Lest anyone accuse me of using this blog to make myself out as some kind of super-JO, this post is about one of the many times I blew it. This particular anecdote occurred when I was a lowly Ensign, and had been aboard for just a couple of months. The boat was preparing to enter the paradise known as the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, and I was attending some mando training session on shipyard work controls and procedures. I was the only officer at this session; with me were about 20 other sailors of various ranks and rates.
We had heard from others who had attended earlier sessions that the training was poorly organized and generally a waste of time. We weren’t disappointed—responsibility for training us had fallen to some new engineers who weren’t really prepared to deliver it, and the program was such a cluster that not even our heartfelt enthusiasm for Work Authorization Forms could salvage it. We had divided into (aimless) working groups, and there was so much down-time that some of the sailors broke out a deck of cards. With nothing to do, apparently, but wait for the trainers to tell us what to do next, I pulled out my training notebook and went back to memorizing system diagrams.
Then the CO showed up. He had heard about this notorious shipyard training, and decided to see for himself where his man-hours were going. When he found his people sitting around playing cards (instead of getting their divisional work done so they could go home), he directed all crewmen to return to the boat immediately. In a most professional manner, he expressed dissatisfaction with the shipyard and informed the engineers that for any other training they felt we needed, they were welcome to come down to the boat and deliver it there.
Then he turned to me and, once the rest of our guys had left the room, administered the first real recalibration I had experienced in my short time aboard. “Where the hell were YOU in there!? How could you let this happen?!” he demanded.
I was dumbstruck; I truly did not understand what I had done wrong. It’s not my training, I protested internally, not my responsibility… I was in attendance just like everyone else… what was I SUPPOSED to do? “I’m just an Ensign.” I said that one out loud.
“Exactly!” was his reply.
I spent several hours sulking, convinced that I was the whipping boy, the unlucky JO close enough to absorb the Captain’s frustrations with the shipyard. Maybe I was. It eventually became clear to me, though, that officially responsible or not, I was the senior man present. That situation was a mess, somebody needed to take charge of it, and I was the guy.
If you’re not sure who’s in charge, it’s you. If it wasn’t before, it is now.
I’m glad I learned this lesson early on. The point wasn’t that Ensigns should randomly kick down doors and assume command of every badly-run brief or training session, although I’d love to watch the drama if this became the norm. The point was that a void of leadership must be filled, and officers are a specialized breed of sailor developed for exactly that purpose. Properly acquainted with their role, an officer should immediately recognize a leadership vacuum, and should instinctively feel compelled to address it. This instinct should be pervasive regardless of whatever information disadvantage the officer may face. Nobody trained Stockdale how to organize a resistance network in the Hanoi Hilton– he just did it, because it needed doing.
Passivity, in an officer, is simply unacceptable.