In his memoir/manifesto Turn the Ship Around, Captain David Marquet uses anecdotes from his tour as CO of an SSN to illustrate personal philosophies of leadership that served him well. One such anecdote, from a chapter titled “All Present and Accounted For,” recalls a scenario where a trusted Quartermaster unexpectedly went UA when the ship returned to port. Upon investigation, the Captain discovered that this sailor had gone 36 hours without sleep, due to an ill-timed confluence of Port and Starboard watches, drill sets, piloting briefs and the Maneuvering Watch (sound familiar, anyone?). Intriguingly, there were other sailors qualified to stand Quartermaster, but they were “off the watchbill,” ostensibly to be available for the rarely needed senior watchstation “Navigation Supervisor.” In reality, they were off the watchbill as a perk of seniority.
In other words, there was no reason that the Quartermaster should be standing a grueling Port and Starboard rotation, aside from reinforcing the nauseating maxim “rank hath its privileges.” The supervisors had no problem with this situation; the young Quartermaster, being the junior guy on the totem pole, was required to “suck it up” as they all had when it was their turn. Although he was a bit late, the Captain recognized that his supervisors had a problem with “entitlement,” and moved severely to correct the situation.
A sense of entitlement can take many forms aboard a ship, none of them healthy or productive. Senior leaders can develop illusions of omnipotence, causing them to openly flout the regulations as a show of confidence and power. Junior Officers can routinely avoid the physical and dirty, rationalizing that adjusting border widths in Excel is a better use of their education than assisting in hauling shore power cables. Middle management, as in the example above, can be content with a comfortable lifestyle supported on the backs of their subordinates, convinced that they’ve earned the privilege. Even junior sailors can develop notions of entitlement; to going home at noon every Friday, for example, or to being provided an explanation for every order, justified in the manuals (where does it say I have to clean up that oil?).
In all cases, a sense of entitlement is a form of excess; it is a perversion of an otherwise justified sentiment. Within reason, newly qualified watchstanders should stand a harder rotation than their seniors; they benefit from the experience, and their seniors (should) have a heavier divisional or departmental workload. Officers really shouldn’t spend too much time involved in the physical labor; their efforts are needed elsewhere. The Captain should indeed be able to do whatever he wants on his ship—provided it is lawful. Rank certainly does have its privileges, but more often than not those privileges are functional to the real reward of rank: responsibility.
“I’ve earned it…”
In leaders, a sense of entitlement is a corrupting disease of the brain. It signals a cognitive handicap; a shift in motivations from duty and service to privilege and personal benefit. In nearly every case of ethical scandal by senior leaders, you’ll find an unchecked sense of entitlement at the source. Even in its more benign forms it is transparent to subordinates and corrosive to morale. Here’s the most important part of this post: We all carry this disease. It lies dormant, festering, waiting for just the right conditions to become malignant, take over and replace our personality with that of a terrible leader.
So where do you draw the line between prudent exercise of privilege and entitlement? That’s difficult—the conditions are varied and there’s a lot of room for opinion—it is ultimately a situational judgment call. I fall back on Justice Potter Stewart’s famous test for discerning pornography from art: “I know it when I see it.” I think if you come across the words “privilege” or “I’ve earned it,” or more importantly if you find yourself using those words, then you’re probably already over the line and need to reevaluate. Be ever watchful for signs of entitlement, in your people and especially in yourself, and you’ll know it when you see it.
Note: My apologies to everyone who came here looking for information on unsustainable government spending. Wrong kind of entitlement.