Sonar screens waterfall green. The officer of the deck spins on the periscope. The ping of active sonar reverberates through control. The battle group is in sight and the torpedomen ready their weapons as the submarine makes her stealthy approach. Is the watch team ready to persevere through this challenge, mentally prepared for the stress, and confident in their abilities and the value they bring to the team? Or is the watch team anxious, feeling overwhelmed or underutilized, and wishing that the trainer operator would take the simulator to freeze and end the scenario? The difference in these two watch teams—one prepared and confident, the other disjointed and apprehensive—is their leaders.
Junior officers are uniquely placed either to encourage improvement from every member of their watch team or to shut down feedback and stunt cohesion. The Sea Services have training pipelines to teach safe operation of nuclear reactors, correct use of navigational tools, and how to lead a capable force; the best officers exceed this baseline competence, using nontechnical skills to encourage perseverance and improve watch team cohesion and resilience across the ship. The best junior officers recognize the power of personality and use emotional intelligence to motivate their watch teams and divisions, modeling grit and creating environments that encourage gritty behavior from their peers and subordinates.
Grit has become a popular research topic as organizations discover its value. Grit is the ability to persevere to achieve long term goals or “a non-cognitive skill that influences the motivation to set a goal, exert effort towards that goal and persevere in pursuing it in response to negative performance feedback.” Without grit, sailors and Marines will struggle in the Sea Services. The ability to persevere, along with general intelligence and physical fitness, significantly contributes to successful completion of the Army Special Operations Forces selection course. West Point cadets with grit have 62 percent higher odds of remaining at the academy long term; grit predicts cadet retention more strongly than SAT scores, high school rank, or even self-control. Similarly, catching planes for six hours on the flight deck in the Persian Gulf heat requires grit. A two-day transit through the Suez Canal requires grit. A nine-month deployment or a 20-month dry-dock maintenance availability certainly require grit. As the service switches from a peacetime Navy to one prepared for war, grit becomes essential. How will the service react when punched harder than it has been in decades?
The Navy recognized the need to develop grit in its newest recruits, and incorporated the “warrior toughness” curriculum into boot camp, training to a warrior mind-set of commitment, preparation, execution, and reflection. Empirical data show that it is working. As Rear Admiral Michael Bernacchi, then commander of Naval Service Training Command, confirmed, “After trying this in three pilots and almost 1,000 recruits, the attrition rates for the warrior toughness divisions were about half of the control divisions, who weren’t getting the toughness training and were only given extra quiet time.” Developing these psychological skills along with character is essential for recruits, many of whom have had little experience handling the stresses that will become a routine part of their jobs. However, skills atrophy when not exercised and recruits must continue to develop warrior toughness after they report to their ships or squadrons or companies. They must use these skills to fight through qualifications, first deployments, and other challenges. Their leaders must acknowledge the need for warrior toughness in all members of the crew—from new recruits to salty chiefs—and develop these skills by fostering environments conducive to grit.
Creating the Environment
Environment is essential to encouraging “gritty” behavior. It is established by the commanding officer’s expectations, molded through watch team and divisional leaders, and enacted by every member of the team. For an example of an environment conducive to grit, consider the following: after a helmsman stumbles over an order, the officer of the deck pauses, repeats the correct order to the helmsman, commends her when she take correct action, and hotwashes what they learned. The engineering officer of the watch brings the comments on last week’s drills to watch, going over what each member of the team brings to each drill, emphasizing where they performed well and pointing out failures, his or her own included, and encouraging better performance next time. These leaders reward perseverance by encouraging their subordinates to try, even when they are uncertain of success, and by taking the time to teach. They set the tone, developing a respectful watch-team culture so early failures do not cause members to “shut down” but rather motivate them to keep at their tasks to the best of their improving abilities. They seek input, value each member’s opinions, and are willing to learn. When things get difficult, the team then feels empowered to speak up and offer advice, knowing they can contribute to tactical success. If a leader only dictates the plan and points out failures, followers are less inclined to contribute because of a decreased sense of their efforts’ value and lower commitment to the group.
Grit is difficult to completely disentangle from emotional intelligence, and the two traits can work in concert to achieve better watch-team and individual performance. Emotional intelligence enables leaders to moderate their behavior to “influence coworkers and to learn which practices will strengthen worker commitment and build positive attitudes among their workforce.” The trait most highly correlated with commitment to leadership is emotionality, which comprises relationship skills, emotional expression, empathy, and emotional perception. Followers want empathy, and building strong teams requires strong relationship skills. Followers’ commitment to their immediate superiors is essential for retention. Sailors may cherish the Navy’s Core Values, but that matters little if they lack a bond with their immediate superiors. Junior officers are the leaders in the best position to build bonds and group cohesion; they interact daily with numerous sailors on an individual level. A sense of belonging encourages grit by increasing sailors’ internal motivation to contribute, rather than relying on negative feedback to change behavior. In a tight watch team, a sailor is more likely to keep trying, knowing that their effort matters to a team they love. In less cohesive teams, the temptation to let someone else handle it or to let something slide is much stronger.
My favorite fellow junior officers had a running battle about who had the best hair, and they could make a watch team laugh with a well-timed joke or a tagline that became ubiquitous throughout the crew. Their ability to engage on a human level motivated their watch teams to perform at their best. Their expectations for high performance, which they also exemplified, were fulfilled. “We all we got” was one junior officer’s humorous mantra for his watch team. It is accurate in two ways, meaning both “we are a family who will spend one third of each day together” and “there is no outside assistance available.” “We all we got” means taking ownership of your team and challenging them to learn more and excel at their roles. It means recognizing limitations, delivering information and expectations in an accessible way, and rewarding efforts to improve. Understanding your subordinates, being cognizant of how you are perceived, and then moderating your behaviors to achieve positive outcomes requires a high level of emotional intelligence. What approach will cause my sonar supervisor to shut down as opposed to lead to a productive conversation about how he classified a certain warship? What teaching style does my electrical operator require, and how can I encourage perseverance in the face of adversity? How do I lead a senior chief with 25 years of experience to continued improvement? This personal style of leadership and the resulting relationships “increase the sense of connection and belonging, positive attitude, and cooperation within the group,” all outcomes that promote the smooth functioning of a hierarchical system while improving individual job and life satisfaction.
I chose to use my positive attitude as a leadership tool when faced with a significant extension at sea, knowing that it could be contagious. When a three-week drive across the Atlantic turned into a full deployment, I created a private hour to sulk, then reoriented myself towards the new goal and sold the extension to the crew, explaining the vital role we played as a highly capable, multimission platform. It involved a pep talk with a high-performing sailor who just wanted to be home for his family’s struggles, candid discussions with the team in control about our priorities, and many hours on the rowing machine. I relied on my emotional intelligence both to recognize when I needed self-care and when others needed encouragement. As a watch team, wardroom, and crew, we allowed ourselves to feel hardship, and then we continued on to achieve the long-term goals of a successful deployment, gaining valuable mission experience and completing qualifications. That is grit in action.
One of the key factors in our success was the environment set by our senior officers and noncommissioned officers. Senior leaders must create the latitude and trust for their juniors officers to in turn permit failure and continued improvement from their watch teams. Captains must accept the stumbles that come with learning while reinforcing standards, creating in their subordinates the will to improve. Micromanaging and only allowing decision-making at the highest levels ignores the value of junior members by both removing their ability to learn through experience and crushing their commitment to the team. I best learned this lesson as the officer of the deck for “crucible watches” for my fellow junior officers nearing the completion of their qualifications. In a safe operational environment, they took the conn, assuming responsibility for driving the ship, while I remained responsible for safety. The captain then initiated a cascade of stressful events. Watching a harried junior officer run from the helmsman who was turning the ship without an order to the quartermaster who suddenly was concerned about our navigational position to the sonar supervisor who reported a possible warship, I recognized that this crucible watch was not just a test of technical knowledge but of the ability to prioritize, self-regulate, and keep going even when it felt impossibly difficult.
The crucible watch was the ultimate recognition of the power of continuing to try and permitting failure so long as it resulted in learning, and of the need for the support of a strong watch team. It was encouragement from the captain himself to be gritty, played out for the entire ship. When the going gets tough for an individual, a watch team, a ship, or the Navy, we must pull together, pick ourselves up, and keep going because we care about one another and because we are confident that by persevering, we will succeed.