I recently completed retired Admiral James Stavridis’s book, Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character. I have admired the admiral since he autographed The Division Officer’s Guide for me when he was a commander and I was a hospital corpsman second class. I have read everything he has written since, and this book is extraordinary.
His ten case studies of naval commanders helped me focus on two areas I have found to be “sore spots” in the world of leadership: humility and selflessness. For me, examples—good and bad—of both these qualities have popped up periodically. A couple come to mind, the first when I was an enlisted sailor on a guided-missile destroyer.
As part of the UNITAS XXIX deployment, we were in and out of port at least 15 times during that very rewarding period. The boatswain’s mates were busy with the sea and anchor details, trying to keep the ship spotless. Once, when pulling into port, the ship moored extremely hard, badly scrapping the paint along her starboard side. In an effort to allow the boatswain’s mates to enjoy as much liberty as everyone else, enlisted sailors came to their aid and helped repaint—while some of the officers laughed at the spectacle then went on liberty without helping.
Was this minor? We didn’t think so, and it sent a signal to every enlisted sailor that the officers neither respected them nor attempted to understand the ramifications of the mess they had made when mooring.
Fast forward to when I was an officer on an aircraft carrier. We were anchored off the coast, using liberty boats to get sailors back and forth to the ship. When the weather became too rough, the liberty boats were secured, stranding sailors ashore. The commanding officer made the decision to allow chief petty officers/gunnery sergeants and above to stay in hotels, while the lower ranks had to sleep in a cold warehouse. I found it interesting that not one Marine officer or senior enlisted Marine left their Marines; they stayed in the warehouse with them.
There are plenty of other examples, and I know we have all experienced them.
So are such instances minor? I have been on both sides of the fence—officer and enlisted—and, trust me, they are sore spots with our enlisted sailors; the people we claim to put first.
The importance of humility and selflessness in leadership was perhaps best summarized by Field Marshal Sir William Slim, commander of the British 14th Army in the Burma Campaign of World War II:
As officers, you will not eat, sleep, smoke, sit down, or lie down until your soldiers have had a chance to do these things. If you hold to this, they will follow you to the ends of the earth. . . .
Quite simply, you put the needs of your troops ahead of your own with every chance you get. As a platoon leader, I had a simple rule in the field, no squad leader could eat until all of his soldiers had eaten, the platoon sergeant could not eat until all of the squad leaders had eaten, and I could not eat until the platoon sergeant had eaten. On the surface it appears a minor gesture, but to the soldiers, it cements the bond between the leader and those led. Spare no effort to praise and reward soldiers for outstanding performance; it costs nothing and gains everything. Help them solve their problems and you will earn their loyalty. Remember, soldiers are smart and can smell a phony a mile away. Get to know the soldiers in your platoon. After three months, you should know their names, names of family members, home towns, and any unique problems with which you can help. Showcase your good soldiers to the company and battalion commanders. If you take good care of your soldiers, they will take care of you.
Sailors can spot a phony a mile away. Taking care of our people must be at the forefront of everything we do.