Sunday, September 28, 2014

Does the Navy make you stay quiet?

After a few days of standing the night watch, my watch team went out for breakfast.  My other watch officer and I arrived first, and within two minutes of sitting down we had a pair of Bloody Marys and good conversation going...exactly the way breakfast should start!

We chatted about work, careers and the like, and at one point she asked me "Do you think the Navy has made you suppress some of the things you would normally say?"

That question actually made me think for a bit (normally I'm quick to answer). I ended up saying "No, it hasn't," although I did qualify that answer with "I do sometimes realize there other problems at hand, so sometimes I stay quiet about some problems so I can work to solve others."

I'm STILL thinking about this question days later, and I wanted to make my answer clear.

1. I don't believe the Navy makes you suppress yourself, except when required by law. Yes, you can't outright support politicians or participate in political rallies in uniform. You can't talk bad about the President publicly. You can't hang out with groups that support the violent overthrow of the United States. You can't discuss classified portions of your work. But honestly, outside of that, you're fairly free to say what you want. The Navy even tells you how to properly attribute comments on social media.

2. At work, you defer to your boss, but you'd do that at most other jobs. You are welcome to disagree with your boss, and in the Navy the boss can always order you to do something anyways. We act like somehow this is unique to the Navy, but in any other job, if you simply blew off your boss, you wouldn't last long. In fact, the Navy probably gives you more opportunity to disagree with your boss (at least at junior ranks) than industry does. I know plenty of people that lost their jobs due to disagreement with their boss that was disguised as something else, where at least in the Navy it would require you being brought up to Captain's Mast.

3. I admit there is a strong tendency to view Big Navy as suppressing our viewpoints. I truly believe that is a myth.

So if Big Navy doesn't want to hear about you, do initiatives like Navy RAD, DoD Retention Survey, or the CNO's Blog make sense? How about the push to make better female uniforms? How about the fact that the Navy has been firing COs, XOs and CMCs over poor command climate (contrary to the Army, who at best retires people early). While Big Navy doesn't always act on everything that comes up, it does at least listen to its Sailors.

4. I believe the biggest "suppressing" problem comes from poor local leadership. I'll use two examples:

- I had one young Sailor ask me what the Navy's policy on wearing watches is. I replied "You get one watch on either wrist, and it shouldn't be faddish." She showed me a dark purple Timex watch and asked if it was faddish. It wasn't, but apparently some random Chief thought it was, so she was told to take it off.

- The Engineer on my submarine would make maniacal changes to routine messages. I would type up a message, he would scribble his changes on it, I would make them and bring to him for routing...and he'd change it again. And again. And again. We would miss message release times because he couldn't make up his damn mind. In the end, it was always my fault for "not routing it fast enough." At one point I stopped putting any effort into writing commander's summaries at the end, and he told me I wasn't motivated enough for the Navy.

I have hundreds of examples of crappy leadership, in both enlisted and officer ranks, that had made our Sailors feel like they couldn't express themselves. We're not talking about guys wearing earrings in uniform, or girls coloring their hair out of regulations. We're talking about normal, legal, proper expressions. Whether it's in what we wear, how we write, or what we do on liberty, local leadership is to blame.

The insidious part of all of this is that they welcome the blame on Big Navy. I heard a Supply Officer blame Big Navy is why we have no spare parts, then come to find out the guy wasn't doing his spot checks and his LS1 had stolen 24,000 dollars out of our budget. I heard an IS2 tell and ISSN that he couldn't get time off to replace his expired drivers license (quickly corrected by me). I watched a Chief routinely deny leave chits for no reason until a Division Officer stepped in and fired him (BTW, it wasn't me). I watched a JO essentially spit on the Navy Core Values until we ended his career by not qualifying him in his warfare area.

These people hide behind the excuse of "Big Navy." News flash people: if you're a leader, YOU ARE PART OF BIG NAVY! Yes. You own it. Big Navy = You, at least in the eyes of your Sailors. You are the "they." And that is a good thing.

As a Department Head, I broke the mold of crappy E-4 EVALs by making my Chiefs write them correctly. It wasn't easy, it took time, but in the end everyone appreciated the EVAL process more. I broke it again by learning about my First Class Petty Officers and effectively arguing for them on a command ranking board. I found things that didn't make sense and when I was told "Well, it can't be fixed," I went ahead and fixed them anyway.

I did nothing special. I didn't have any magical powers, great budget or massive influence. I didn't even fix everything I wanted to. But I got a lot done because I took the authority Big Navy gave me and used it for good. When I saw things not working, I willingly threw my rank on the table and fixed things with force of will when necessary. I tried to never say "it's Big Navy's fault," because I knew I was Big Navy.

The Navy's latest recruiting commercial is "A force for good." Most of us IN the Navy laugh at it. And truth be told, recruiting commercials are for people coming in, not people already in. But maybe this one is different. Maybe we should ask ourselves if we're using the power given to us for good:

-Are we training the new ensigns coming in, or are we simply sitting back and chuckling at their mistakes?
-Do we take the fiery new gal and help her direct her energy, or do we stick her in a corner because we don't want to deal with her?
-Are we truly training the next set of leaders, or just those that pass the Chief's Exam?
-Do we make our job better every day, or do we police the minor issues because it's easier?
-Are we putting in an honest days work, or are we content to just by?

If you're answering positively to the latter and not the former, you're part of the problem. And if you're a continual problem, I have no use for you in today's Navy.