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.

sword

“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

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.

Why Stay In?

UntitledThere are two points in an officer’s career where it makes sense to off-ramp into the civilian workforce. The first is immediately after your initial obligation is up, and the second is at the 20-year point. After your initial obligation, additional military experience doesn’t add a lot to your resume, and it delays the starting point of your new career. If you stay past that point, the staggering value of a military retirement begins to tilt the equation in favor of staying to 20.

If you’ve got some prior-E time, you’re probably already internally committed to 20. For the rest of you, you need to be thinking about this now.

The Decision

Don’t fool yourself into believing your own mythology. At some point we all fall under the illusion that we could walk out of this job and straight into Wall Street or Silicon Valley, where we’d finally be rewarded for our genius. That’s a natural progression of feeling undervalued. The reality is that you’ll have to stand in line just like everyone else, and will probably take a pay cut.

My point isn’t “you won’t make it out there.” My point is that it isn’t about money and never was. When you signed up, it was for an elaborate cocktail of reasons: Education, training, tradition, sense of adventure, self-affirmation, sense of duty, desire to lead, escape a shitty hometown, look great in a uniform, whatever. All perfectly valid. When you arrive at the next decision point, the cocktail is different, but no less complex.

Ultimately, nobody knows what’s right for you but you. You don’t owe the Navy a thing beyond your commitment—that’s how a commitment works. I don’t try to reason people into staying, because it isn’t a rational decision, it is an emotional one. From a purely rational point of view, the pay is not worth the quality-of-life impact. To stay in, you’ve got to be a little bit crazy.

Why I Stayed

debbieAgain, there are many reasons; I probably can’t identify them all. The pay and benefits are fine. I enjoy going to sea and don’t miss cable TV. I have a resilient family; my marriage isn’t threatened by prolonged absences. I feel that my work here is important, even if it’s mostly important at the strategic level. I’m not particularly interested in wearing a tie or making small-talk with receptionists named Debbie.

Ultimately, there’s still a 9-year-old boy inside of me who thinks ships and airplanes are awesome. I’m not convinced that a jaded 31-year-old worldview is really any more legitimate. I still possess the ability to step back, look around at a busy submarine control room, and say “my job is f*cking cool.” I still feel that way when I’m dangerously tired, and I still feel that way when I’m getting yelled at. Meanwhile, another JO is whining about how long he’s been 3-section. Which of us has the warped perspective?

Piss and Vinegar

Some of you are probably thinking my worldview is rainbows and unicorns. My tour was as rough as anyone’s, and the darkest times were… really dark. There’s a lot about the Navy that is depressing, and a lot that is infuriating. I’m neither immune nor blind to the bureaucratic dysfunction and administrative stupidity, in fact I’d argue that nobody hates that stuff more than me.

it isn’t a rational decision, it is an emotional one

Like most JOs, I wrestled with the rumor that the truly talented leave for greener pastures, while the incompetent and uncreative stay on for lack of better options. The aggregate talent and aggression of my peers in the DH pipeline has convinced me otherwise. I have tremendous respect for the people I work with and I’m proud to be counted among them.

The issues that JOs hate are real. The Navy’s pretty messed up, and it’s been that way for a while—it might get worse before it gets better. The Navy’s been around a lot longer than these issues, and someone has to stick around to fight through it. I liken it to being given a broken division, when the incompetent JO gets the division that’s firing on all cylinders and has a great chief. I go where I’m needed.

We need a generation of headstrong, resilient officers to fix this mess—fighters, survivors. The admirals and politicians who made the mess are irrelevant. If you want to leave, then I don’t blame you. I congratulate you for a commitment well-fulfilled and wish you a safe and comfortable life.

If, on the other hand, you’re a little crazy and like to fight, then let’s do this.

Fix It

1735WIR_VideoGame_Felix_PoseI recently came across an interesting case study in an old Academy ethics textbook (yes I just read this kind of stuff for fun, I’m that lame), and thought it would make a good reflection topic for a post. In the case, a newly reported JO had just been appointed as the Training Officer for her unit. In this role she was responsible for managing an assortment of training records from several divisions (most of which were led by division officers senior to her), and ensuring that the command could report the satisfactory completion of training to its superiors. In first few weeks in the job, she was pleased to learn that all divisions had excellent training practices, and her records were perfect.

Her tune changed when she actually started showing up to monitor the training—this wasn’t required of her, but she felt it necessary. Unsurprisingly, she discovered that many portions of the prescribed training were not being conducted as written, if at all. Her personal observation directly contradicted the stacks of perfect training critique sheets on her desk; in other words, training was being “gundecked.” Her ethical dilemma was in what precisely to do about this, especially considering the risk of being ostracized by the other division officers if she chose to make a stink about it.

What she did, which I think was a wise and measured response, was step up her monitoring of the training even more, and reject the training reports for the evolutions she knew had not occurred. She informed the other division officers in no uncertain terms that she would not accept false records. They got over it, word quickly spread, and the command’s definition of “normal” training adjusted to something more like what is actually required in writing.

The case isn’t that interesting on the surface; gundecked training is about as common as rain. What is interesting is what the Training Officer DIDN’T do, and especially that the case study made no mention of this: she didn’t go up the chain with the problem. She didn’t drag the command into an onerous, dramatic investigation of integrity scandal, which would have effectively shut the whole ship down. She didn’t get people fired, de-rated, or sent to mast. She just fixed it. She handled the problem at her level.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is an example of that mysterious moral territory we hear about in hushed tones behind stateroom doors, but which on-the-record ethics training of any sort is loath to acknowledge: This is a gray area. Gray areas indicate flaws in the system.

I can’t tell you what the Right Thing to do in this situation is, because I honestly don’t know the answer. Maybe the Right Thing would be to immediately take it to the CO, which would obligate him to launch an investigation which would get a bunch of people fired. Personally, I’m of the opinion that if you’re going to abruptly change the local definition of “normal” like she did, you should give everyone fair warning first.

The people who write the requirements don’t necessarily talk to each other. When sailors gundeck things, it’s generally not because they’re lazy or corrupt but because they can’t legitimately achieve all the written requirements in a reasonable amount of time. They learn through experience that Not Inspected equals Not Important. They’re in a constant state of tension; they’re pulled in every direction and will use every trick they know to make ends meet. Sometimes they get a little too far out of the box, and you have to reel them back in. You don’t necessarily have to destroy them.

One other comment. TRAINO chose to be the “senior man with a secret,” figuratively speaking—something we’re always warned about as midshipmen. That was a moral burden she willfully assumed. I suspect that her bosses knew full well that training wasn’t happening as written; I don’t think it was a secret. TRAINO’s decision to handle it at her level, though, provided her superiors with a luxury known as “plausible deniability.”

See-No-Evil-Know-No-EvilThe words “plausible deniability” should taste like curdled milk in your mouth. They represent the aspirations of weasels and cowards, self-interested pseudo-leaders who will allow a subordinate to take the fall for something the leader chose not to address. It is one thing to assume the burden of a secret in order to fix a local problem locally—I can’t recommend it in good conscience, but I do applaud TRAINO’s fortitude and imagine that I would have done the same. It is an entirely different thing to impose such a burden on your people, even if it is only implied.

Crush Entitlement

crush

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.

Develop a Thick Skin

In an earlier post I argued that emotional self-control is a critical part of professional maturity, and that emotional outbursts really have no place on a warship—especially in a watchstanding context. I’ve received a lot of feedback on this position, most of it supportive, but there are a couple of arguments that persistently arise in any discussion of emotional control. I think this subject is very important, so I want to address two of the more salient arguments here.

Sigmund_Freud_LIFEThe most common rebuttal is that by denying our emotions we are effectively “bottling” them up, causing ruinous internal turmoil and placing ourselves at risk of “blowing up.” This nugget of conventional wisdom stems from something I like to call the Oprah Winfrey Model of Emotional Wellbeing, because when we face an emotional challenge, the Oprahs of the world are always there to suggest that we “cry it out.” More commonly, it is recognized as the “Hydraulic Model,” a patently Freudian concept whereby our emotions build up like fluid in a pressure vessel, which must be periodically “vented” through some kind of emotional expression (called catharsis) such as crying, yelling, or punching a wall, after which we will be relieved of the offending emotion.

Like many things patently Freudian, it’s patently horseshit. It rests on two assumptions, 1) that catharsis is more helpful than harmful and 2) that catharsis is necessary for emotional recovery. Both assumptions have been widely discredited by evidence. Think of two people you know, one who exhibits tight control of their emotional state in the face of stress or anxiety, and another with a reputation for blowing up, yelling, or dissolving into a puddle of tears under stress. According to the Hydraulic Model, the former must be unstable and untrustworthy, suffering from unknowable havoc wrought by all those repressed feelings– he’s a ticking time bomb. The latter, so skilled at cathartic emotional expression, must surely be the more stable and healthy of the two. Which one would you trust?

The second argument I want to address, related to the first, is that ignoring emotions or pretending they don’t exist does not make them go away. In this case nobody is disputing the point– the only thing that can make emotions go away is time. Rather than ignoring them, self-control is about refusing to indulge emotions and thereby make things worse (you wouldn’t run on a sprained ankle).

We can never eliminate our emotions, but we have to domesticate them. This requires a clear acknowledgment when one is upset, and a willful decision to handle it like a professional. Without first recognizing that you’re in an emotional state, you can’t summon the “iron will” necessary to carry on and allow time to do its thing. The good news is that emotional control, as a function of willpower, is something that becomes stronger with practice.

chester-nimitzOutraged because Ops has steamrolled your training plan once again? Maybe you should try screaming into a pillow and punching it. Did the XO call you names because you said left when you meant right? Maybe you should lock yourself in a stateroom and give it a good cry; cry it out. Do what you have to do—punching a pillow is certainly preferable to punching the Ops, and crying in a stateroom is better than crying on the bridge. Unfortunately, we can’t always leave the situation to go vent in a safe place. Sometimes we actually have jobs to do, so maybe, just maybe, we should develop the capacity to stand tall and handle it.

 

NOTE: Please don’t anyone interpret this post as a defense of abusive leaders or toxic work environments. It most certainly is not. That said, a JO with emotional resilience will stand a better chance of thinking clearly and protecting their people in such an environment. Be that JO.

Stop Complaining

“Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable… then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well. “

-Marcus Aurelius

Everybody complains. I want to get that out in front, so we’re all working from the same sheet of music where people are bona-fide human beings instead of impossibly hard-assed philosopher-kings. Complaining is a natural coping mechanism, and can serve as a sort of soothing emotional release for some. In tough jobs complaining can become so common that it serves as an occupational pastime, and some people are so dependent on complaining that it becomes central to their identity.

None of this means that complaining is something that we should just accept about ourselves, any more than bad breath or a beer gut. It is an indulgence; a public airing of mental vulnerability, which feels good but causes grave harm. Natural or not, common or not, complaining is a weakness and must be constrained.

batmanHabitual complainers have an endless supply of rationalizations. They’re the bold ones, who will say what everyone else is thinking but is afraid to say. They’re the burdened intellectuals; the voices of reason with the acerbic wit.They’re the heroic, disruptive nonconformists, who will be sacrificed at the altar of protocol for their sins of speaking truth to power.

They’re delusional. A well-reasoned and professionally delivered proposal can effect positive change. A complaint, on the other hand, will always be received as an irrelevant waste product of emotions, which are the mortal enemy of rational decision making. It’s the doers who change the world; complainers just provide commentary.

Complaining is the pastime of the powerless. If you want to see this concept in action, spend some time around old people for a while. If we live long enough, we all eventually lose any sense of control over our destiny as the outside world becomes strange and frightening. The ubiquitous “they” conspire against us and we spend a steadily greater portion of our waking hours angrily enthralled with Fox News. It’ll happen to you, too.

You can tell how powerful someone feels by how much they complain. Especially as a junior officer, your relative influence within the command is complex and dynamic, ebbing or surging as a function of your reputation. The degree to which you do or do not complain sends messages to others about your maturity and seniority within the command. This in turn reinforces your ability (or lack thereof) to make things happen. When you complain, you shrink.

The trick to moving from complainer to doer is in the serenity prayer—recognizing that which you cannot fix and then fixing what you can. We all have our sphere of influence. Complaining about things beyond our sphere is passive, defensive. Positive action on those things within our sphere is active, offensive. When in doubt, attack something.

When you complain, you shrink

Some JOs fall into the trap of complaining along with their subordinates in order to cultivate some sense of belonging, through shared experience. You’ll never fit in with your guys and shouldn’t try—it isn’t what they want or need, and you’ll just end up embarrassing yourself. In any group of complaining sailors, the one who says “enough with the bitching” is the leader. If you’re carrying on and moaning with the group, imagine how stupid you’re going to look when it’s the mature PO2 that says “enough.”

Nobody’s asking for a cheerleader. Nor a “company man,” a soulless conformist, a sellout, a yes-man, a kiss-ass or any other pejorative that habitual complainers invariably swear to never become. Even if you’re really saying what everybody else is thinking (unlikely), there’s probably a good reason they’re not saying it. Rationalizations deflect attention from the real issue: failure to constrain one’s emotions is not an antidote to weakness of will, it is a symptom of it.

Yield the Spotlight

I was going to write a post titled “Diffuse Credit, Absorb Blame.” It’s Leadership 101—officers should be quick take responsibility for the losses, and equally quick to credit their subordinates with the wins. I think we all pretty much get that, and I don’t need a whole blog post to make my case (though I may revisit it sometime). Instead, I want to zero in on the idea of giving and sharing credit; specifically that it’s not just something we should do for our subordinates. We should also share credit horizontally, doing what we can to build up our colleagues.

Junior Officers always complain about the “ranking” system, in which a peer-group of JOs are “ranked” by their superiors from best to worst, and FITREP scores are distributed accordingly. The beef is that this system sets up an atmosphere of competition rather than cooperation within the wardroom, and provides incentive to backstab, undermine and sabotage. If my peer looks bad to the boss, I will necessarily look better by comparison, and this would theoretically be reflected in my FITREP scores.

I think we can all agree that anyone who would willfully engage in such destructive behavior for personal advantage is a pathetic worm. I think these people are actually pretty rare. Unfortunately, the “competition” element can influence even the best humans subconsciously, and can subtly steer anyone in into harmful patterns of selfishness and envy. Recognizing that we are all vulnerable, I think the most effective and constructive way to give a triumphant middle finger to the vice of selfish ambition (as well as the ranking system in general) is to find reasons to speak well of your competition— especially when you’re in front of the boss.

It’s not always easy—especially when your competition is a self-promoting climber. It doesn’t matter: You’re not doing this for them, you’re doing this for you. This is an affirmation of your humanity and self worth; a positive declaration that your FITREP score will never be as important as being able to look at yourself in the mirror. JOs who fight over the spotlight are about as cool as hookers fighting for a patch of sidewalk.

It helps keep you honest—you are in all likelihood not the smartest or most capable officer in the room, and even if you are it does you no good to believe it. You make mistakes, and your fellow JOs—even the ones you don’t get along with—do great things from time to time. Deliberately acknowledging those successes isn’t just good karma, it directly short-circuits the cognitive biases working against us, which distort reality to convince us that we’re the only ones really pulling our weight. Everybody thinks that.

You’re not doing this for them, you’re doing this for you

There’s a twist, though. Your reporting seniors were once JOs as well, and they’ve seen all these patterns before. If a JO tries to make himself look good at the expense of the others, the boss will almost always see right through it. The senior will probably just chuckle privately and make a mental note about that individual’s character.

Your CO does not want JOs that kiss ass, backstab or otherwise sow discontent within the wardroom. They want a cohesive, effective and self-regulating team, professionals that watch each others’ backs for the greater good—that is what will get the ship underway on time, and that is what will keep her off the rocks. If you are the kind of officer that fosters and promotes a cohesive team, your FITREP will take care of itself.

Remember, ships are not closed systems and credit is not a zero-sum industry. There is more than enough to go around– we create it when we succeed, and we create it when we celebrate the successes of others. We destroy it when we fail or when we allow others to fail. You look good when your peers look good, and you look bad when they look bad. There is no such thing as individual success or failure in this business– for better or worse, we all burn together.