Organizational problems are difficult to solve without a focused executive leading the charge. Following the 9/11 attacks and a series of natural disasters in the early 2000s, the Coast Guard experienced unprecedented public and Congressional support, with its authorities and budget ballooning as it proved its utility to the nation. Though the work to accomplish these missions was collective, then-Commandant Admiral Thad Allen proved to be one of few executives in the service’s history able to seize the opportunities presented.
Subsequent Coast Guard leaders have been unable to achieve similar outcomes during ongoing social movements and have even missed opportunities to garner Congressional and public support by meeting their demands to advance diversity and inclusion in the service. Such missed opportunities are now generating external action to force the changes with consequences to the service’s reputation. Chester Barnard’s strategic management theory proposes that “the executive, not the leadership team, the organization, empowerment, or a combination of management choices” is the source of an organization’s success. Enlisted officers in charge of boat stations, cutters, and aids to navigation teams are the Coast Guard’s executive leaders with the greatest potential to influence both within and outside of the organization because of their operational nature and close interactions with the public, but the service has not made developing and selecting them consistent with the nation’s diversity a priority. Doing so is now necessary to achieve the changes being demanded.
Advancing a diverse group to flag rank is insufficient, because many flag billets lack the characteristics of a truly executive position. Instead, diversity must be achieved in the operational units in which opportunities for first-person heroics and recognition expand the ability of even enlisted executives to influence. These selections cannot be a one-time event involving a handful of individuals. The severity of the service’s problem, increasing legislative pressure, and competition with other agencies and the private sector for talent require substantive and sustained action to achieve lasting organization change, not a one-time event affecting a handful of individuals.
For example, the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, has struggled to achieve diversity and, despite work over the past decade to bolster its percentage of minority and female cadets, has been subject to repeated Congressional investigations and academic studies that have found minority and female cadets graduate at a lower rate than the average and suffer from a disproportionately high share of disciplinary actions. Such inquiries have caused Congress to demand action from agency leaders. In one recent hearing in which the service’s senior most leader was called to testify, a lower-ranking flag officer was sent instead, generating complaints of obstruction from several members of Congress. Rather than limit their response to a public statement admonishing the service, Congress instead blocked the nominations of two officers the service had recommended for promotion to flag rank. One nominee had made social media posts disparaging Congress and minorities while he was in command of the service’s enlisted training center at Cape May, New Jersey. The other was found to have taken little or no action to investigate harassment and discrimination complaints while she was in a leadership role at the Coast Guard Academy.
Blocking two flag promotions in a service with only 45 admirals is a significant development, particularly when they held key positions at the service’s enlisted and officer accession points. Congress also included language in the latest National Defense Authorization Act that requires the Coast Guard create a public strategy to improve leadership development and foster a culture of inclusion and diversity, immediately implement the recommendations of recent Office of Inspector General reports, and establish advisory boards on women and minorities at the Coast Guard Academy.
Though Congress provided these mandates, advisory boards and service-wide training will not solve the Coast Guard’s inclusion and diversity problem. What is needed is executive attention like that taken in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy noticed there were no African Americans in the Coast Guard Academy cadet unit marching in his inaugural parade and remarked, “That's not acceptable. Something ought to be done about it.” The next day a presidential aide contacted the Treasury Secretary, who ordered Academy officials to scrutinize their admissions policies and ensure they did not discriminate against blacks. Had President Kennedy been alive three years later to deliver his scheduled commencement address at the Academy, there is little doubt that, if he had not seen black faces among corps of cadets, some commissions would have been rescinded. Dramatic change requires executive leaders to address tough problems decisively, with such changes best made under the leadership of those motivated by life experience relative to the problem.
Coast Guard African American Executives
Four African Americans have achieved flag grade in the service. The first was Rear Admiral Erroll Brown. Twice a cutter executive officer with multiple tours at Coast Guard Headquarters, Admiral Brown never held an operational command and is best known for being the service’s first black admiral. Rear Admiral Stephen Rochon and Vice Admiral Manson K. Brown, the second and third admirals, both served in positions of immense responsibility, but never held operational commands, and are obscure among service members because of it. The fourth and most recent is Rear Admiral Michael J. Johnston, the Ninth District Commander.
Executive roles yield recognition, and even Vice Admiral Brown is recognized holding one executive position at the very start of his career—the first African American to command the cadet brigade in the history of the Coast Guard Academy. Eighth Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Vince Patton held no command position during his career, but his widespread influence persists even into retirement because he was the first African American promoted to the highest paygrade possible for an enlisted member—E-10, which has many characteristics of an executive position.
Obtaining a flag may grant minor celebrity, but, in the Coast Guard, real recognition is achieved by being first or by successfully leading operational units at sea, whether on board cutters, boats, or aircraft. Many significant firsts have been filled, leaving the best option for recognition and influence in operational command. Some will argue that service as the commander of a shoreside sector, district, or area is operational, but the reality is, unless your boots get wet, you have an uphill battle for true relevance.
Examples of executives with influence during their lifetimes and sustained recognition through today include Captain Michael Healy, who captained the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear, Keeper Richard Etheridge, who led the surfmen assigned to the Pea Island Life-Saving Station, and Commander Merle James Smith, who commanded the patrol boats Point Mast and Point Ellis during the Vietnam War. Though he was the only African American to have a commission in any of the Coast Guard’s predecessor services and the first to command any government vessel of the United States, Healy is known less for those firsts than for commanding a decorated cutter assigned to patrol the remote and dangerous Alaskan coast. Etheridge similarly is not known only for being the first African American to command a U.S. government installation, but for the lives he and his all–African American crew saved or died trying to. Though known as the first African American to graduate from the Coast Guard Academy (1966), Commander Smith is most recognized for wartime service that saw him recognized with the Bronze Star for actions in close-quarters combat, the first by a black officer in command of a U.S. warship.
To improve its demographics, the Coast Guard needs to promote more minorities into executive positions in which they will gain first-hand leadership experience in rescues, interdictions, storms, and disasters.
The bulk of Coast Guard operational commands are held by enlisted officers in charge (OICs)—all boatswains mates (BMs) in paygrades E-6 to E-9—who will not attend the Coast Guard Academy and have no viable path to Commandant. Enlisted OICs are vested by Coast Guard Regulations with the responsibilities and authorities of a commanding officer, with few exceptions. Lewis Wescott was the first black OIC, assuming command of Station Pea Island when the Coast Guard was established in 1915. He was followed in 1928 by Boatswain’s Mate First Class Clarence Samuels, who took command of Patrol Boat AB-15 to become the first African American to command a Coast Guard cutter. It took until 2017 for Chief Boatswain’s Mate Malia Chasteen to take command of the CGC Tackle and become the first African American female OIC. Though we have examples of minorities and women serving in OIC roles, particularly early in the service’s history, their numbers are few. Despite shore-based boat units providing the bulk of the operational statistics for the Coast Guard—the same statistics that drive budgets and generate public support—those commanding them today and serving as the face of the Coast Guard at the local level are overwhelmingly enlisted white males. This presents two significant problems for diversity and inclusion.
First, enlisted OICs are not positioned to ascend to the highest ranks of the service. This negatively impacts not only the budgets, facilities, and support services of boat stations, but also makes leading them an afterthought at the highest levels, as the commissioned officers filling headquarters and controlling the purse and policies have no experience in the community of work. Some will argue that Sectors fill such a void, but these are manufactured and redundant shoreside command roles that confuse how enlisted OICs lead by presenting a dangerous parallel chain of command lacking the same brand of experience and influence (8). Many senior leaders are likely unaware the opportunity even exists to advance the diversity of this lower tier of executive enlisted leaders, a tier now pulling candidates not from the officer corps, but from a much larger and diverse pool of enlisted candidates. Providing opportunities for command to enlisted members allows the service significant potential to diversify its executives through targeted selection, but it simultaneously limits some ability of these leaders and their community of work to influence within the organization as they have no possibility of ascending to the highest ranks.
Providing commissions to this tier of executives with a path to the senior executive role in the service would drastically improve both internal and external influence and could easily be achieved by reprograming billets from sectors, which are non-operational and officer-heavy. Coupled with officer recruiting efforts and academy admissions that prioritize diversity, opening these operational assignments to the commissioned officer corps would aid recruiting efforts by providing additional opportunity for shore and command duty, ensure visible diversity in executive leadership positions, and allow those filling the roles to engage in nearly daily heroics, the tales of which will broaden their influence.
A second problem is the flawed process used to select enlisted OICs. Candidates must sit for multiple oral boards with large numbers of senior personnel from disparate programs asking questions from an expansive range of topics. No formal training exists to prepare candidates for these boards, and vague standards for determining their outcome leave many unwilling to attempt them or frustrated following a failure to certify to the point they make no subsequent attempt. The decisions of these boards have potential to be highly subjective and negatively impact the Coast Guard’s largest enlisted rating and service wide diversity goals.
Many service members are suspicious that cronyism has, in part, sustained a lack of diversity in the ranks. Because they are only required for the boatswain’s mate rating, in-person boards for OIC screening are unnecessary. A panel review of electronic service records would be consistent with the process to select personnel for advancement to master chief (E-9) and special assignments, and the process to select commissioned officers for command. Subjectivity must be avoided to eliminate the potential for bias that impedes diversity in the workforce.
The public demands its Coast Guard be diverse, and its elected leaders in Congress are now acting on those demands. The service has established policies, working groups, and program offices whose sole focus has been to meet these demands, but none has worked. What has not been seen is a determined effort to increase the number of minority executives, much less those with the operational background to achieve maximum influence.
There is precedent for targeted selection of OICs and evidence of its successful application from the service’s early history. In 1879, an Inspector of the Life-Saving Service recommended Richard Etheridge for Keeper of the Pea Island Station following the discharge of the previous keeper and surfmen, whose failures resulted in unnecessary loss of life in a shipwreck. At the time, Etheridge was one of only eight African Americans in the entire service and one of its lowest ranking surfmen. The Inspector wrote that he was “aware that no colored man holds the position of Keeper in the Life-Saving Service,” but explained that Etheridge was such an excellent surfman that “the efficiency of the Service at Pea Island station will be greatly enhanced.” He further recommended Etheridge be allowed to select an all-black crew of surfmen. Etheridge went on to become a national hero and an executive leader with the operational background needed for maximum influence. His story continues to inspire others to serve even now.
As with Etheridge, a diverse cadre of executives is now needed to enhance the service and to meet the demands of the public we serve. The longer such recommendations are delayed, the greater the risks to the service’s future.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated since publication.