Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Why exactly do we sign up for this?

I had the pleasure of interviewing a candidate for the US Naval Academy today.  I asked him what seems like a very simple question: "What is the difference between a chief and an ensign?"

Normally people take the bait along the lines of chiefs are smarter and more experienced...and then realize their folly when I ask "Well, are you implying you aren't smart since you're applying for an officer package?" Other people say that an officer has a degree and a chief doesn't, until I point out that many of our chiefs have degrees, and now I'm seeing many enlisted sailors with bachelors and even masters degrees.

My candidate went on a slightly different approach, and said that the scope and responsibility of an officer is larger than that of a chief. Not a bad answer, but I poked holes in it. I have a division of 90 sailors that is run by a chief, and in the same command another division of 60 sailors is run by an officer. Pointing that out, my candidate was a bit stumped. I asked him to go review the oath that an officer takes and notice the difference from an enlisted oath. I also told him I would bring in a copy of my commission.

The rest of my day (before and after that interview) was terrible, and as I found out, my wife's day was terrible too. So later that night I went to my paperwork box, dug out my commission and made a photo copy. It's been a LONG time since I read it, and going back through it, I picked up on a few phrases:

- "This officer will therefore carefully and diligently discharge the duties of the office to which appointed by doing and performing all manner of things thereunto belonging."

"All manner of things" is quite a broad statement. It directly conflicts with today's society, where too often people want to perform rote work and not think very hard. If you need proof, call your cable companies customer service line, ask for a favor from a DMV employee, or walk around and see how many people are on Facebook instead of working. This clause means I'm required to go the extra's not an option.

- "This commission is to continue in force during the pleasure of the President of the United States of America."

Meaning that you never take off the uniform. Ever. Think you're too old to be recalled? Think again. If your country needs you, you'll be asked to come back, even if you used to be the Chief of Naval Operations.

Looking back, I never appreciated my commission as a 22-year old Ensign. I was just happy to have a job. I didn't think about the magnitude of the decision I made when I signed on. I don't think anyone really can appreciate it, and I don't think we're meant to at a young age. A decision that big probably would have blown my mind at 22. As I get older, and listen to those who are older than I am, it begins to sink in a lot more.

Officers and enlisted, in most cases, start off in the same place in life: you don't know anything, you spend most of your first years learning, and you tend to screw up a lot. Education doesn't make the difference. Job ability doesn't either. I know Chiefs whose work performance is on par with many junior officers. We're fooling ourselves if we somehow think officers are just a better, faster, smarter version of enlisted personnel.

To Sailors in the US Navy, this makes sense, but it's not true in other navies. I've encountered quite a few foreign navies where the officers are the experts in everything, and enlisted Sailors are not much more than deck hands. In some of these navies, knowledge is actively reserved for officers only as a way of preserving power.

No, the difference between officers and enlisted boils down to expectations. While we're all expected to do our best, officers are expected to do all manner of things to ensure the best outcome, and their job will continue in force during the pleasure of the President. That's no short order. On shore duty, it entails making a lot of phone calls, rewriting a lot of papers, and often staying late. At sea, it often means standing longer watches, forgoing a lot of sleep, and extended stays away from home and family. An officer's position is unique because you're no longer responsible for just yourself. Your mistakes WILL affect others, potentially screwing them over. Your accomplishments are no longer your own, as most of what you do is based on how others perform. Your success or failure rests in the hands of others and is based on your ability to inspire your Sailors to achieve excellence or settle for mediocrity (or worse, low standards).

Don't lose sight of this. Your purpose for being is NOT paperwork. While you may do a lot of it, paperwork is simply a means to an end. Your job is setting expectations. You are the person ultimately responsible to the President when it comes to executing your mission. Your Sailors depend on your for guidance as to the right direction for your division, platoon, watch section, department or command.

I don't know about you, but that responsibility and trust is what motivates me to get up every morning and tackle the problems that come my way.