Four Powerful Gestures

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.

Pig-pen_peanutsNever 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.121116-N-XQ375-296 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.

fallout_guy_vector_by_gfirestream-d6733ynSome 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.

The Vortex

USS_Enterprise-D_consumed_by_energy_vortexWe Navy types are a proudly hard-working breed. However much we may grumble, I think that most of us have that little psychotic voice that enjoys the long hours when we know we are legitimately needed—when the ship gets underway because we got it done, underneath the haze of sleep-deprived delirium is an incredible sense of validation. Most of us will work until we collapse, when we know the work has a purpose.

What truly crushes the spirit are not the long hours, but the unnecessary hours—the time-wasters that consume our days and prevent us from doing our real jobs. They are simply black holes, where man-hours are sucked in and quietly annihilated. No reward, no sense of accomplishment—just an empty space in time.

Meetings are one of the most painful and pervasive time vortexes we regularly endure. They are a plague to every organization in every industry, and they only get worse as you move up. They are universally understood as low-utility time-destroyers for most attendees, but they are also universally understood to be necessary. Every meeting includes at least one person who thinks it’s worthwhile, and that person usually outranks the rest of us—so meetings will always be a simple fact of life. With that in mind, here are a few points to consider the next time you navigate the vortex—whether it as a helpless attendee, or later when you’re running the show.

Time is incredibly valuable. In the business world, they say that time is money. There are many levels of nuance to this phrase, but at the most basic level it is a calculation of labor costs: the price of a time-intensive task is (man-hours consumed) x (avg. hourly pay). This doesn’t account for opportunity costs, such as an expensive delay elsewhere due to the time-intensive priority tasking, but it is useful as a back-of-the-envelope swag.

The labor costs analogy doesn’t really work in enormous bureaucratic organizations like the Navy. We’re running ships, not profit centers, and we’re not paid by the hour. From an extremely myopic perspective that ignores a thousand human performance factors, it makes sense to waste people’s time. If you go home at three when I could keep you until six, I just lost three man-hours.

Who cares if the time would have been well-utilized; it doesn’t cost me anything to keep you around. Who cares if it takes you two hours and fourteen checklists to perform a ten-minute procedure; your time has no value to me. This is the way that bureaucracies are incentivized to operate, and exactly what they will do without a dedicated, determined leadership effort to correct it. These are the same organizations that chant, in between sips of Kool-Aid, “People are our most valued resource.”

Time, then, is not money. For us, it is much more valuable: Time is credibility. Our inventory of it is painfully limited, and we piss it away at our peril. The respect we show for our people’s time is a direct communication of the respect we have for them as individuals, and this form of communication is more meaningful than a thousand motivating speeches. There’s no way you can avoid consuming your people’s time, but never do it lightly or arbitrarily. Never waste it.

Somebody is always in charge. This is the case for meetings just like anything else. The person running the meeting might not be the one who decided to hold it, but they’re responsible for its efficient conduct. They run the clock, and make sure the meeting starts and ends on time. They keep the discourse on-topic and professional. They don’t apologize or promise to be brief; they just do it.

Time is credibility

The only metric for a successful meeting is progress—so never hold a meeting just because somebody or some instruction said you have to. If you can’t divine a purpose for a required meeting, then create one. The meeting leader is responsible for constructing an agenda, and more importantly, ensuring all attendees understand that agenda. Even if you got the information you needed, your meeting is not a success if the attendees don’t get anything out of it. Everyone should leave knowing who is doing what, and by when.

Recurring meetings normally follow the same pattern every time. Some of these, such as an Ops brief, require a specific person to run the meeting. Others, such as daily work coordination meetings, just need somebody to play “MC” while everybody says their piece in a certain order. For this type there’s no reason to wait for a specific meeting leader—if they’re late, the next most senior officer should step in get the ball rolling (this could be you). There’s nothing quite so ironic is a room full of officers and chiefs staring blankly at one another waiting for somebody to tell them what to do.

If you can’t be quiet, don’t be new. You’ll have to attend many meetings where your principal reason for being there is “to learn.” You will suspect that this is a huge waste of your time, and you’ll usually be correct. Try to take solace in the idea that there are other attendees whose time is even more limited than yours, and this meeting is a soul-sucking black hole for them as well.

If you’re not running the meeting, there’s very little that you can do to make it more productive, but you can refrain from making things worse. Restrain yourself from chiming in or asking questions just for the sake of doing so. If you have a legitimate question or contribution, then say your piece, but don’t feel like you have to in order to prove your worth—it doesn’t fool anybody. If you want to demonstrate your own engagement and professionalism, then deliberately pay attention and take notes. Some people do notice this kind of thing and it makes a better impression than staring off into space or falling asleep. It’s not going to win you any awards, but it will contribute to a favorable overall image.

Recap: Basic Meeting Etiquette:

  • Be on time
  • Only speak if you have a really good reason
  • Don’t showboat (try to look smart) or grandstand (try to look important)
  • Don’t use meetings to address interpersonal conflicts or air grievances
  • Don’t advertise your disinterest
  • Avoid using meetings to alert the CO to major problems (inform early)
  • Stay on-topic
  • Don’t “piggyback,” as in “to piggyback on what so-and-so said, [exactly what so-and-so said]”
  • Be inclusive– two-way conversations or debates don’t belong in a meeting
  • Practice good dudesmanship: try not to embarrass your colleagues
  • When the meeting is over, it is over– don’t chime in at the last second
  • Everything you do should be based on the assumption that time is precious

convincedWhat a good meeting looks like. There is such a thing as a good meeting. A good meeting begins on time and ends early. It is not a relaxed environment—whoever is running it sets a tone of urgency, and quickly recaptures the floor from anybody who showboats or goes off topic. Visual aids are ready to go before the meeting begins. Speakers talk fast and exchange actionable information. When speakers realize they’re digressing into a two-way conversation, they voluntarily decide to “talk offline.” Nobody repeats something already said. Everyone is in a hurry, and understands that everyone else is in a hurry. The meeting adjourns cleanly, with nobody trying to chime in at the last second. Everyone walks away knowing who is doing what, and by when.

Myth of the “Kinder, Gentler Navy”

pinupgirlOn leave, your typical sailor goes home to a proud family who break out the faded pictures of Grandpa posing in front of a torpedo-bomber with pinup-girl nose art. In between sea stories of 7th-fleet barroom brawls, Uncle Jim wistfully recalls how much he bled when they tacked on his crow. Of course, Uncle Jim notes, it’s a different Navy now; one that is sensitive and politically correct. Your typical sailor will smile politely and say nothing, silently wondering if Uncle Jim is right.

When he returns to his ship, it is not an assault of Japanese dive-bombers he must survive, but the never-ending onslaught of futile training driven by the actions of a few dumbasses: safety, substance abuse, equal opportunity, hazing, suicide prevention, network security, sexual assault awareness. The rest of the time he spends cleaning or, if he’s an officer, managing paperwork. If he spends any time at all preparing for battle, it feels like a low-priority afterthought.

It is impossible to avoid a romanticized view of the past. Everyone, officer and enlisted, must occasionally deal with the uneasy feeling that military service is an emasculated shadow of its former glory. The expression “kinder, gentler Navy” is and always will be pervasive, with all that it implies. The worldview that produces this phrase is loaded with biases and logical fallacies, though, and in this post I hope to bring them to light.

Fallacy #1: Our “culture” is unique. As a submariner, this one is particularly close to my heart. Early on, I really bought into the myth that the attack submarine is one of the last vestiges of warrior culture remaining in our fleet today. The proudly vulgar tattoos; the pranks and dirty jokes; the lack of respect for bodily privacy; the open disdain for all things sensitive or sacrosanct. The irreverence. The porn. The fight club that may or may not exist in the machinery room.

What I eventually came to realize, though, is that this isn’t warrior culture; it is just dudes being dudes. Visit any frat house, or any football locker room, and you will witness the same brutality and grab-assery. Any group of young males—infantrymen, firefighters, athletes, oil rig workers—will exhibit similar behavior and will become similarly convinced that they are the dirtiest, hardest-drinking, toughest bunch of vagrants ever to live. This is just something that young men do, and most of the time it is fun and endearing.

Navy culture is indeed unique among the services. The individual warfare communities have especially distinct, awesome subcultures as well. These have evolved based on the very different types of jobs we have to do. Incorrectly identifying typical guy behavior as something that makes us unique only distracts from what makes us elite.

Fallacy #2: Brutality and vulgarity make us better at War. No they don’t, no matter how intuitive this little nugget of conventional wisdom may seem. They are at best neutral; when they reach a degree to which they subvert and undermine the chain of command, they make us worse.

War is certainly brutal and vulgar, and that is why we train. Training, discipline, and cold, calculating precision are what make us better at war. Hazing and other disorganized, amateurish bullshit do nothing to put ordnance on target. Even for that tiny fraction of our military who actually carry rifles into combat, it is their training and discipline that make them deadly.

PTDC0005_10If you feel tempted to defend locker room culture against the weakness-sowing evil of political correctness, carefully consider the perspective of a good sailor who does not want to play. Maybe he doesn’t really feel like wrestling or playing grab-ass, or being constantly bombarded with porn. None of those things were part of the deal when he signed up, and he has a right to work in an environment that respects personal boundaries. He’ll probably just tough it out, but he shouldn’t have to.

Bottom line, if your people aren’t tough enough, it’s because their training sucks, not because we refuse to tolerate bush-league male bonding rituals.

Fallacy #3: Bad execution = bad policy. Does preferential treatment occur, based on race, sex, religion, or orientation? Sure, and it cuts both ways. This is a huge organization, full of flawed human beings with interests to protect and prejudices to indulge. Is it common? Nah, not really. Is it institutionalized? Absolutely not.

This is an important point. While isolated cases of double standards or preferential treatment certainly do occur, these are local failures of leadership, not broad decrees of policy. When they come to light, it is an example of good policy poorly executed at the local level. Somebody has to answer for it.

What about all the time we futilely pour into training for things like equal opportunity and sexual assault? This is a side-effect of democracy, as our leaders answer to Congress who answer to news media. I don’t really know what else you could do. What about knee-jerk overreactions and stupid witch-hunts? All examples of poor execution.

It is impossible to avoid a romanticized view of the past

The danger is that it’s very easy to confuse our frustrations with the execution as frustrations with the policy. I bet Grandpa didn’t have to go to sexual assault training, and he never had to worry that he’d be unfairly passed over for promotion because he was competing with a protected in-group. If only we were still Grandpa’s Navy, where men could be men. Wait, I mean white men. Wait, make that white heterosexual Christian men. Maybe Grandpa’s Navy needed to change.

Fallacy #4: You should fear political scandal. Our environment conditions us to believe that any event involving hazing, discrimination, or sexual anything will necessarily result in some kind of dramatic overreaction, with IG investigations, firings, and widespread public executions. I certainly felt this way, until I experienced a few scenarios that were handled well. There’s certainly historical precedent for these nightmare scenarios, but you never hear about the majority of cases that follow due process and are adjudicated in a methodical, non-sensational manner.

An officer who is paranoid about scandals will be tempted to handle potential high-visibility issues in one of two ways: to neurotically overreact with draconian witch-hunts and inquisitions, or to under-react or hope the problem goes away. Both errors have potentially devastating consequences. The only way to handle these things is like a consummate professional.

If you unambiguously refuse to put up with things you know you shouldn’t, you drastically cut back the odds of an incident. If something does occur and you need to report it or investigate it, then you must follow due process to the letter, and concern yourself only with facts. Be brutally honest with yourself, as emotions, biases, and preconceptions are very dangerous in this situation—they are what will get you into trouble. If you have done your job and adhere to the truth consistently, you will have nothing to fear of political fallout.


“The Kinder, Gentler Navy.” Please avoid using this stupid phrase. It is emotionally charged, and speaks to a Spartan fantasy that no one serving today has ever experienced. It is kind of like saying “don’t get me wrong, I’ve got lots of black friends” in that it communicates something entirely different than what the speaker intends. In this case, it suggests an insecure thirst for some kind of macho validation and disappointment that the Navy has failed to provide it.

I’m not a mouthpiece for the admirals, and I don’t care about the party line. I care about intellectual honesty. I don’t deny that we have problems, many of which can be traced to poorly executed political agendas. I don’t deny that the PC police go utterly insane on occasion. None of that is our problem to solve as junior officers, and our complaining about it accomplishes precisely nothing—leave that for the retirees. In addition to truth, there’s a lot of error in the common complaints, and that’s what I’ve tried to address here.

Despite our problems, we are a more capable, disciplined, and professional organization than we ever have been, and it’s OK to be proud of that. Discipline is warlike. Professionalism is warlike. Those are the qualities our adversaries fear, not our barracks antics.

Talking to Ships

b2bNon-shipdrivers will have to forgive me for this one. SWOs and submariners have several habits that make us look like a bunch of goons to the professional mariners trying not to run us over. Among them is our habit of delegating bridge-to-bridge radio communications to some of our least experienced junior officers, as well as an overreliance on B2B in general. The following are just a few pointers which I hope will help you communicate like someone who drives ships for a living:

Don’t Use B2B if You Don’t Have To. The Rules of the Road are designed to alleviate the need for cumbersome, confusion-inserting transmissions between ships. Professional mariners have a mysterious tendency to abide by them—assume they will unless you have evidence to the contrary. Avoid asking someone “what are your intentions” if “I’m going to follow the rules, dumbass” would answer your question.

What makes this harder, and makes warships especially dangerous to everyone around them is our pathological unwillingness to take contacts within 4000 yards. Commercial mariners have no such aversion, and are often comfortable at 1500 yards. In open ocean, if you can keep your single contact far away by altering course five degrees, that makes sense, as there’s no reason to get close. As you approach a port and the contact picture gets denser, this gets silly very fast. Making unexpected, erratic course and speed changes to keep everyone far away is futile and dangerous.

However much it pains you, use simple, conversational language

Much of this bad habit comes from the ubiquitous CO’s standing order that the commanding officer must be informed of any contact within XX yards. Absent a specific order, don’t interpret this to mean “keep all contacts outside of XX yards.” It just means the captain needs to be aware. Drive the ship. Your job is to do the prudent thing, even if the prudent thing is to take a guy close. Just put it in your report:

“Captain, I have an outbound merchant 7000 yards down track; he will CPA 3000 yards off our port beam in twelve minutes. I intend to maintain course and speed.”

99% of COs will say something to the effect of, “Okay, sounds good.”

Think, Key, Pause, Speak. In exactly that order—don’t hold down the button while you figure out what you’re going to say. A one-second pause is helpful to keep from cutting off your first word, which is a common error of people who fancy themselves as slick radio talkers. Speak into the mic; don’t yell at it and don’t try to eat it—either will cause the transmission to clip, making you harder to understand.


Speak from Their Perspective.

When you say: “Tanker 3 miles off my port bow, this is U.S. Warship… ”

What you are actually saying is: “All ships, everywhere, look out for the warship that may be near you. It is dangerous… because it is full of idiots.”

Instead, look at it from their perspective, and immediately remove ambiguity as to whom you are addressing. Most large vessels transmit on AIS; the most valuable piece of information this can give you is their name. Try this:

“OILY HORIZON, this is U.S. Warship 3 miles off your starboard bow…”

There, now there’s no doubt who you’re addressing. Just double-check to make sure you’re addressing the right ship. If you don’t have their name, use their course or a landmass as a frame of reference:

“Westbound tanker south of Barbers Point, this is U.S. Warship 3 miles off your starboard bow”

Consider language barriers. Half of a language barrier is more dangerous than a total one, because you may think you understand each other when in fact you do not. For example, consider the case of a head-on situation approaching the entrance to a channel:

“OILY HORIZON, this is inbound US Warship one mile in front of you; I’m going to pass you port to port, over.”

We like to say that “port to port” thing, for some reason. It sounds nice to us. Unfortunately, to someone who barely speaks English, it sounds a lot like:

“OILY HORIZON, wah wah wa-wah wah PORT wah wa-wah.”

The whistle is a quick and simple way to communicate across language barriers

Remember that “I intend to leave you on my port side” is from the INLAND rules—there is nothing like that in INTERNATIONAL, there is only “I am altering my course to port.” So now, instead of communicating “I’m going to keep doing exactly what I’m already doing, and so should you,” you might have communicated “I’m about to turn directly in front of you, so you’d better turn left as well.” This little nuance has actually caused collisions. One alternative is to say “red to red.” Another option, which I generally prefer, is to never pick up the damn radio in the first place.

Speak plainly. They might not speak English, and they definitely don’t speak Navy. In almost any situation complex enough to warrant B2B comms, using Navalese will only add confusion. If it takes you more than five seconds to figure out how to twist your message into something stiff and formal, they’re probably not going to understand you anyway. Just say it. However much it pains you, use simple, conversational language. Talk in miles, not yards. Don’t say CPA. Be polite and affable, and always call the other guy “Captain.”

Beware complex pre-planned litanies, like those on your response cards for queries or NVPZ violations. They are often written in the language of lawyers, not mariners. Say what you must to satisfy the procedure, but consider following it up with “You are too close, turn now or I shoot you.”


Use the Whistle. Your ship is equipped with a functioning whistle. If you are in international waters in sight of other vessels, you are required, repeat, REQUIRED to use it—a classic example of the importance of discerning “may” from “shall.“ There is good reason for this requirement—the whistle is a quick and simple way to communicate across language barriers. Don’t take it for granted that they will hear it (not sure? check out Annex III), but don’t write it off as an outdated holdover, either. Radio comms have been around for a long time, and yet we still use whistles.

Don’t Tell Them What to Do. I know you don’t care about legal ramifications, but I promise that your bosses do. To a merchant ship, you are a chimpanzee with a bazooka. What sounds to you like a casual suggestion that would keep them out of your 4000-yard comfort zone may sound to them like an order under threat of force—especially if English is not their primary language. If doing what you say drives them into some mishap, it could drag the Navy into a nasty legal mess. Just don’t do it unless you have to.477872

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.

Yes, it’s Your Fault

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.

seppuku_1Did 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.

tumblr_mf0zx8FmzF1rx0p5go5_250What 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

JO Rules on Facebook!

facebook-meh-button-500Gonna try something new here… in the interest of making it easier for folks to chime in, tell sea stories, call me a delusional asshole or whatever… and yes, to have more exposure within the JO community, I’m gonna try the Facebook thing and see if it works out.

So, we’ve got our own fan page here… you can use it to comment on posts, provide your own advice, present your unique insight on abortion, creationism in public schools, or Glenn Beck, post pictures of your kids, or whatever other antisocial behavior compels you. As I understand it, if you “like” the page, future posts will show up in your news feed. JO Rules content is guaranteed to be less horrible than at least 50% of your Facebook news feed, necessarily improving your Facebook experience. You can always “unfollow” us if its too much.

So here’s the deal- if you think JO Rules makes a useful contribution to the dialogue, please help me out by “liking” the page and/or sharing with your friends.

Standing by for feedback or suggestions.


To be Loved or Feared

Santi_di_TitoI’ll never forget the Marine who taught me about Leadership. More specifically, I’ll never forget the Captain, USMC who taught Leadership: Theory and Applications, a professional development course I took as a midshipman. Like any course on human behavior, it was filled with charts of unquantifiable concepts, meaningless Venn diagrams, and the occasional brilliant insight. I wish that we took leadership education more seriously, but that’s kinda difficult when it’s competing with EE and Applied Thermodynamics for your attention.

Okay, so I don’t remember anything about the instructor. I do remember his sea stories, though, and one in particular. When we reached the chapter on Authority, the Captain relayed an experience from his early days as a 2LT. He had just reported to his new platoon, and observed what he believed was a general lack of discipline within the unit. He needed to quickly communicate to his men that there was a new sheriff in town, and that the days of poor discipline were over.

He called for the Platoon Sergeant to report to his office immediately. When the Platoon Sergeant arrived, the 2LT issued a set of inconvenient orders calculated specifically to entice a protest. When the Platoon Sergeant objected, the 2LT sternly reminded him to stand at attention when addressing an officer, and that as soon as he had relayed the orders to the Squad Leaders, he was to put a new shine on his boots. Confident that he was finally in the presence of a True Leader, the Platoon Sergeant about-faced and executed, and they lived happily ever after. The midshipmen nodded in mesmerized admiration.

Man, what I would pay to watch some new DIVO try that.

Maybe the story isn’t completely bullshit—the services have starkly different cultures by necessity. I have my doubts, though, as should you any time someone recalls how tough they were as boot JO. I can’t imagine this would play out well, even in the Marines. Even if it did, the Navy does not work this way—it isn’t because our JOs are meek and stupid and Chiefs are really in charge or anything like that. It’s because warships are just too damn complicated for that kind of organization, and our interpersonal dynamics are accordingly complex. There’s just too much to learn.

Machiavelli Redux

Whether it is better to lead through personal rapport or intimidation is a very old question. The original “Philosopher of Power” Niccolo Machiavelli famously observed that it is better for a leader to be feared than to be loved by his people, because fear is easier to sustain. This is also the guy who held that any good leader must be an adept liar and must always be prepared to break promises, so there’s that. Sadly, none of us are 16th century despots.

Nobody wants to be hated by their people. It is simple human nature to desire the approval of those around us. Moreover, the degree to which we depend on one another makes it professionally hazardous to be despised. I think we’ve all seen an unpopular officer stumble through their tour, tripping on obstacles that a supportive division or watch team could have easily pointed out or corrected. That is a miserable way to live, and is not normal—if this is you, there is something wrong with the way you’re acting and you need to confront it.

(I am reminded of a certain Division Officer who once remarked to me that if the division hates his guts, it must mean he’s doing his job. Yeah, he failed miserably.)

That said, it isn’t necessary or advisable to pursue popularity. Nobody really respects a human golden retriever, or even wants one around. I’m all for being friendly and affable with the sailors, and even pissing all over the boundaries of protocol on occasion—I think that’s part of being a JO. I’ve seen no real benefit, though, for those sad JOs who try to be “one of the guys.” It might be nice for the ego, but it doesn’t make the division run more smoothly and it does introduce a lot of unnecessary complications.

goldenIn other words, it is nice to be liked, but it should never be the motivation behind your actions. If you’re courteous, considerate, and empathetic in the execution of your duties, you’ll be liked. If you obviously want to be liked, you’ll be a golden retriever, and will be dismissed from the table accordingly.

You must be capable of making an unpopular decision. You absolutely cannot please everyone, and at some point they will accuse you of being spineless and weak-willed for executing the intent of your superiors. You must own the decision, and shouldn’t apologize for something you intend to do or something you would do again. Apologize when you have made a mistake.

“True leaders must be willing to stake out territory and identify and declare enemies. They must be fair and they may be compassionate, but they cannot be addicted to being loved by everybody. The man who needs to be loved is an extortionist’s dream. That man will do anything to avoid face-to-face unpleasantness; he will sell his soul down the river for praise. He can be had.” -VADM James Stockdale

To be loved or feared. Ultimately, I think it is a silly question for a Junior Officer to ponder. Just be a decent human being. My father always told me that if I think I’m conflicted between being a good officer and being a good man, I should just be a good man and the rest would take care of itself. If you concentrate on doing the job while constraining your behavior to that of a decent, empathetic human being, your local popularity will be irrelevant.