Reflecting on the Damn Exec

Submarine_periscope“Damn Exec” is a classic leadership essay by then-LCDR Stuart D. Landersman. It was in the January 1965 Proceedings, and has been reprinted in countless leadership books, magazines, and training products. It is required reading in many officer and CPO indoctrination programs; I first encountered it as a midshipman. If you haven’t read it, you absolutely should—do so before proceeding on. Here’s a copy; brought to you by Google.

There are many reasons this essay is timeless in a way that nothing I produce ever will be. It perfectly, succinctly demonstrates a fundamental principle of leadership: that subordinate leaders should take ownership of the directives issued by their superiors. You should never attach the originator to an order. You don’t say “polish this brightwork because XO wants it polished.” You say, “polish this brightwork.”

OK. So there’s the principle, it is timeless. If I were to take the easy way out of this one, I would end this post right here. I won’t, because this blog is about things I wish someone had told me, not the things I was actually told. Reading this essay is kinda like reading Ayn Rand, in that as you find yourself nodding in agreement, if you don’t examine the assumptions you may come away dangerously confident in an oversimplified worldview. Know and love the principles, but know that reality is much messier than parable.

Theory to Practice

In applying leadership lessons like Damn Exec, you have to identify the assumptions and separate the useful lesson. For example, an assumption in Damn Exec is that the CO is a wise sage, who is in touch with the deckplate realities and ultimately knows what’s best. In fact, your COs have the right to be inane, reactionary, draconian, disconnected, or emotional (so long as their orders are lawful), and they may well exercise that right! They have the right to dismiss your feedback as whining, or to otherwise ignore your input—they may exercise that right as well! It doesn’t make the lesson invalid. A naïve reader of Damn Exec may take the assumption of consistently wise and just superiors to be an implicit promise, and then angrily reject the entire lesson when the promise encounters an imperfect reality.fuckitSo how can we apply the lesson in the real world? For starters, make a genuine, serious effort to understand the reasoning behind your superiors’ orders. While they may give ridiculous orders, if you think the order is absurd it is overwhelmingly likely that you’re not seeing the whole picture. In other words, you’ll be wrong a lot. Frustration can make you shortsighted, especially if you identify so strongly with your sailors that you’re disconnected from the big picture. Look at things from the boss’s position, considering what they hope to achieve and the competing demands they have to manage while achieving it. What would you do?

If it doesn’t become clear, you need to communicate with the boss. If you have legitimate objections to the order, you’re obligated to make them known. Resist the urge to bitch, and come up with a better objection than “this unnecessarily makes our lives harder.” That sounds suspiciously like whining and shuts people off.

If you can, frame your feedback as a useful recommendation. For example, instead of “this checklist is just another burdensome layer of conservatism,” try “I think that making better use of our existing procedures will be a more elegant solution, and would better address the root causes that got us here.” You actually get a bonus if you can use “elegant solution” and “root cause” in the same sentence. It’s not guaranteed to work, but it will at least get your foot in the door.

When you inevitably get stuck with executing an order you don’t like, doggedly refusing to name the originator can be damaging to your relationship with your chief. If your legitimate objections have been ignored or dismissed by your bosses, and then your chief makes the same legitimate objections to you, saying “just do it” may inadvertently communicate that you don’t care what the chief has to say. Personally, I think there’s a big difference between automatically blaming unpopular orders on your boss and privately telling the chief that you’ve fought for the division and lost. If your relationship is good enough, you may be able to communicate this point with no more than a facial expression.

Some new division officers will walk into a culture where nobody follows the orders of a DIVO without being told the order came from a department head. If you give an order and the guys ask where it’s coming from, this is a red flag. You have to squash that stuff immediately. It could be that you have relieved a weak DIVO who has inadvertently trained the division to expect that kind of justification. In this case, the best thing you can do is privately ask the chief to help you turn this bad habit around—most will immediately agree that it’s important, even if they are secretly one of the culprits. Do everything you can to get the chief working with you, not against you.

It’s also possible that the problem goes beyond your division, and is part of the ship’s or department’s culture. That’s tougher. Sometimes department heads will undermine their division officers by bypassing them, publicly belittling them, or failing to back them up. When this happens it calls for a candid but professional discussion with the boss. Senior and mid-grade officers invariably recall that they were well-respected and obeyed as division officers, and tend to howl and bluster at reports of insubordination. They rarely recognize when they’re actually the cause of it.

Final Thoughts

My purpose here isn’t to debunk the lesson of Damn Exec, but to shore it up against the realities of life as a junior officer. The fact that life is more complex than classic leadership parables does not make them fairy tales. You’ll do whatever you have to do to survive, but as you accumulate experience you’ll ultimately come back to the fundamentals. They never go away.

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