The Prior Dilemma

f034-LargeA long-standing truism in the Navy is that when a prior-enlisted JO reports to your ship, they will become either one of the very best or one of the very worst officers in your wardroom, almost never falling out in the middle. My own observations support this, and I think that I have personally been on both sides of this coin at times. Priors come with unique perspectives and experiences that can be of benefit to their ships, but if the prior-enlisted identity is mismanaged it can dominate the individual, inhibiting their growth and creating divisions within the ranks.

Which side of the “Good Prior/Bad Prior” dichotomy one falls out on is not an intrinsic factor of their personality; it’s really an attribute of their coping mechanisms. A bad prior can be fixed, or more correctly, can be helped to fix themselves. From what I’ve seen, enlisted commissioning programs do little to address the unique psychological challenges endemic to the transition. My aim in this post is to bring some light to the complicated factors at play, and hopefully to frame the discussion in a manner that will convince some JO to avoid repeating the common mistakes.

The Stereotype

If you were to walk into any wardroom today and ask someone to describe a “Bad Prior,” you’d probably get the same description wherever you went. The Bad Prior refuses to transition, identifying more strongly with the chiefs or 1st Classes or whatever his former rank was (ironically, they probably don’t like him much either). He draws attention to himself. He seeks any opportunity he can to differentiate from the other ensigns, whether it’s by bringing his experience into the conversation, brandishing mustang paraphernalia, or cultivating a reputation of salty, abrasive irreverence (dismissing all manner of professional etiquette as “political correctness”).

He doesn’t aspire to achieve Command at Sea (or its equivalent), but retirement eligibility, and he will do the bare minimum necessary to get him there. He brags about this. Meanwhile, he consistently spouts anecdotes about how hard he has “worked for a living,” implying that his contemporaries did not. He is entitled: Because he “did his time” cleaning the bilges before earning (the hard way) his commission, he is particularly inconsiderate to his own sailors when the work gets rough.

He is ashamed to be an ensign, and may seek to avoid the label. He derives authority not from his rank and position, but from his background, reinforcing to his sailors that directly commissioned ensigns do not merit respect. He has already led as an LPO, and has nothing to learn from officer training. He eschews the demeaning wardroom responsibilities that fall to new ensigns, having far too much self-respect for that kind of indignity. He complains that he isn’t really accepted by the officers and doesn’t fit in with the wardroom.

It’s a stereotype—and an offensive one at that. Like most stereotypes, it has been created through the destructive behavior of an influential minority, and it needs to be confronted directly if we are to rise above it.

What is going on?

It is unfair to expect a prior to simply put their enlisted experiences behind them or to view the time as nothing more than a path to commissioning. A person’s early 20s are an extremely impressionable stage. The experience we have during this time is formative; it shapes our personality, and is forever a part of who we are. It is our trial by fire, our grit, and our street cred. We’re going to be proud of it– we’ve earned that much.

Unfortunately, pride and ensignhood don’t mix all that well. Being an ensign is trying no matter who you are– it’s a regular exercise in swallowing pride, and the more pride one has, the more they must adapt. A prior’s mechanisms for coping with stress and indignity will be different that of a directly-commissioned officer, as they have different experiences to draw on, and in some cases different crutches to lean on. For some this phase is an enormous cognitive adjustment.

The new prior might have a legitimately hard time feeling comfortable in the wardroom. Nobody really fits in when they first step aboard, but priors have the complication of a real frame of reference, having previously belonged within a different stratum. The enlisted-officer dynamic has serious undertones of classism to it, and while this may not be so apparent to officers it is damned apparent to enlisted sailors. Sometimes, it can foment deep-seated feelings of disdain for officers, even in a sailor who aspires to become one (ask me how I know), and if a prior carries this emotional baggage with him into the wardroom it could manifest in nasty ways. Minor differences in taste and personality (you like tennis, I like football) can be interpreted as long-term socioeconomic barriers to inclusion.

Adding insult to injury, senior JOs may be reluctant to offer guidance to a prior. Whether it’s due to mild intimidation or just flawed assumptions about what the prior already knows, the senior JOs may believe their advice would be poorly received. Sometimes it’s true, and that’s unfortunate. It’s through informal advice relationships that habits, customs, best practices and culture are developed within the junior officers. Exclusion of any officer from this informal network, even when self-instigated, is counterproductive to the whole team.

What’s a prior to do?

Be humble. Every tour, every day is a learning experience, and maintaining a sense of humility is the only way to get a good return on the time you invest. YOU decide when you stop learning. Hubris is an obstacle to growth, but humility will break down barriers to communication and sow the seeds of deep respect. Remember that a highly capable, highly credentialed badass is far more impressive when you learn their back story on your own.

Embrace professionalism. Time to shuck the “crusty, vulgar tough-guy” act. It’s been done before and impresses nobody. Shocking and offensive language never won any wars, but has led to its fair share of dysfunctional command climates. Cold precision wins wars—if you want to demonstrate your warrior credentials, display competence, not stupidity.

Integrate. Every time you’re tempted to bring up your enlisted background, think about how it will be interpreted by the other officers. Scrutinize your own behavior for patterns of self-aggrandizement. I’m not suggesting you change who you are just to conform—diversity is good—just that reminding the others what makes you special can become irritating very quickly. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.

PrintThis can be especially hard when you have more in common with the chiefs or PO1s than you do with the other officers. Thing is, the longer you are an officer the more you’ll have in common with officers, and its best to get on board with this early. Your fellow ensigns might seem a little immature to you at this point, but they’re going to catch up to you very quickly. You’re all going to be fighting the same battles together before this is through.

Instead of separating yourself from them, lead them. Don’t try to establish pecking order, just help each other out. You have insight that can save them from common mistakes, and trust me, their success is in your interest. They have assets that you lack as well, and they’re going to save your ass at some point. The JOs should be a team, with its own values and self-policing codes of conduct, and as you progress you’ll necessarily migrate from the periphery of this team to the center. As usual, the sooner you embrace the inevitable, the more you get to shape the details.

When it comes to the denigrating reindeer games that are sometimes expected of ensigns, you’ve basically got two choices—you can either play along fully and shoulder the indignity with a knowing wink, or you can step up and prevent anyone else from playing along either. Barring genuine hazing, I’d suggest the former. The point is that if it’s too denigrating for you, then it’s too denigrating for your shipmates, and likewise, if they can hack it then so can you. Don’t ever be “too cool for school”; this will just create problematic rifts between you and the other officers that you’ll have to fix later.

Final thoughts:

This whole inflated preachy post is really just a long way of saying “don’t be that guy.” Please don’t be that guy. Whether you’re among the best or the worst is entirely up to you, and your service needs you to be the best. For the directly commissioned senior JOs reading this, look out for your priors, and try to see things from their point of view. They’re just as lost as you were; only they have a lot more reasons not to admit it. Cut ‘em some slack.

4 thoughts on “The Prior Dilemma

  1. Very well put. I myself am a prior (12 years in the Marines – so add the different service paradigm) who felt the pain of ‘ensignness’ and at first struggled and stumbled with it before finding a stride.

  2. I have 22 years as an enlisted NCO in the various components of the Air Force: active, guard, and reserves. I have always tended to find that the Air Force mustangs and prior enlisted to officer are the better officers. I wonder why the cultural difference between the Navy and the Air Force on this factor. It could be that the Navy is such a more traditional service with a more independent mission, while the Air Force has always ran with a more corporate structure on mission and hierarchy.

    • Well, sometimes they ARE the better officers– please don’t mistake my post to be a suggestion to the contrary. Sometimes they’re not. In any case, there are a lot of specific and complicated factors at play, and that’s what I’m trying to explore here. If I were to point to a specific cultural difference between the Navy and the other services, I think that technical expertise and the cultural indoctrination that comes with “sea time” plays a larger part in professional identity than it does in the other services. When people get so wrapped up in that identity that it supersedes their rank, it can become a problem.

  3. Pingback: Some Words for the Cadre | JO Rules

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