command at the O-6 level and taking full responsibility for his ship and crew through extensive underway time. Whatever his flaws, he led. I do not know if the civilian ever wore the uniform, held command, or even supervised large numbers of people. But beyond doubt, he was a leader, too.
What separated the two men, of course, was decency: one gained satisfaction from trying to humiliate a young officer in front of others; the other saw that officer as someone worth encouraging through a bad situation. Having lived through negative leadership and having benefited from the generosity of a single, small, positive gesture, I strive to be like the latter. The lesson is simple and easily learned: be good to people.
But beyond that lesson, that memory brings me back to a more complex question about the interrelation between character and career success in the military. That is, if not all of the leaders we serve will be people of good character, what role does character play in terms of reaching senior positions?
Leadership studies and indoctrination focus on mostly positive but deductive examples—men and women who achieved great distinction and are thus presented as having had great character. But that inverted logic—successful, therefore admirable in character—belies most people’s experience. Nearly everyone has interacted with high-level superiors who lack strong character. And yet, leadership development courses are largely silent about the contradiction. My first captain had a successful career, including multiple safely completed deployments. The pleasure he took in mistreating people—his character defect—had no apparent negative effect on his professional life. How does a leader-in-development, whether a junior officer or enlisted, deal with and understand this reality?
Is this a flaw of the military system or a feature? Should rising leaders consider good character its own reward, not necessarily a path to professional success? Or, do the military services need to push for better alignment between character and career advancement? If a leader gets the job done, should his or her character really matter?
There is an important distinction between being good in the moral or ethical sense of civilian life and being effective in the military context, a measure that has a distinct moral and ethical value of its own. Military leaders are judged rightly on success or failure in situations of the highest consequence. They operate within a system of rigid discipline that often necessitates blunt interactions with subordinates. Ordinary manners and civilities that might be considered indicators of good civilian character are often dispensed with in military service.
Boot camp leaders and instructors of high-risk training courses are mandated to be more direct and brusque than high school teachers, for instance. Superiors in intense circumstances may shout commands. Even in routine day-to-day interactions, military supervisors may use a seemingly harsh tone in the interest of clarity and enforcing good order and discipline. Men and women in uniform should be accustomed to and even appreciative of this. Barring anything inappropriate or illegal (cases which demand immediate action by people of any rank or position), harsh words from a superior are not a big deal, and a professional should be able to take such treatment in stride and move on to get the job done.
Uniformed professionals may focus on getting the job done in the near-term, but they should not accept as inevitable those environments where mistreatment and disrespect are practiced for their own sake. Longer term, such environments have real consequences. A survey of Army officers in 2010 found that only 6 percent agreed that “the current military personnel system does a good job retaining the best leaders.” More than 90 percent believed that half or more of “the best officers leave the military early rather than serving a full career.” Just 30 percent believed that the military “does a good job promoting the right officers.”
In 2012, then–Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert revamped the Navy’s command screening process, in part to address the numerous reliefs-for-cause that had resulted from poor leadership and misbehavior. Ash Carter’s first speech as Secretary of Defense emphasized the need to refocus on finding and retaining the best people, especially in leadership roles.
The quality of senior military leadership is profoundly important because of the way in which leaders shape their organizations: heir character comes to define the norms, expectations, and practices of the group they oversee. As management theorist Edgar Schein puts it, “Culture is to a group what personality or character is to an individual.(1)
The military’s rigid, hierarchical structure, moreover, makes the effects of good or bad character mutually reinforcing and self-perpetuating. Leaders are forged in part by the prevailing culture of the organization in which they serve. Those most influenced by that culture naturally develop its desired traits, causing them not only to remain in the organization but to advance within it. They eventually become the leaders who continue to foster and strengthen the same culture that formed them.
If the impact of an otherwise-effective leader insulting subordinates were limited to the offense taken by said subordinates, this would not be much of a problem. But it is never that simple. If the leader’s poor character translates to negative culture, many talented people will choose to go elsewhere, as the Army survey suggests. Moreover, those who stay—the remaining pool from which all future organizational leaders will come—will have been shaped by that negative culture and be likely to reinforce it if they themselves become senior leaders.
This character-to-culture translation is the most serious consequence of poor leadership because the eventual result may actually be a loss of effectiveness in confronting threats to the nation. Indeed, the Army survey found that “65 percent of the [officers] agreed that the exit rate of the best officers leads to a less competent general-officer corps. Seventy-eight percent agreed that it harms national security [emphasis added].” The character flaws of military leaders, in other words, ultimately damage the security of the country.
What, then, can be done? Sometimes the answer is just to accept a leader’s negative traits and move on, noting the behavior as something to avoid in your own interactions with subordinates. Beyond this, though, you can make a positive difference by:
- Striving for self-improvement. Practice good character in leadership and seek out role models based not only on their career successes but also on their ability to create positive command environments. Use 360-degree feedback processes at regular intervals throughout your career progression.
- Engaging peers. Go beyond intervening or reporting policy violations to confront character issues with peers directly and constructively. The use of 360-degree feedback could be useful here as well. Share and seek lessons learned. Take advantage of informal and social interactions as well.
- Developing subordinates. Actively mentor subordinate leaders. Correct character issues on the spot and provide follow-on counseling. Weed out negative subordinates who are unresponsive to character development efforts. Discuss real-world examples of both positive and negative leadership; assign case studies of reliefs-for-cause and mishaps, with special attention given to the role of leadership failures.
- Building positive command environments. Employ existing tools such as the Defense Equal Opportunity Organizational Climate Survey (DEOCS) and the many leader development surveys and programs available through the individual services. Share the results with all hands and convene cross-rank groups to recommend solutions to deficiencies. Provide avenues for anonymous reporting of issues or recommendations (independent of existing avenues for reporting of actual violations of policies or the Uniform Code of Military Justice).
- Contributing to servicewide culture. Actively participate in and promote affinity groups. Gain familiarity with accession sources and operational communities that are not your own. Seek out opportunities to serve on promotion boards, screening and selection panels, and working groups, and include character issues in your deliberations. Write for appropriate outlets, such as Proceedings, and use others’ writings to discuss character development and challenges.
The character of military leaders has real consequences for the uniformed services and the country. While it may be true that junior personnel who are confronted with less-than-stellar superiors simply have to bear up under mistreatment or negativity, they must also learn the right lessons and grow positively. Properly channeled, their collective efforts can make real progress in aligning the military’s reward systems with the character traits that build positive cultures. In the meantime, not all is lost in every negative interaction. Thanks to my first commanding officer and an anonymous civilian, I learned early on how not to treat people.
1. Edgar Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership (New York: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 8.
Commander Duffy is the commanding officer of Coast Guard Maritime Safety and Security Team Miami.