Monday, September 16, 2013

Abandon Ship!

Well, there was another horrific event in the nation today: the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard.  For those of you who have not been there, the Navy Yard is a fairly small base that has occupied that piece of land for more than 200 years.  There are any number of lessons to draw from this horrific event, and I have already written about it on my other blog.  But there is an leadership lesson that also needs to be drawn.

I heard today, as I listened to this even unfold, that the Chief of Naval Operations (the CNO as he is known in the Navy) was at his house on the Navy Yard when the shooting started.  (There are a number of old, beautiful houses on the base that are used for houses for admirals stationed in the Washington; perhaps the largest and most beautiful is designated as the CNO's house.)  The report noted that as soon as the shooting started the CNO was moved off the base.


Everyone take a second and re-read that.  The CNO is at the pinnacle of the US Navy; while he technically is not in command of anything - chiefs of the various services are really administrative positions, responsible for providing advice to the Service Secretaries (the Secretary of the Navy), the Secretary of Defense, and the President, and for assisting in the preparation of the annual budget.  But service chiefs have all been in command, they are supposed to be the exemplars of leadership, they are supposed to at the minimum act like they are in command.

Here's what should have happened: on being informed that there was some sort of shooting going on in the Navy Yard, and then being informed by his security detail that they wanted to move him,  the CNO should have said: 'This is my base, I am staying right here.  And I want to see the Commander of the base.  We shall stay here and work with the police and the SWAT team, but we are NOT leaving.  Now empty out the rest of the base as best you can.'

Leaders, particularly military leaders, must accept risk.  They also need to accept the fact that they are just men.  If somehow, unlikely an event as it might be, the CNO was killed, we could - honestly - replace him before sundown.  That's the way it is supposed to work: no one is irreplaceable.  We don't want irreplaceable men in command, and we don't want them thinking they are irreplaceable.  More to the point, we want them setting the example of leadership we expect in a combat force.  The CNO did not do that.

When the ship is in extremis the senior man needs to set the example.  There are many things about a base that make it vastly different from a ship.  But the example of leadership under stress should bring similar answers.  In this case the CNO let himself get bundled into a car and hustled off to safety.  It is true that there was little in fact that he could do.  But there was little he needed to do elsewhere.  And the example he set today was a miserable one.


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