Crews—when it comes to character—are the best judge. The Navy too often sees the effect of its reluctance to count the crew’s wisdom in its fitness reporting system. The commanding officer (CO) of a guided-missile destroyer, for instance, was relieved for an inappropriate relationship with a second-class petty officer.1 The CO of a shore command was fired for “repeated, vigorous and obvious false statements” while being investigated for creating a hostile working environment and misuse of a government vehicle, in addition to other charges.2 The ongoing investigations into the Fat Leonard bribery scandal have led to at least three dozen legal cases, many involving high-ranking Navy officers who accepted bribes ranging from hotel suites to prostitutes.3
These and other high-visibility firings for character-related infractions have an outsized negative effect on the health and reputation of the force and demonstrate the need for a method to screen officers for issues of character. The Navy should change the fitness report (FitRep) system to include input from officers’ peers and subordinates. By doing so, the Navy could better identify those with detrimental character traits and appropriately limit their advancement.
Masking Bad Character
Detachment for cause (DFC)—as defined in the Naval Military Personnel Manual—is the administrative removal of an officer from his or her current assignment before the planned rotation date. A DFC is initiated when it is determined an officer’s job performance (competence) or personal conduct (character) have become detrimental to the mission and leaving the officer in place will have negative effects on the command. While removal from command has serious negative effects on an officer’s career and may be a black eye for the force, a DFC may be a good sign that the system has checks in place to remove an officer who demonstrates substandard performance. But the question remains: How are officers who display egregious failures of character able to reach their level of command when they have been screened for promotion and selection multiple times throughout their careers?
The Navy emphasizes developing competence in one’s field and has robust training and education programs to hone these skills over time. Multiple measures are used to identify those deficient in competence and limit their advancement. It does not seem, however, that issues of competence are the prevailing reason for CO DFCs. From 2010 to 2013 approximately 70 percent of COs fired were terminated for character-related issues.4 The severity of these firings is sometimes downplayed by noting that only a very small percentage of COs are fired each year, but these DFCs for character-related infractions have an asymmetric negative effect on the Navy relative to the number of commanding officer positions.
Though difficult to ascertain objectively, accounts of individuals separating from the service because of toxic working environments or poor examples from their supervisors are not uncommon. These environments are established, sustained, or condoned in large part by the CO. Senior Navy leaders are attempting to minimize detrimental character traits across the fleet with initiatives such as the Navy Leader Development Framework that emphasize the importance of strong character and offer multiple formal and informal means of fortifying character over time. While the Navy may be helping to develop leaders of admirable character in the officer corps, it does not seem to be screening out those who routinely fail to demonstrate it.
Fixing The FitRep
One method the Navy could use to better accomplish this is an alteration to the FitRep system that considers anonymous input from an officer’s peers and subordinates. Variations on these 360-degree reviews have been used in curricula for prospective executive and commanding officers, with variations on peer feedback suggested by others.5 How useful these reviews are in a later stage of an officer’s career is questionable, however.
Adverse behavior or traits that create toxic environments rarely develop only after an officer ascends to command. It is far more likely those behaviors always existed but were improperly addressed by the rating system. It can be a small task to hide these behaviors from senior leaders. It is impossible to hide these character deficiencies from individuals who work with and for an officer every day. Including unvarnished feedback from peers and subordinates in FitReps would communicate the way an officer conducts himself/herself.
There are many aspects of this system that must be worked out before it can be employed. The Navy must carefully determine the best questions to ask of peers and subordinates to most accurately assess the character of an officer. Just how much of the overall rating should be decided by peers and subordinates also would be determined and would likely shift during an officer’s career. Perhaps peers would have more importance in a junior officer’s assessment while a midgrade officer’s review may rely more on the feedback of subordinates. A senior officer’s review might depend more on his or her senior rater. An iterative process to fine-tune the system would have to be in place after implementation.
One concern is that a review system that relies on input from an officer’s peers and subordinates will only reward those popular with the crew or wardroom and punish those who may not be as well-liked. It is true that some systems of anonymous evaluations allow individuals with an axe to grind to be overly harsh in a review of a peer or supervisor. At the same time, those individuals who like a certain peer or supervisor may be glowing with their praise. Eliminating a set percentage of the highest and lowest assessments could mitigate this concern. By allowing the senior rater to focus more on the center mass of assessments on the officer, he or she would likely get the most accurate picture of the officer being rated.
Another way to minimize this concern is carefully crafting the criteria on which an officer is rated by those around him or her. Keeping attributes focused on observations of mission accomplishment and teamwork rather than emotional perceptions would keep the emphasis on objective assessment and potentially be a better estimate of success in leadership roles.
Get Real with Grading
The Navy also may need to recalibrate its sense of what is sufficient performance for promotion. Perhaps that is a three on the current five-point scale of FitRep attributes. In the existing system it is rare to receive less-than-stellar verbiage in a block 41 narrative section. It also is expected that an officer will start modestly and “trend to the right” to achieve near-perfect remarks by the end of his or her tour. Receiving a less-than-perfect mark will be a gut check. A good dose of humility can do wonders for an ego inflated by title or scope of influence. Feedback like this hopefully causes an officer to undergo serious self-reflection to bolster the character traits at which he or she excels while improving or discarding those that are unfavorable.
When received, these reviews should not be used punitively toward those receiving them or those suspected of giving them. All Navy officers would do well to have the humility to consider that the feedback given to them may be true, and every individual should be afforded the opportunity to change and correct past mistakes. An officer’s immediate superior should make every effort to assist in correcting these shortcomings. Those officers who fail to make the needed changes in conduct should fail to advance to the next career milestone, be it selection for promotion or for command.6 This would be the surest way to reduce character-related DFCs and contain toxic leadership behaviors.
Character Should Count
Recent changes to the promotion system such as the elimination of photographs and talk of removing references to gender likely will increase diversity and reduce bias in the process. This will potentially level the playing field with an increased focus on performance. But the Navy’s promotion system cannot be its most effective without a means to assess the character of officers on FitReps. It is an often-used adage that promotion boards select the best records, not necessarily the best officers. While demonstrating sustained superior performance and having an exemplary record are not mutually exclusive, there seem to be far too many examples when these do not occur in tandem.
Many cases exist in which high-performing officers with model character fail to select because of variables such as timing, a CO’s FitRep writing style, or lack of mentorship. Conversely, one need not look far to find examples of officers selected for the next milestone who demonstrate substantial decrements in character or competence. These poor traits undoubtedly were known by those with whom the officer served. As a force, the Navy should not be satisfied with this and can do better.
The potential problems that may come with implementing a comprehensive system of peer and subordinate feedback on FitReps are not reasons to maintain the current course. Too many high-visibility DFCs for character-related issues continue to occur when those behaviors can and should be preempted long before an officer ascends to command. One’s status as a leader can only be determined by those being led. It would behoove Navy leaders to listen to those whom they presume to lead. It is time to improve the FitRep system to advance more true leaders and fewer officers who are prone to failure by a collapse of character.
1. Geoff Ziezulewicz, “‘Executing the Plan’: How a CO’s Warship Romance Got Him Canned,” Navy Times, 23 October 2019.
2. Gina Harkins, “Navy CO Was Fired Over ‘Repeated, Vigorous and Obvious False Statements: Investigation,” Military.com, 7 October 2019.
3. Gidget Fuentes, “Retired Navy Captain, CPO Plead Guilty to Bribery Charges in Latest ‘Fat Leonard’ Development,” USNI News, 10 June 2020.
4. Milton J. Sands III, “The Delta of Command: The Increasing Gap Between Character and Competence in the Navy’s Command Officer Screening and Selection,” The Counterterrorism and Public Policy Fellowship Program at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke (September 2015).
5. See CAPT John Cordle, USN (Ret.), “Loss of Confidence: What I Learned,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 143, no. 6 (June 2017); and LCDR Douglas Marsh, USN, “Evaluating the Evaluation System,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 146, no. 5 (May 2020).
6. CAPT Greg Stump, USCG, “Take on the Toxic Leader,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 143, no. 6 (June 2017).