A tired JO complaint is “we’re just here so they have someone to blame.” We hear every day that JOs are a pointless decoration, chiefs really run the Navy, blah blah blah… then when the watch team falls behind PIM and doesn’t complete all evolutions in the night orders, it’s the OOD that gets crushed. When the division fails a PMS audit it is none other than the DIVO who stands before the Captain to absorb the hate. Hey, I get it. I used to make this same complaint. Having grown up a little, when I hear this now, I think “now you’re getting it!”
Yes. We are here to be responsible. Not to be held responsible, but to assume responsibility.
Did you make a bad call based on a bad recommendation? Then you made a bad call. Did you fail an inspection because your training guy lost the records? Then you failed an inspection. Whatever has gone wrong, your attitude toward responsibility will be scrutinized and remembered. Everyone above and below you will be paying attention, making inferences about your character. The worst, weakest, most damning words you can ever say are “it’s not my fault.”
Eliminate that phrase from your vocabulary. If you don’t know how to say “not my fault,” you will develop a trained eye, and start to anticipate that festering problems will eventually become your own. You learn to see to it that things are fixed, prioritized from a higher perspective. Someone who is comfortable saying “not my fault,” on the other hand, is the kind of person who says “not my problem” and saunters back to his tiny world to play Xbox while the ship falls apart. Don’t be that guy.
Remember also that blame is a companion to relevance. An officer who says “it’s not my fault” is effectively saying “I do not matter.” If something goes wrong in your division, and your boss chooses to yell directly at your chief while absolving you of responsibility, then you should feel insulted. You have just been declared irrelevant. Sidelined.
Does this mean you should turn every negative report into a gratuitous display of self-loathing? No. Nobody wants to see that garbage. Stand tall, unemotional. Report facts and propose a course of action. Take your hits like a professional.
The less concern you show for covering your own ass, the more they will listen to what you have to say. Whatever the nature of your failure, the fallout will not be as bad as it seems. Usually, it will amount to dirty looks and hot air, neither of which can hurt you. A reputation for cowardly self-interest is much worse, and lasts longer.
What if the truth is that it really is not your fault? Are you sure? We humans are susceptible to something called the self-serving bias—we tend to perceive reality in ways that protect our self-esteem. Confronted with failure, we can become amazingly shitty judges of truth. All of us suffer from this bias; its human nature. We can compensate for it by forcing a habit of taking the blame.
Of course there will be situations where there was nothing you could do. When it’s that clear-cut, the facts will make it apparent. Don’t worry about the verdict. Let the facts speak for your innocence, and let your eagerness to accept responsibility speak for your character.
I can practically hear the screams. Isn’t this the reasoning behind micromanagement, ‘intrusive leadership’ and all manner of crippling risk aversion? No. Don’t confound an ancient leadership principle with contemporary noise. No one attached to reality honestly believes you can prevent 20-year-olds from making terrible mistakes. The point is that when you step back and give people room to fail, as any decent leader will, you are still responsible for the result—that’s why this job requires resilience. If you let the fear of consequences cripple you, you become one of them.
What you do when things go wrong shows what you’re made of, and is one of the clearest indicators of your true suitability for this line of work. Responsibility is at the very heart of our culture; it is as fundamental as saltwater and steel. As officers, it is precisely what we do.
“There is one form of courage which most men are never called upon to use, and that is willingness to take responsibility. Most men are never confronted with a situation requiring them to take it. To naval men, however, the necessity comes often, even to naval men in the lower grades; for they are often confronted with situations in which they can accept or evade responsibility.”
-RADM Bradley Fiske
2021 EDIT: I generally try not to modify this blog as the years go by, so as to accurately preserve the Division Officer perspective while I slowly lose touch with reality. On occasion, though, I’ll have to caveat my old opinions as they evolve with experience, to make sure that I’m not putting out bad advice. This is one such case.
The leadership philosophy described in this post, one that instinctively falls on the sword and accepts responsibility for whatever has gone wrong, is one that served me well throughout my Division Officer tour. Nothing ever went so wrong, or went wrong so often, that the missing piece of this approach became clear to me. The same could not be said for my Department Head tour, where the stakes were higher and the mistakes occurred more often (simply by having more sailors to make them).
As written, this post isn’t wrong, just incomplete. Indeed, the impulse to abstain from excuses and take responsibility is fundamental to Naval service and always has been. The missing piece is the duty to place accountability where it belongs.
Yes, you are responsible when someone who works for you does something wrong. You might have failed to communicate, failed to train, failed to hold standards, or whatever. You definitely have an obligation to scrutinize your processes to see where you may be failing your people. It is not guaranteed that you actually did anything wrong, though, and you should guard against the impulse to change your processes just because someone messed up. You are responsible either way.
You also have a follow-on responsibility to hold that sailor accountable for her mistake, and this is what took me a whole Department Head tour to figure out. For someone who is quick to accept the blame, it can be especially hard to hold others accountable, and while it may feel like mercy for your sailor who made the mistake, it can feel like injustice for all the other sailors who are doing everything right. More importantly, accepting all blame and failing to hold the sailor accountable does little to prevent future mistakes. As you move up the ladder, more and more problems will occur on your watch, because you will be responsible for more people and activity. If you want to have any chance at all at controlling the chaos, you must assign accountability to the correct level.