Nobody asked me, but…Self-confidence—the First Requisite

By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U. S. Navy

The event that triggered this writing began one day as I questioned a junior officer on his method of training midshipmen on board one of the yard patrol craft. He had been criticizing and chastising the midshipmen on their performance before their peers. When I suggested that perhaps this was not the most effective method for motivating and educating his students, the JO told me, "That's the way it's done in the fleet, so I might as well get them used to it."

Why does the screamer exist in such epidemic proportions? Why apparently is he so often a surface warfare officer? What is it in the surface warfare community that creates or clones him?

The answer lies in our career pattern. From commissioning through the surface warfare officer's department head tour, the officer is operationally involved with the ship. He stands watches as the officer of the deck and tactical action officer; he schedules and plans; he is in direct contact with the ship's deckplates. He is intimately involved with the ship as an operational entity.

But, the end of the department head tour (or in some cases a follow-on lieutenant commander sea tour) marks the beginning of a period of decay. The surface warfare officer begins to lose touch with the operational aspects of the Navy. Several years ashore are followed by an executive officer tour, in which he has little or no contact with the ship's operations, but concentrates primarily on administrative functions. Several more years of shore duty follow. Then, one day, six to eight years since he was last in a truly operational billet, the surface warfare officer finds himself in total command of a ship—the ultimate operational challenge.

The new captain is suddenly expected to be an expert shiphandler, a sapient tactician, and the final word in all matters pertaining to his ship. Never mind that he probably hasn't handled a vessel under way in many years; that, as an executive officer, warfare tactics were relegated to his priority list after a myriad of inspections, reports, and records; or that he has been out of contact with a rapidly evolving fleet for more years than it took to develop the atom bomb.

Who can doubt that many individuals, finding themselves in this situation, doubt their own capabilities? Confidence is not a natural by-product of such a situation. And the man who lacks confidence in himself is characteristically distrustful of others and often is incapable of handling situations with the same degree of calm as the man who believes in himself.

What's the solution? It lies in shifting the emphasis of our thinking from paperwork to seamanship and tactical skills. We must be mariners and warriors first, managers and administrators second. Since I cannot begin to hope to offer plans for stemming the tide of paperwork which floods and floods but never ebbs, I am bound to look elsewhere for a solution.

The answer is radical but feasible. We must redefine the role of the executive officer.

Recent attempts have been made in this direction, but all too feeble. One solution suggested designating the executive officer (XO) as navigator on all Atlantic Fleet ships. The intent was good but lacked realism. Giving more responsibilities to an officer who is already working 24 hours a day is no more a viable solution than is attempting to solve a serious physical-fitness deficiency in the fleet by writing an instruction and requiring an annual test.

Another solution, even less realistic than the first, called for a general rethinking by the CO as to the role of his XO, considering him to be a true second-in-command rather than a mere administrative officer. The failure here is in expecting the commanding officer to realign his priorities without a corresponding realignment at other levels of the chain of command. No mention was made of who was going to move this mountain of paper in the XO's stead. Nowhere was it stated that the commanding officer's superiors were going to be understanding when the reports started to come in with less frequency. We must avoid the temptation of attempting to solve systemic problems with individual cures.

The solution lies in a radical change in shipboard organization. The executive officer ought to be responsible for the duties the current operations officer is handling, and the operations officer billet should be renamed administrative officer and be tasked with moving the paper at the department-head level. Current organization has the operations officer functioning as the CO's right-hand man for everything of an operational nature. This is a role which rightly belongs to the XO—the second-in- command.

The administrative officer would still be in the mainstream because he would be, like any department head, standing watches. He would continue to be responsible for the communications personnel and pick up the administrative ratings, while relinquishing the combat information center personnel to the XO's control.

The executive officer would use combat information center personnel much as he now uses the administrative personnel. Administrative control, such as division officer functions, might remain under the administrative department just as the yeomen, personnel-men, etc. are often under a separate division officer, even though they work almost exclusively for the XO. This same arrangement might also apply to the quartermaster, allowing the XO to function as the navigator in an operational sense, but leaving the administrative functions (chart and publication procurement and maintenance as well as division officer functions) to the administrative department.

This proposal helps the executive officer become a true second-in-command. And when it comes time for new commanding officers to take their commands, they will not have been far removed from the operational fleet. The result will be COs with more confidence in themselves, and consequently, they will be better leaders.

Samuel Johnson said it well in 1779: "Self-confidence is the first requisite to great undertakings."

 

Thomas J. Cutler is a retired lieutenant commander and former gunner's mate second class who served in patrol craft, cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft carriers. His varied assignments included an in-country Vietnam tour, small craft command, and nine years at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he served as Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Seamanship & Navigation Department and Associate Chairman of the History Department. While at the Academy, he was awarded the William P. Clements Award for Excellence in Education (military teacher of the year).

He is the founder and former Director of the Walbrook Maritime Academy in Baltimore. Currently he is Fleet Professor of Strategy and Policy with the Naval War College and is the Director of Professional Publishing at the U.S. Naval Institute.

Winner of the Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Naval Literature, the U.S. Naval Institute Press Author of the Year, and the U.S. Maritime Literature Award, his published works include NavCivGuide: A Handbook for Civilians in the U.S. Navy; A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy [one of the books in the Chief of Naval Operations Reading Program]; The Battle of Leyte Gulf; Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal & Riverine Warfare in Vietnam; and the 22nd, 23rd (Centennial), and 24th editions of The Bluejacket's Manual. His other works include revisions of Jack Sweetman's The Illustrated History of the U.S. Naval Academy and Dutton's Nautical Navigation. He and his wife, Deborah W. Cutler, are the co-editors of the Dictionary of Naval Terms and the Dictionary of Naval Abbreviations.

His books have been published in various forms, including paperback and audio, and have appeared as main and alternate selections of the History Book Club, Military Book Club, and Book of the Month Club. He has served as a panelist, commentator, and keynote speaker on military and writing topics at many events and for various organizations, including the Naval History and Heritage Command, Smithsonian Institution, the Navy Memorial, U.S. Naval Academy, MacArthur Memorial Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, U.S. Naval Institute, Armed Forces Electronics Communications and Electronics Association, Naval War College, Civitan, and many veterans' organizations. His television appearances include the History Channel's Biography series, A&E's Our Century, Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, and CBS's 48 Hours.

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29 March - Presentation
12:00 PM | National Museum of the United States Navy | Washington, DC Read More

 
 

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From the Press

28 September - Presentation

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30 September - Lecture

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