Sunday, September 1, 2013

USNI Leadership Essay submission

So for those wondering why I've been sparse on posting the past two weeks...I've been working on an essay for the USNI Leadership Essay contest (you can read details here: My essay has been submitted, but even if it's not good enough to win, it is hopefully good enough to share, so I posted it below. The essays purpose was to answer the question "What does leadership look like from below?"

Young men and women sign up to become Naval Officers with the vague idea of doing something greater than themselves, of becoming part of an organization that has purpose and meaning that they likely struggle to find in their own lives.  This flame of desire to serve as Naval leaders is nurtured by their superiors, especially the Commanding Officers (COs) that come into their lives.  These older officers can just as quickly snuff out that flame and leave a Junior Officer disillusioned, disheartened, and ultimately disassociated from the Navy.  Junior Officers, despite the poor economy, are leaving the Navy in droves and citing poor leadership as a top reason for discontent.

I experienced poor leadership first-hand as a new ensign onboard the USS HAMPTON (SSN-767), where my CO for my first two years acted as a virtual tyrant onboard.  Despite taking a ship out of the yards, through the Panama Canal and onto a successful WESTPAC, I was miserable almost the entire time onboard, and eventually our CO (along with the Engineer and entire Reactor Laboratory Division) would be fired.  I left the boat as an embittered Lieutenant that was ready to punch my ticket for the civilian world.

While I don't desire to ever repeat my experiences on HAMPTON, it taught me important lessons about what leadership, particularly poor leadership, looks like on the bottom.  I've been fortunate to now have worked for a number of good leaders at a variety of commands, and the ability to contrast varying styles has given me insight into what is truly needed to lead in the future.

There are plenty of fallacies about leadership, but by far the greatest is that leaders are born.  The notion that somehow people are simply born into the role of leadership is absurd.  What ensign graduates college with the skills to lead a complex warship, cyber mission team, nuclear submarine, or aircraft squadron into combat?  If leaders were born, then we could simply develop a leadership genetics test, administer it during a PHA, and weed out those not destined to become part of the Navy's leadership aristocracy.

The problem here is that people have an idea of what leadership looks like, when the reality is that good leadership takes many forms, and is highly dependent on where you are leading.  The leadership style used when leading a Navy cyber mission team is going to be radically different from that used for a Navy SEAL team, and yet these differing styles can be exactly what is needed for that situation.  To say that there is only one good leadership style, applicable to all services and professions, would be like saying a scalpel can replace all knives in your kitchen knife block. 

While good leadership can be radically different, there are some fairly constant threads noticeable in almost all poor leaders.  Poor leaders focus only on themselves, micromanage, and are overly concerned about the outward appearance of themselves and their command.  While these traits are fairly easy to list, they are disguised by poor leaders under the guise of entitlement, insistence on standards, and pursuit of excellence.  To effectively lead, each of these concepts must be broken down and analyzed in depth.

The Guise of Entitlement

The military makes it fairly difficult to not be rank-conscious.  Naval Officers openly wear shiny bars either on their collars or on their shoulders.  While your Commanding Officer may call people by their first name, his name is always "Sir," "Captain," or "Skipper."  More privileges, such as a better stateroom or having to stand less watch, come the higher one climbs in rank.  The view one takes about these privileges is a sharp indicator of how subordinates will view leadership.

On a fast attack submarine, the head position of the wardroom table belongs to the CO.  It gives him the best view of a large electronic display, so that he has complete situational awareness for his submarine.  It even has a phone that can dial the Officer of the Deck directly.  To my first Captain, this chair represented the fact that he was on top, and everyone else worked for him.  In his mind, he earned that chair through his own merits, and he was not above telling us that we could only one day hope to sit in that chair.  As a Junior Officer, I quickly bored of hearing how he had earned his spot at the head of the table.  To me, that chair simply became a hated symbol of his authority over us.  It made sense to have the CO sit at the head of the table, but it certainly did nothing for the wardroom to have it lorded over us on a daily basis.

After my first CO was fired, my new CO took us out on a short VIP cruise, where we had about 20 civilian riders from the local community onboard.  Eight of them gathered in the wardroom, and I had just gotten off of watch and stopped in to grab a cup of coffee.  The CO was speaking with them when he suddenly looked at me and said "Ryan, how about you sit here and tell our guests about the boat. I'm going up to control for a bit."  I sat down in the very chair I had hated only a few months before and answered our guests questions for about 30 minutes.  I felt impelled to represent the CO particularly well...after all, I was sitting in his chair!  That CO didn't need a chair to prove he was the head of his submarine, and he even managed to use it as a tool to improve me professionally.

Micromanaging your standards on others

All Junior Officers are familiar with writing and routing message traffic.  CASREPs, SITREPs, OPREPs and other messages are written and routed through the chain of command.  All Naval messages have a standard format, with required fields, codes, addressees and a governing instruction to lay these requirements out.  The required fields are fairly routine, however, the most dreaded field of these is the "Comments" field.  Here the releasing authority can add whatever comments he feels are needed for the message.

Every CO has a particular writing style.  Unfortunately, so does the Executive Officer and the Department Head, and too often these styles clash.  I distinctly remember routing a SUBS message for a piece of equipment to the Engineer, which he changed 20 times.  After change number 4, I stapled the changes together in an attempt to point out the folly in the sheer volume of changes.  Then the SUBS message went through two revisions with the XO, and five changes for the CO, who then proceeded to ask me what took so long.  In the end, the SUBS message looked strikingly similar to what I originally wrote up.

The changes made by that chain of command consisted of mainly "happy to glad" changes, where the meaning didn't change despite the wording.  Both the Engineer and the CO said it was important for me to write messages to their exact standards, so that I could learn to be a good CO someday.  Reflecting on this later though makes me believe it was simply micromanagement combined with a lack of empathy or any regard for a subordinate's time.  The Engineer and CO cared little that I spent hours of my time rewriting the SUBS message.  To them, I was a pawn in the wardroom that could be mistreated and abused at will.

This contrasts sharply with my experiences as a COMINT Evaluator for Navy Information Operations Command, Georgia, where the Commanding Officer entrusted me to release over 700 SIGINT messages on his behalf.  I trained on the proper formatting and wording of these messages, and was entrusted with the writing of the subjective "comments" section.  Not all messages were perfect, but after a few mistakes the quality quickly improved.  I readily passed down this training to the Junior Officers behind me, and that shop continues to receive accolades about its reporting, and doesn't make same mistakes I did previously.  I learned nothing but frustration from my SUBS message, but I still remember plenty about my SIGINT messages, because the trust my Commanding Officer placed in me forced me to become steadily better at my job.

The fallacy of outward appearance

Instructions levied by both a submarine's operational commander and the nuclear power command, as well as the constant preventative maintenance required to maintain the equipment onboard, keep a submarine's crew pretty busy.  However, whenever a senior officer decides to pay a visit, all work stops and field day commences, only to have said the senior officer stop by for five minutes, say some words on the 1MC, and leave.  A more sadistic scheme is when we get to keep a senior officer for a week during an underway, so that besides the cleaning the submarine's crew also spends the week entertaining him.

My first Captain took this to the maximum.  Our culinary specialists had tuxedos for serving senior officers, our supply officer bought great food, and the submarine's crew performed activities like angles and dangles, where the ship takes sharp angles to check for proper stowage.  The reality was that the senior officers never saw the real HAMPTON.  They didn't see the Captain chew out watchstanders for minor mistakes, because the Captain stacked the watch teams by burning out his best watchstanders, while stifling the rest of the crew's qualifications during that period.  The good food wasn't for the whole crew, and it wasn't even for the wardroom Junior Officers, who were simply trying to get a quick meal before going onto watch.  Many Junior Officer ate on crews mess during these trips.  While the Captain and guest played a lot of cribbage, the rest of the crew was worn down.

Only once did I see a remarkable exception to this rule, from (at the time) RDML Cecil Haney.  He emailed the Captain and asked that while he wanted to ride with us for a week, he didn't want any extra bells or whistles, and that the crew should simply perform routine operations.  Our Captain tried to put on the same performance as before, but it was stopped after the first day.

During his visit, RDML Haney stopped by the engine room while I was the Engineering Officer of the Watch.  He asked to tour the engine room, so I took him around, showed him how I reviewed logs, and we chatted about what worked and what didn't in engineering.  In Main Condensate Bay he and I jumped into the bilge and located discrepancies for after watch cleanup.  During this time, we had the only real conversation I had ever had with a flag officer, to include discussions about why he stayed in the Navy, how he balanced home life with work, and what his hobbies were.  After he left the engine room, I received a frantic call from the XO, and only then realized the Admiral hadn't told the Captain that he was touring the engine room.

It was obvious that my first Captain cared about outward appearance.  The visitors that he wined and dined never really knew the boat or crew.  They never scratched the surface to see if what they were seeing went more than skin deep.  Our Captain always championed these visits as our way of being noticed, and that the extra work we put into these dog and pony shows would make us better and drive us to excellence.  However, these visits were so superficial that they did exactly the opposite by giving outside leaders the appearance of greatness where no such thing existed.

RDML Haney got it right: a quiet look in the engine room with no fanfare meant more to the crew than the other Admirals visits combined.  It is good to see a man of such caliber now serving as the Commander of US Strategic Command.

Preventing the slide: character and mentorship

Character and mentorship are the best ways to prevent what I call "the slide," which is the slow movement from good leadership principles to poor ones, often justified by a "git r done" mentality that values the ends over the means, giving short term gain for long term loss.  The slide slowly destroys a command, embittering its Junior Officers along the way, all the while wrapped in the guise of can-do attitude.  When we bypass security rules, fudge numbers on a set of logs, or tell our subordinates to simply "make it happen," we are sliding into poor leadership. 

Character prevents this slide by questioning "why" we are performing an action.  Giving a subordinate a counseling chit when he or she screws up may be the right answer, but it is character that determines how to deliver that chit, what the chit says, and when it is delivered.  These choices make the difference between effectively changing a subordinate's behavior and simply angering them.  Good leaders continually develop their character by making decisions, taking actions, and continuously evaluating whether the correct decision was made.

Mentorship takes character to another level by transferring good character into others.  Mentoring subordinates leaves behind a stronger Navy, whether at the division, department, or command level.  Mentorship makes us partially accountable for subordinate's behavior because we had a hand in guiding that behavior.  Poor leaders don't mentor others, because all they care about is an outward appearance and their own performance as measured by others.  In fact, poor leaders prefer to not mentor others so that it is easier for them to say they have no responsibility for their actions. 

I never received any mentorship from my first Captain.  He would occasionally pull me aside, but the conversation was always about his needs and wants, and he never listened to my questions.  The CO that relieved him took the time, even when we were busy, to let me know where I had done well and where I was lacking.

What does leadership look like to the led?

Good leadership is a consistent application of Honor, Courage and Commitment to all situations in order to make the Sailors around us better.  Poor leadership shifts the focus from others to oneself, and involves a selfish application of the Navy's core values for personal gain.  To the led, poor leadership manifests itself by the lack of development of Junior Officers, the consistent decline of morale despite command accomplishments, and the inability to balance work and home life.  Good leadership acts as a force multiplier that leaves behind better commands, well-developed subordinates, and a command pride that lasts long after the good leader has left.

We the led see through the guise of entitlement, the micromanagement of standards, and the fallacy of outward appearances.  We the led know when we aren't being developed and are consistently sacrificed to the desires of our superiors.  We the led see our poor leaders apply Honor, Courage and Commitment when it suits them, and fail to apply it when it is inconvenient. 

We also know when we are being led well.  When our leaders take the gains they have made in rank and selflessly give them back to us...we see it.  When our leaders trust us and give us support instead of micromanagement...we learn from it.  When our leaders care about what is on the inside, and allow it to be what truly radiates on the outside...we grow from it.