Ships and crews improve by establishing a culture centered on humility, accountability, and purpose.
Off the coast of New England, a ship is observed returning home. Upon closer scrutiny, something is awry. The ship is sailing in circles and men on board scurry quickly about the deck. The response to an offer of assistance is an emphatic “No!”
I was a department head on that ship. We were a smart, well-intentioned crew who wanted to succeed. We were crippled, however, by our inability to perform an accurate self-assessment and by our disdain of off-hull input. After several successful missions on deployment, none of the crew expected to fail a major assessment on our transit home. We were off course, blinded by our ego, and in desperate need of a lesson in humility.
Fortunately, when that lesson arrived, through a change in leadership, extra oversight, and mentorship, the crew was able to rise to the occasion. We ended our subsequent deployment successfully, culminating in a Battle Effectiveness Award—the “Battle E”—because we were able to define our purpose and the process necessary to fulfill it, to humble ourselves enough to recognize our imperfections, and to accept and even encourage outside assessment and recommendations. Success for any ship requires a clearly stated purpose and a process to sustain it across frequent personnel changes, maintenance periods, challenging transitions, and a variety of missions. It also requires a culture of humility; sailors must understand the high standard of performance required without thinking they are infallible. It means there is no place for excuses, and it depends on trust in leadership and purpose. Success, most of all, demands accountability. Self-assessments can only go so far, particularly when forward-deployed. Outside looks provide critical insights.
Junior officers perform a significant role in creating a culture of constant improvement through day-to-day interactions with senior leaders, sailors, and peers. Each interaction is a shaping opportunity as well as a challenge to the junior officer. He or she must think beyond the next personal qualification and focus on the role to be played in the team’s success. The ability to communicate purpose and process clearly, to embrace humility, and to learn the value of accountability gives the ship a much better chance of success. Before an officer reports to the ship, the majority of his or her life has revolved around individual success. That must change once on board a Navy ship.
The USS San Juan (SSN-751) went from a failed inspection to earning the Submarine Squadron 12 Battle Effectiveness Award through hard work and leadership of many, including the chilf of the boat, Master Chief Bill McLellan (center) and the Engineering Department master chief, Master Chief Wayne Manor (second from right). Here, Commander John Craddock receives the award from the commodore, Captain Ollie Lewis (left).
Purpose and Process
The Navy prescribes a process for almost everything done on a ship, from operations to requirements for qualification. The processes ought to cause individuals and crews to improve not just at specific tasks, but also in higher-order areas such as anticipation of problems, navigation, troubleshooting, casualty procedure execution, and many other things. Because of constant personnel changes and shifting operational requirements, none of the processes allow shortcuts. It is easy, once certified or forward-deployed, however, to lose sight of these facts, which can wind up derailing the processes. That is what we did. Shortly after our return, a mentor said something to me that brought me up short: “Doing things without a purpose did not yield the results you desired, because nothing was desired.”
He was right. We were doing drills for their own sake, not as an evaluation of training. We were working not only without purpose, we were also reinforcing bad habits, drifting further from established norms, and creating extensive damage to our culture, which required much effort to undo. On that deployment, my first as a department head, we performed scores of drills without considering the why behind them, without understanding the need for constant learning and improvement. It ended in failure.
To keep a crew focused, leaders must define the purpose—the why—at both the macro and microlevels. The macropurpose provides motivation, while the micropurpose drives desired improvement. A well-defined goal quantifies effectiveness, establishing a measurable delta between where we are and where we need to be for training. The macroscale allows specific improvements to become cultural changes. Playing—even winning—“Whack-a-Mole” with problems may feel like progress, but it also does not produce sustainable results.
Junior officers must move beyond personal qualifications and gain competency at team self-assessment through repetition of the improvement process: define the purpose, train, execute, assess training effectiveness, and provide feedback. The end goal must be to have a team that is better than it was the day before. A list of periodic refresher topics, specific training tied to upcoming evolutions, or an unexpected need resulting from a previous process’s assessment phase, can all serve as useful starting points if the purpose of each is clear to the team.
Humility often gets a bad rap in the military. It gets mistaken for weakness or a lack of confidence—an anticommand presence, so to speak. Humility means putting others before self and team before individual. It requires investment in character development, possession of a willingness to learn, and the self-awareness to know when to ask for help. It is essential to assisting leadership in achieving goals and providing valuable feedback to improve personal and crew performance.
When our ship concluded what had been a successful deployment with the embarrassment of a failed major inspection, our hubris and our flaws were exposed. It was no easy task to convince the team to embrace the need to improve our performance. The inspectors offered plenty of evidence of our faults. Each failing presented a new challenge and, with it, an opportunity to shape our character, recover trust, learn humility, and gain competence at the improvement process.
The wardroom set the tone for recovery. How the department heads and other junior officers responded would become the model on which crew members would base their responses. We checked our egos and moved out.
The shift began with a change in the way we spoke to one another. First, we minimized the ship’s rampant use of sarcasm. Sarcasm is destructive, demoralizing, causes distrust, and conveys an egotistical assumption that the speaker already knows the right answer. We replaced it with tones of respect and instruction. Second, we banned what we called “failure phrases,” such as: “That’s the way it’s always been,” “It was like that on my old boat,” and “It’s a class problem.” We insisted on a culture that would not tolerate excuses and became united in wanting a solution. Our new standard was to expect sustainable results. We would permit no more shortcuts that had caused the drift from the norm in the first place.We also learned to change the way we handled bad news. A leader who reacts poorly to bad news lets his or her ego stand in the way of improvement, because bad news will stop making its way to such a leader. A sailor who does not feel safe admitting a mistake cannot correct or learn from it. The improvement process will stagnate as a result, and morale will suffer. Bad habits will infiltrate the culture, festering and feeding off one another.
Egotism had crept its way into the qualification process as well, but no training program will ever produce perfect watchstanders. We moved to a “qualified, not proficient” mind-set and reduced risk by building balanced teams to allow for continued mentorship and growth. Sailors gained proficiency by contributing to the team on watch. This fostered learning, boosted morale, and allowed the newly qualified crew members to gain acceptance from their peers.
We restored trust in the qualification processes. They work. Almost every task is part of our apprenticeship program that grows the next generation. Allowing new talent to get involved and gain experience will provide context for their knowledge, which is crucial to continued success and buy-in from the team. Challenge new sailors, and in time they will not let you down. Crew morale will be improved by the autonomy and trust they know a strong self-assessment can bring. With that trust, leadership will provide a more challenging mission to execute.
A culture of constant improvement values outside perspectives. Too often we treat off-hull organizations’ offers to observe and assist as things to be avoided instead of as tools to help. My team was no different. An “us versus them” mentality had developed and become caustic.
No ship is good at everything. Squadrons and inspection teams have the capacity and perspective to gather best practices and lessons-learned from other ships and share them with each crew. They have the best opportunity to identify performance gaps. Building and fostering relationships with higher-level organizations—the squadron, in our case—can generate a sense of team as well as open doors for grace and mercy when needed. The outside accountability they provide raises standards, provides a system of built-in mentors, and helps identify problems and weaknesses in places the crew may not be looking.Every organization needs indicators it is headed in the right direction. Just as the ship looks for landmarks while navigating, the crew members need indicators that their training is helping prepare them to execute the ship’s missions. But indicators get missed for those who spend too much time “in the trenches.” Forward-deployed ships, especially, can go months without someone coming on board to provide an outside assessment. We shut the hatch and create our own world. Like ring laser gyros, crew complacency and perceived proficiency oscillate over time. How far the team has deviated from the norm comes into question.
From time to time, crews and navigation aids need calibration. Leaders attempt to point toward a purpose and stay the course to execute the mission. But leaders without external accountability eventually become as useless as a compass without North. Outside observation and evaluation shrink uncertainty and help leaders make regular small adjustments to keep the culture and the mission on track. Some assessments are more valuable than others, but in general they should be sought.
Reflect on your Tour
Much as a ship’s wake is briefly visible, the clarity of memory is short-lived; time can both heal wounds and create selective amnesia. Consider keeping a personal journal to capture the path you have taken to ensure you will not be doomed to repeat your mistakes; you may find new lessons each time you review them. Today’s crisis can easily become tomorrow’s faded memory, but a journal can help prevent the selective amnesia that allows us to rationalize, rather than repair, our defects.
If you simply put the past behind you, poorly communicate your purpose and process, fill your sails with ego, and ignore what others try to show you, you will find yourself headed into rough seas, both metaphorically and perhaps literally. To avoid them, stay humble, have purpose, and seek out external accountability. Build and foster a culture in your team that does the same.
Editor’s Note: This essay won second prize in the 2017 Leadership Essay Contest, sponsored with Dr. J. Phillip London and CACI International.
Lieutenant Commander Kelvington graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2005 and has served on two fast-attack submarines, the USS Albany (SSN-753) and the San Juan (SSN-751). He works for the Director of Undersea Warfare Division (N97) and will start the Submarine Command Course as a prospective executive officer this year.