Communication is everything in leadership. More importantly, everything is communication—not what you say, but what you do. Your habits, your demeanor, your work ethic, your appearance, your sense of humor. The way you handle success, and the way you handle failure. Like it or not, everything about you is a message now—not just a cue to be emulated (lead from the front!), but a message about how the Navy views and values its people.
The following are four simple but powerful behaviors you can use to tailor that message.
Get dirty. Every new ensign tells their division that they’re willing to get their hands dirty, but what they really mean is that they want to turn wrenches in the next neat-o maintenance thingy. You’re not a midshipman anymore. It is time to appreciate the unpleasant and unglamorous, because that’s what the real Navy is all about.
Go bilge diving. Close out some waste-oil tanks. Haul shore power cables. Get in on a stores load. Next field day, grab a wire brush and actually accomplish something.
Never ask what you can do to help (the obvious answer is nothing); just do it. Be visible, but nonchalant. Your aim is not to build street cred, so don’t put on a big show or strut around like some tough-guy. You’ll never be one of the guys and shouldn’t try. What you’re doing is attacking the impression that physical labor is a symbol of low economic status. Physical labor is necessary, and we do it because it is necessary. You’re willing to wire-brush that valve it because it needs doing.
Some readers will object that physical labor is a waste of an officer’s time, that it’s not what officers are for. That’s short-sighted: you’re not doing this to clean a rusty valve; you’re doing this to communicate a message to your Sailors. Communication is never a waste of an officer’s time. Obviously your entire day shouldn’t be spent in the bilges, but is that powerpoint you were working on really that important?
Stick around. At some point your whole division is going to be working late into the evening, desperately trying to exorcise the demons from that critical underway-limiting piece of equipment. You’re going to feel like there’s no point to you being there, and the guys will confirm this premonition in plain English. The Chief will politely let you know that he’s got the ball, that you should go home, and he will call you if he needs you.
No one member of the division should spend more time onboard than you
You should stay. You’re going to feel like you’re irrelevant to the job in progress; that is normal. Stay anyway, and don’t act like it’s a big deal—of course you’re staying. You are the Division Officer. If you leave, you confirm your irrelevance and seal it in stone.
Make sure to give the guys space. However by-the-book your division’s work practices are, your involvement will necessarily make them nervous and slow them down. Be present without being obtrusive. Make yourself an expert on the job in progress, and be prepared to report updates, obtain permissions, review tagouts or produce Temporary Standing Orders as they become necessary. Your purpose isn’t to turn wrenches or even to supervise the turning of wrenches, but to bridge communication gaps and to remove obstacles.
There are obvious limits to this principle. Some major jobs last for days, and some divisions just always seem to “have the football.” If you have an “always the critical job” division, congratulations, you need to stay late a lot. For the weekend-long jobs, people will obviously need to get rest; in cases like this it might be prudent to set up a rotation with the Chief. You can obviously go home in these situations, but no one member of the division should spend more time onboard than you.
Take Suggestions. Suggestions are a good sign. Not to be confused with complaints or ill-conceived fantasies, a well-developed suggestion requires effort and cognitive engagement. It is a sign that someone is plugged in, motivated, and confident in their own ability—all qualities that you want to encourage. Even if you’re skeptical about the suggestion, authorizing it or acting on it will mean a world of difference to the Sailor that produced it. Even if this idea doesn’t pan out, the next one may save the day. If you ignore it, there may never be a next one.
The more people think they’re really in charge, the better
Of course you will get bad recommendations, and filtering those out is part of the job—I’m not talking about those. What I’m talking about are the neutral recommendations, where the course of action isn’t what you would choose but will probably get the job done. When you’re “neutral” on a recommendation, I say go for it—even if the results are less than optimal, you will still have communicated trust and respect to your team, and the team will learn from their mistakes.
The classic example is managing the watch as Officer of the Deck. Throughout a given watch, the OOD will receive countless recommendations for maneuvers as his team works through the contact picture or navigation problem. An insecure OOD may be reluctant to act on these recommended maneuvers, for fear of being viewed as a “parrot” by his watch team—nobody wants to be the middleman. Such an OOD may deliberately ignore suggestions or find reasons not to act on them, just to make sure everyone knows he’s in charge.
Personally, I’ve always felt that the more people think they’re really in charge, the better. If my junior quartermaster thinks he’s the only one who really knows what’s going on, then he’s probably going to make sure he’s on top of his game. I want him to feel like he’s driving the ship. When I get a suggestion for a course of action that works, I’ll always try to take it, otherwise I’ll try to explain my reasoning as soon as possible.
Praise. Of all the points here, I think this one is the most powerful, the least utilized, and the easiest to do. There are many reasons we may have a hard time recognizing good performance. For one, we may simply fail to see it, because we can get so used to being around highly-trained operators doing their thing that it begins to look mundane. If you can’t occasionally step back and marvel at the beauty of skilled operators in action, then you have probably lost perspective. From the Reactor Operator managing a high-power maneuver to the A-ganger overhauling a shit pump, the things our people do are downright amazing.
Some may feel that praise is a finite commodity, and that granting it liberally somehow reduces its value. There’s this pervasive myth of the eyepatch-wearing, cigar-chomping badass Leader who almost never says anything positive… but when he does, you really know that it means something. That’s ridiculous. As long as you are sincere, recognizing good performance does not diminish your credibility, it reinforces it. You don’t have to act like a cheerleader or a guidance counselor; you don’t have to be warm and cuddly. Eye contact and a simple “Hey. You handled that well” will usually suffice. Sincerity is the key.
Every day you should commend at least one Sailor on a job well done—if you don’t see anything worth mentioning, you’re not looking hard enough. Catch your people doing something right, and make sure to spread the love. While it’s natural to heap praise on the sharp, chipper guy that always does the right thing, don’t forget the fat, grumpy dude sitting next to him. Your least favorite Sailors will sometimes be the ones who respond the best to positive feedback, since it is such a rare thing for them.
I’m not suggesting you should reward or ignore unsatisfactory performance, but that’s a different discussion for a different day. I’m talking about human psychology, and giving credit where it’s due. Mediocre performers fall into the classic feedback loop of the trenchcoat-clad high school outcast: unpopularity leads to bad attitude leads to poor/antisocial performance leads to unpopularity. A minor communication of trust and respect can interrupt the loop, and can disarm the perception that ass-kissers get all the attention. Try it and see.
Some readers may think that these suggestions are somehow disingenuous or manipulative gimmicks; popularity games that amount to tricking people into liking you. I once felt that way, but I learned. These gestures are gimmicks in the same way that politeness, courtesy, and human empathy are gimmicks. They are really nothing more than basic social skills applied to our occupation. Ignore them at your own risk.
Never forget that when you are in a leadership position, however trivial it may seem, everything you do is scrutinized and remembered. As an officer, you are a symbol of the greater organization and its values. Your attitudes and behaviors are contagious by virtue of your position, and this is an awesome responsibility. Everything you do or fail to do communicates something, so you might as well take control of the story.