The Surface-Warfare Model

By Lieutenant Lawrence Heyworth IV, U.S. Navy

In studying leadership, surface warfare officers (SWOs), like their fellow military professionals, gravitate toward histories of extreme heroism in combat. Stories of Colonel John Ripley and the bridge at Dong Ha, Vice Admiral James Stockdale in the Hanoi Hilton, or the courageous crews depicted in The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors are useful because abstract concepts are made more tangible in the face of danger. These heroes inspire a sense of duty to which SWOs can relate in their chosen profession. The pitfall, however, is the confusion of valor with leadership. Junior SWOs can be forgiven for feeling that their opportunities for leadership are inconsequential compared with those of their combat-hardened peers in other services. Nothing could be further from the truth.

While most active SWOs have not been called to lead sailors into direct combat, they are still called daily to lead. Such persistent commitment to professionalism and personal development is not only crucial to the readiness of a warship, it can serve as the foundation for heroic leadership. While we hope our sailors and officers are never burdened with harrowing circumstances such as those Stockdale and Ripley confronted, the surface-warfare career model develops leaders who will rise to meet extraordinary challenges.

Observing and Following Leaders: Midshipmen

Commissioning sources provide most midshipmen or officer candidates with their first opportunity to observe military leadership firsthand. Attentive midshipmen should have no trouble recognizing positive qualities in their immediate leaders, many of whom are senior midshipmen. They are afforded time and opportunity for study, introspection, and exercise of leadership, and they are expected to develop a personal style that emulates the positive and effective while consciously avoiding the negative. This process is illustrated throughout James Webb’s novel about the Naval Academy, A Sense of Honor:

The clock ticked over to zero nine-hundred and [Commander] Pratt immediately opened the door from his private office. It was almost comical, thought [Marine Corps Captain] Lenahan, rising to attention with the others, that a man could put so much energy into such wasted routine, while being so absolutely empty of real leadership . . . Lenahan briefly fantasized about the bulky battalion officer leaning against the door inside his office, hand on the knob, waiting for the clock to tick over. Punctuality, the thick brain would be pulsing, as he watched the clock. Punctuality is a key to good leadership. I will be punctual. I will have nothing important to say, but that’s all right. I was exactly on time.1

A midshipman’s moral development is critical to her or his foundation as a leader. Most commissioning sources underscore this through an honor concept or code to which midshipmen are expected to adhere. In addition, most officer candidates are required to take classes in ethics and morality. Direct observation should further cement a midshipman’s moral conduct.

In addition to developing their own leadership ability, they begin to learn and practice active followership. Most officers eventually have the unenviable task of leading a command in a direction that may be correct but will be extremely difficult. It is at such times that active followership becomes important. In the words of Technology, Entertainment, Design speaker Derek Sivers, “The first follower is what transforms a lone nut into a leader.”2 Without the active support of influential members of a group, even the most well-intentioned leaders can find themselves atop a caustic and cynical organization.

Midshipmen and officer candidates at every commissioning source likely hear their campus referred to as a “leadership laboratory”: each stage in pre-commissioning provides fresh opportunities to follow, mentor, train, and lead. This suggests that the period before commissioning is when a leader hones his craft, and once commissioned, he executes. Instead, commissioning should be thought of as a license to learn. Leadership development continues steadily throughout a SWO’s career. Officers are commissioned with different leadership potential, but even the most talented will be quickly eclipsed by less-gifted peers if they do not continually refine their skills.

First-Tour Division Officer: Avoiding “Likership”

The moment a new SWO checks in on board his first ship, he must be completely prepared to set a strong moral example for his division. A sophisticated academic understanding of morality and ethics is unnecessary; junior leaders must simply always do what is right. Entry-level officers who find themselves close in age and life experience to those under their charge will be tempted to practice “likership” in place of leadership. But sailors don’t need another friend; they have plenty to choose from in their berthing. What they need is the very best leader.

Division officers may be initially tempted to always be the nice guy to gain the favor of their subordinates, but sailors deserve better. One division officer learned this when standing watch in an important but often overlooked watch station: after steering. SWOs man after steering as supervisors during restricted maneuvering situations, when local control may be taken at the rudders in the event of a loss of steering from the pilothouse.

Although critical in an emergency, this watch quickly becomes tedious, and the hum of machinery makes it difficult for junior sailors to stay awake. Away from the accountability of senior officers and chiefs, this young SWO’s watch standers let down their guard and began to sleep during the restricted maneuvering situation. Uncomfortable as it was, the ensign insisted they stay awake throughout the watch. Initially they were resentful, but a surprise visit to after steering by the executive officer vindicated the ensign. By being the nice guy and allowing his sailors the easy way out, he would have let them all down.

Upon commissioning, new SWOs are routinely placed in charge of a division of 10 to 30 sailors, some many years their senior. These officers may question if their role can be anything more than figurehead, since they are so inexperienced compared with their senior technicians. On the contrary, this lack of experience forces junior SWOs to tune in to the expert and to support and amplify that person. Division officers learn to recognize talent around them and use it to further their ship’s goals.

They also play a crucial role in translating command-level guidance and long-term vision for individual sailors. Sailors value knowing the why behind orders, and they need to know their role contributes to the mission. A well-informed sailor is a satisfied sailor. This often takes place at morning quarters, when leaders deliver purpose, motivation, and direction. Furthermore, when a division officer has a daily plan, this ensures that sailors are used effectively, and it circumvents perceptions of command disorganization.

Division officers should strive to leave their first ships with good habits of moral leadership, the courage to avoid likership at all costs, the ability to tune into the expert, and the vision to translate command-level guidance to individual sailors.

Second-Tour Division Officer: “Leading Up”

Second-tour division officers transfer into the new command with credibility as they assume their new responsibilities. Expected to have achieved the Fleet standard of knowledge and experience, they will find themselves in a frequent audience with the commanding officer. Department heads will count on their counsel to a greater degree. These officers must learn how to “lead up.” This delicate form of leadership involves steering a senior officer toward the correct course of action through wise counsel or persuasive argument. Leading up never involves deceit; a junior leader discovered withholding information from the chain of command to steer a decision would instantly be labeled dishonest.

Second- tour division officers also maintain many of the same responsibilities they had in their first tour and are able to refine their leadership style. One important aspect of this style is knowing one’s people. Leaders must have personal knowledge of those placed in their care and their motivators. In this process, even more important is sailors’ awareness that leaders cares about their condition. Put more succinctly, “people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.”3

One second-tour division officer transferred to a new command and conducted an initial interview with an intelligent but underutilized and unmotivated third-class petty officer. Arguably the greatest raw talent in the division, this sailor did not seem to respond to appeals to personal pride, awards, or even the prospect of promotion. It was only through the division officer’s intense effort to know this person that he discovered his “currency,” or what he truly valued in life. The officer persuaded the captain to allow the sailor to miss an important two-week underway to attend a professionally enhancing school. After seeing the support of his chain of command and his shipmates assuming extra watches throughout the underway, the sailor returned to the ship motivated and reenergized, finally realizing those around him really cared about him. He advanced to second-class petty officer, became a leader within the division, and earned several advanced underway qualifications.

At the conclusion of their second tour, SWOs should be comfortable leading up and should fully know their people.

Shore Duty: Sharpen the Saw

Four years after commissioning, SWOs rotate to shore duty. This time away from the waterfront presents an invaluable opportunity to hone leadership style by reflecting on and critiquing time in the Fleet. Would I be an effective department head? Can I be a proficient tactical action officer? Am I a confident shiphandler? A confident leader? If not, what can I do to address my shortcomings before returning to the Fleet? The first step toward great leadership is always self-awareness and the confidence that empowers acting genuinely. Stephen R. Covey describes this as “sharpening the saw”: intentionally taking time to develop physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.4 Shore duty is when the surface-warfare community provides the time to do that.

Reading and thinking about leadership during this time is critical. Keeping a journal may prove helpful. Many officers find themselves in an academic environment during this tour, perhaps as an ROTC leadership instructor or a student at the Naval Postgraduate School, and transitioning to a studious mindset may be easier. But even officers a world away from academia must spend time becoming acquainted with and refining their leadership abilities. Consistent study should help cement the good leadership habits formed in junior officers on their sea tours and bring to light any shortcomings that need correction.

On shore duty, SWOs hone their personal leadership style through critical introspection and by sharpening the saw.

Department Head: Flexibility, Delegation, Trust

Department heads are expected to return to the Fleet as polished and ready leaders. Commanding officers count on them to wield command-wide influence in the arenas of their specialty. This is their time to lead in the intentional manner they developed on shore duty.

Thankfully officers are not called to change everything to match the characteristics of ideal leaders they study. In fact, the qualities of outstanding leaders are often difficult to pinpoint, because exceptional leadership is highly dependent on the situation. This is not just circumstantial, but depends as well on the personalities and skills of subordinates and what is natural for the leader himself. SWOs must learn to perceive these nuances and flex their style in order to effectively lead and delegate.

Delegation becomes essential as a department head, because the scope of responsibility is now far greater than one individual can manage. Instead of personally verifying every detail in a department, a SWO must develop a sense of where the most risk exists. By evaluating the impact and likelihood of failure, a department head can decide when to provide hands-on direction and when to back away and allow a competent subordinate to tackle a problem on his own. Only through a full awareness of sailors’ strengths and weaknesses can an officer begin to empower his team through delegation.

Responsible officers learn quickly that delegation without follow-up can be setting sailors and their ship up for failure. The frequency of follow-up will depend on the skills of the sailors and the consequences of non-completion. A competent navigator, for example, can rapidly demonstrate to a department head that he can function autonomously. But even the most talented and well-meaning officers can make mistakes. In one instance, a navigator had successfully guided his ship around the globe and in and out of dozens of different ports. His chain of command responded by providing less and less oversight. On the eve of an important straits transit, the commanding officer received an excited message from his squadron staff questioning why the ship was intending to travel through several internationally contested bodies of water without the required permission from the Fleet commander. The navigator did not have the experience to recognize the mistake in his plan, and his chain of command had failed to provide proper oversight or anticipate these requirements.

A crucial prerequisite to delegation is trust. Leaders who do not trust their subordinates are primed for micromanagement. But trusted sailors are more likely to reach their full potential. Confidence in an organization does not obviate the need for follow-up, which provides SWOs the opportunity to be out and about, to demonstrate to sailors that they value their efforts, and to provide gentle steering to prevent major steps in an incorrect direction.

Successful department heads learn to flex their leadership style, master delegation, and trust their sailors.

Surface Warriors: Developed Leaders

Upon completion of their department-head tours, some SWOs proceed directly to command a patrol-coastal or mine-countermeasures ship. Following these sea tours, another shore duty provides officers with another opportunity to sharpen the saw before executive officer/commanding officer Fleet up, and the leadership development model continues.

As SWOs return to the waterfront again and again throughout their careers, they are able to continually refine and develop their leadership styles. This and character development are habit-forming: a division officer who insists on the moral course of action throughout his career would be expected to act morally in command. Furthermore, all lessons and practices are cumulative. For example, department heads are called to active followership when the commanding officer sets command policy, relying on a skill they have honed since they were midshipmen.

Although a career progression in surface warfare provides an excellent opportunity to develop as a leader, not everyone takes full advantage of it. It is often difficult to detach oneself from daily stressors to instead focus on people. Introspection can be time-consuming and uncomfortable. Consequently commanding officers on rare occasions fail, but these are generally due to personal failures and do not suggest a flaw in the SWO leadership-development model or the command-selection process.  The surface-warfare career model is an excellent one for developing effective leaders with great consistency.

Junior SWOs must first realize that the daily leadership they are expected to provide is absolutely necessary to promote the teamwork and fidelity to high standards critical to combat readiness of the ship. It is just as real and important as that provided in a combat environment. Second, officers must recognize both the cumulative and habitual nature of their leadership development and focus on this aspect early and often. Each tour offers an important opportunity for growth. The natural progression in the surface-warfare career model is proven to develop officers capable of guiding large and complex organizations in or out of uniform. It ensures that when the next conflict arises, our surface fleet will have fully developed leaders throughout its ranks, standing ready to overcome extraordinary challenges.

1. James Webb, A Sense of Honor (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute press, 1995), 38–39.
2. Derek Sivers, “How to Start a Movement,” TED 2010:
3. John C. Maxwell. Winning with People: Discover the People Principles that Work for You Every Time (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007).
4. Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (New York: Free Press, 2004).

Lieutenant Heyworth IV, a 2005 Naval Academy graduate, is currently leading sailors at sea as a surface-warfare-officer department head.



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