Sea Stories on Leadership: Part I

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This is a two part series about two Captains I served under consecutively aboard the USS John Rodgers, a Spruance Class destroyer, shortly after the Persian Gulf War. The first came to us from a shore tour he had just completed at the Pentagon in Washington DC. Dashing, sharp, and highly energetic; he fit the mold of a destroyer captain perfectly. His first speech to the 318 of us under his command was delivered perfectly. He said there were three things we needed to do in order to be great: 1. We had to be a spotlessly clean ship, 2. We had to pass inspections with flying colors, and 3. We had to communicate flawlessly with the Fleet.

By clean, he meant freshly painted bulkheads and passageways buffed every night. By passing inspections, he meant at all costs, and by communication, he meant the image we projected to other ships, the Squadron, and anybody else. It all sounded fine at first, but as we started to implement the new CO’s initiatives we found them to be flawed as goals in and of themselves. The ultimate goal of being operationally ready to inflict damage upon enemy forces under fire got lost somewhere.

To properly maintain a steel ship in a saltwater environment, old paint has to be stripped,  all of the rust has to be removed by the bosun’ mates with chip hammers and needle guns, and then the fresh steel is primed prior to getting it’s handsome coat of haze gray. The right process can take a little while….way too long for our captain, so orders came down to paint OVER the topcoat and leave the evil rust lurking below.

Maintenance records and qualifications were gundecked, meaning in nautical terms they were falsified. All of the fresh paint and shiny brass was designed to act as a Siren Song to lure inspectors into a false sense of security so they would not look further. With all of the floor buffing and painting going on between watches, the sailors had little time to complete their qualifications or properly maintain equipment.

Written teletype messages sent out via satellite were by far the bulk of what we communicated. Message communication was a crucial link to the supply chain and technical support teams we desperately needed in our constant battle to maintain Ships equipment at operational readiness standards. Our captain would routinely disallow or de-prioritize these messages because in his mind, letting the Fleet know we had problems reflected poorly.

Over time, I began to realize that the CO was totally obsessed with his own ambitions and desires with little regard for the welfare of his crew or officers. The destroyer he commanded, when properly cared for and maintained, was a powerful force for the protection of our Freedom, but to him it was little more than a stepping stone in a military career that was more important to him than anything else.

Learning to maneuver an 8,000 ton ship in formation at sea can be exhilarating, but for me it was one of the lowest points of my life. Brand new to the skill, I was having difficulty keeping station during a training exercise off the coast of North Carolina. The Captain stood completely silent, then suddenly attacked me in verbal fury in front of the entire Bridge Team. He clearly stated with conviction that I was hopelessly incompetent and solemnly swore that he would never allow me to pass my boards.

Devastated by the knowledge that my naval career was effectively over, something changed within me in the weeks that followed. I came to the realization that my actions and words in the leadership of my division, along with the way I stood my watches, had become a direct reflection of the selfish way in which my CO acted. In those next few weeks, for what felt like the first time, I turned my eyes and attention totally to my sailors and away from myself.

What I saw broke my heart but also provided hope for me to make a significant difference in ways I had never imagined. I had Petty Officer’s stuck at pay grades well below their potential due to a lack of emphasis on critical training needed to pass their exams. Equipment throughout the ship that I was responsible for was not in working order because requests for parts and assistance were being rejected and de-prioritized. While on watch, I noticed a steady erosion of core competencies as priorities had been clearly placed elsewhere.

I decided I wanted to do something about what I saw.

The first thing I implemented was a daily training time during the Dog Watch where my sailors took turns lecturing and teaching each other from their rating manuals. I attended most of these sessions to demonstrate their importance to me.  Next, I engaged in a ferocious campaign against my chain of command with respect to the prioritization of badly needed parts and support for divisional equipment. I was relentless as I argued that our mission and the safety of our crew was dependent upon properly maintained equipment and systems. Finally, while on watch in the middle of the night when things were slow, I would work with the watchstanders on important skills, teamwork, and naval traditions that were being ignored.

What happened from there was truly amazing. Nearly every sailor in my division made grade in the next promotion cycle, one of which (my very best 2nd Class Petty Officer) passed his exam after failing it for 4 years. My persistence paid off as parts started coming in, along with the technical assistance we needed, and the morale of my division increased dramatically as we found purpose and success in our daily routine. At night, my watch team was becoming a well-oiled machine of operational efficiency and we were having fun for the first time.

The amazement did not end. My Chief (now a Senior Chief!) practically kicked me out of my office as he and my men took over all of the divisional duties and paperwork. They took it upon themselves to do everything in their power to free up my time so their young junior officer could study and pass his qualifications. With the highest enlisted promotion rate on the ship and the support of my fellow officers and crew, the CO could not make good on his promise to deep six me and I was allowed to sit for my Surface Warfare Officer boards.

I had learned a great lesson from my first captain. It takes the support of those around us to be successful. Success must be defined in a way that that benefits the mission of the whole ship, not just our own ambitions. Dangerous consequences can ensue when we put our own interests above others.

Sadly, my CO had to pay dearly for his insatiable thirst for his own success, wants and desires. We had embarked an old Mustang Admiral for deployment who saw straight through the shiny brass and fresh paint to the decay and dysfunction below. He investigated and sometime later, the Captain was Court Martialed for misappropriation of ships funds to pay for luxurious travel for he and his Mistress, along with several other lapses in judgement where he had clearly put his own interest above those of his ship and its crew.

Now we had a new captain, and I would learn in a positive way even more about the power of effective leadership.

(to be continued)