Saturday, April 18, 2009

Navy Leadership?

Leadership is a delicate thing: it is difficult to learn, requires constant attention, and can unravel as a result of the subtlest of causes. One of those causes is the perception of apathy. And the US Navy is suffering from it.

First, let me explain what I mean. It is virtually a cliché that the US Navy considers command at sea to be both the cornerstone of the Navy and the pinnacle of one’s career. Admiral after admiral will tell any listener that command at sea is not only the most important job in the Navy but was also the pinnacle of their career. The promotions that came after that were nice, but could not compare to being ‘in command’ of a ship at sea. However, when actions continually belie your words, it becomes increasingly difficult to place faith in any leadership.

Leadership is not easy. It takes times and effort and care. In any organization the people who make up that organization expect their leaders to ‘talk the talk’ and ‘walk the walk.’ Further, as the bond grows between the leader and the members of any organization there grows with it an understanding that the leader will be there to meet the challenges ahead with the rest of the organization. No organization – unless the leader is unfit or the organization is dysfunctional - likes to see the boss depart. This is particularly true for any organization that is project oriented, that is, is working toward a specific event or series of events to be held at a certain time. Like a football team preparing for the season, the coach both pulls the players together to make the team, and then holds them together and directs them. The captain of a ship is in much the same position: overseeing both the physical preparation of the ship for its deployment in the months ahead, and molding the crew – new sailors and old – into a cohesive, focused crew. Accordingly, the captain becomes the linchpin, holding together the entire organization – ship and crew – and providing it focus. To then remove one captain for anything other than true malfeasance immediately prior to a deployment would strike any thinking individual as a terribly bad idea. It is, in a word, is inconceivable.

Yet, it is exactly what the Navy is doing. Do to personnel policy issues, commanders are now given fixed time lines on their command ‘tours’ to ensure that everyone who has been selected for command has an opportunity. And so, a ship which departed on a four-month deployment from Norfolk Naval Base on 6 August 2008 had a scheduled change of command on 4 August. If this were an isolated event, it could be ignored. But, it isn’t. I know of several similar events within just the last six months, one in which the change of command was scheduled for the day of departure. In none of the cases that I am aware of was there a question of poor performance by the departing captain. All received warm words and medals. Yet they were relieved just as their ships were headed to combat zones.

What conclusion can we draw from this? The obvious one is that the Navy ‘talks the talk’ about leadership but doesn’t care to ‘walk the walk.’ If ships really were as important as the leadership insists, and if our sailors really were ‘our most important assets,’ there would be no question that the best people would be left in command – that is – the ones who had seen the ship and crew through their preparations for deployment, and personnel policies would be adjusted accordingly.

Is that likely? In a word: no. One story the author heard recently concerning a recent Chief of Naval Operations (the senior Navy officer) was that he told a man who had just been promoted to one-star (a rear admiral lower half) that, in effect, anyone could command a fleet, but the important work was in Washington. Thus, time in the fleet was important only in that it allowed the building up of ‘on-paper’ experiences, while the officer prepared for the real work on the Washington staffs.

If the senior leadership in the Navy believes that, then they will continue to impose policies that reflect that: key officers will be moved from one position to another so that they have the right ‘check in the box’ and can be promoted to the ‘important work’ on a major staff in Washington.

In the meantime, the sailors will increasingly see this for what it is – lip service – and the realities of leadership will continue to unravel. Another example came to light just with the release late last summer of the report on the fire onboard the aircraft carrier George Washington. Appropriately, the Captain and the Executive Officer (XO) were relieved. Unfortunately, this was a failure of leadership that runs much further into that command then just those two men.

For those who are not familiar with the report, the fire was started by some sailors disposing of lit cigarette butts in a fan room on the ship, which then spread through a number of different spaces on the ship and caused some serious damage. Reading between the lines it would seem that some sailors were using the fan room for a ‘club house’ where they could hide from the supervisors and smoke. And it is reasonable to suspect that it had been going on for some time.

This is where the failure of leadership begins: the Chiefs and junior officers who are responsible for maintaining order and discipline on any ship should have been aware that there were sailors who were ‘unaccounted for.’ Certainly, the captain and XO are to blame for letting this lack of leadership develop on the ship. But, so are their department heads, the division officers and the chiefs. There was an across the board failure of leadership. Is such an atmosphere present on other ships? Who knows? But, recent incidents suggest that there is, as evidenced by the problems the Navy experienced in Japan in the forward deployed forces stationed there, as well as in the failure of several ships to maintain combat readiness.

If this leadership is a problem that spans the fleet, if the chiefs and junior officers are not leading, if the talented junior officers leave the Navy out of frustration, if the commanding officers are not (perhaps cannot) lead, the fault must lie with the senior leadership. And there we find policies that are conducive not to developing leadership, but rather for developing staff resumes.


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