Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Teams Failing Leaders?

As I look forward to witnessing another good friend realize the career milestone that is Command, I am reminded that it has been less than two weeks since the Navy relieved our 13th Commanding Officer (CO) this year. It stings whenever any CO gives the Navy reason to fire him/her, but this one hit closer to home than any. This time it was a classmate of mine from the Naval Academy, but more importantly she was a fellow member of the Information Dominance Corps who failed Information Dominance Corps Sailors.

This thought piece is not about any singular CO firing, but wonderment of how this happens in any organization. Many people point to the failure of the individual due to poor choices, lack of training or leaders giving unworthy individuals the honor of command in the name of diversity, favoritism, etc. I believe that each of those are contributing factors in some cases, but not a constant. To me the common thread is the lack of a true Team Culture.

It is said that success is a team effort, while failure can be achieved in isolation. Families, friends, coaches and teachers enable the success of a child. Without the interest of others, that child will almost certainly fail. For a command to succeed, it takes deliberate efforts on the part of Chiefs, "White Hats", Civilians and Officers. And as we have seen all too often, the CO may chose to fail the command. Because the Navy has a proud tradition of ensuring ultimate accountability and authority rests with a CO, we are quick to judge a CO who is fired, but what about those on the sidelines? I am not advocating that we let a CO off the hook, but only that we all look in the mirror to see what we might have done to prevent such failure (Related Article: Point the Finger Inward)

Arguably, the single greatest self-correcting organization known to man is the Chief Petty Officer Mess. There is a proud tradition of helping each other continually improve, holding each other accountable and collectively raising the bar that exists only on the closests of teams. Why are commands unable to cultivate that philosophy across the entire team? And why might Chiefs be reluctant to mentor their seniors with the same philosophy?

In the aftermath of the most recent CO being relieved, I spoke about it to the Chiefs, Officers and Senior Civilians at NIOC Pensacola. I told them that if this happened at OUR Command, it is partly their fault. That was not a ploy to shirk responsibility or predict a future failure. It was a purposeful effort to let them all know that I expect them to hold me accountable, to be constructively critical of my actions and to help us to collectively manage perceptions. We will succeed as a team, but I will not fail the team because they allowed me to live in isolation. All are cordially invited to help ensure I am/become the CO they deserve and that OUR actions have the desired effects, while minimizing unintended consequences.

Much of leadership is perception management and most times actions are perceived inappropriate long before they truly are. Here's to hoping that we can grow a culture whereby we are more concerned with our seniors and peers holding true to our proud tradition than we are our next performance appraisal, future assignments and promotability. I firmly believe that the inappropriate activity of at least a few of the 13 COs who failed their Sailors and Families could have been prevented by addressing questionable activity before it became truly inappropriate and required intervention from higher authority.

Note: Coincidentally, I had the honor of commissioning a new Chief Warrant Officer earlier today. A proud leader who continues to achieve much because he is willing to tell others what they need to, and not necessarily what they want to, hear.


  1. It has been brought to my attention that some people are reading this post to mean that I am speaking about NCTS Bahrain and speculating about their failure as a team. I personally know the XO and for that reason alone have every reason to believe that they are one of the best commands across the IDC (he has constructively mentored me on many occasions). The recent firing has merely given me reason (like so many others) to give serious thought as to why this is happening so often. My thoughts are general in nature and are in no way intended to speak ill of the NCTS Bahrain Team. My apologies for any confusion and my appreciation for those who brought that perception to my attention. Once again validating the value of holding peers/seniors accountable and collectively attempting to manage perceptions. Thanks for holding me accountable for my words/actions and doing your part to make me better.

  2. I haven't been around the metaphorical block as many times as most, but I have seen several Commanding Officers get fired. It was all while I was on submarine duty. I would say that (with my limited knowledge of the facts and available hearsay) in most cases, the CO should not have been the one to be fired. When a submarine, or any vessel, runs aground while the captain is not the Officer of the Deck, it is not the Captain's fault. The fault lies with the Officer of the Deck, the Navigator, and the Quartermaster who decided to drive in to a sea mountain, sandbar, or other ship. There are a handful of things a CO should get fired for when he is in direct supervision of the tasks at hand- otherwise, there are people on watch who get fired (eh hem.... SHOULD get fired, but don't). A CO does not get fired nor is held accountable (unless it becomes an epidemic) for a sailor getting a DUI.

    The Chief's Mess' mantra of taking care of their own does filter through most of each command, as they look after the sailors in their divisions. Frequently, things are handled at the lowest level possible. Chiefs carry around a lot of forgiveness where it's due- conversely a lot of justice when it's due as well. I feel it is handled well at our command, but nothing ever is perfect.... we come close though here at NIOC P.

    I think the Navy is awfully quick to judge sometimes. I say Navy, but I mean humans in general as well. So often, the BIG Navy is merely looking for a fall guy and only looking to make an example of someone to scare everyone else in to submission--maintain good order and discipline. The Navy has rules because people die from doing the right thing the wrong way.

    Long story short, responsible parties should be held accountable for their actions. The CO, unless he/she is the responsible party, does not need to be the one to take the hit for another person's mistake.

  3. Sean,

    When I talk to JOs, I tell them they have two things going for them as an officer that they cannot compromise – their integrity and their judgment. Every CO that I’ve seen sacked has exhibited serious and frequent lapses in one or both of these areas and I can say without exception that they earned their dismissals. Several were even cautioned by their subordinates, but the senior chose to continue down the path they were on.

    Let me be clear; I do not advocate a zero-defect mentality. We all sometimes make a poor decision, as I recently did when choosing an officer to perform a high interest mission that ultimately received much visible bad community press because that officer made a couple poor decisions while on the mission. Rather, it is repeated decisions to do things that one knows to be illegal or immoral that usually ends up getting a CO relieved.

    So how did these officers get to be COs if they were seriously flawed? I believe it comes down to the unwillingness or inability of seniors, peers, and subordinates to recognize these character flaws. Sure, sometimes these people fly under the radar, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. There are a few, like your new CWO, who will tell them what they need to hear, but we are products of our society and our experiences. By the time a young man or woman becomes an officer, he or she is already who they are and it takes a lot of personal desire and work to change at that point. If that person comes to the Navy fatally flawed, in terms of character, there’s little the Navy can do to “fix” them unless they choose to “fix” themselves. If they haven’t changed 15-20 years hence, there’s no way they are going to snap their fingers and decide to change because they’re now a CO.

    I believe we need to institute actual screening boards – in person – for those who are up for OIC, CMC, XO, and CO positions. You can learn a lot about a person my looking them in the eye.

  4. Plouzek - Well stated and thanks for making the time to be a part of the conversation.

    Kevin - Great advice for the JOs! I concur 100% with your thoughts on "actual screening boards." We should be celebrating the fact that we are a small community/corps and ensure our board members collectively know each and every person they are considering for CO/XO/OIC and operational milestone. Coincidentally, our board is just finishing up. Should be interesting to see not only who is selected but what the criteria is. I went to Google yesterday and learned that their screening process (both hiring and asignment) is very intimate, which is one of the reasons they continue to be such a successful team.

  5. Another CO, an XO, and a CMC.

  6. Sean, Kevin,

    I've thought about this one for awhile.... Not that by revealing that in any way adds credence to what I am about to write.

    Kevin mentions an in-person screening process; though that would be good and provide an ability to distinguish very similar candidates, I don't believe we are willing to initiate any process that would discern who won't become a morally corrupt leader.

    Stress and Power reveal a lot about a person. The Navy has no crucible beyond command itself to test leaders. (Geek Alert) We don't have a Kobayashi Maru to put our potential leaders in difficult leadership scenarios to test what they would do and how they would react. Certainly, war-fighting skills can be revealed by observation, qualities such as patience and integrity can be revealed while moving up through the ranks, but there is no true test that will reveal a morally weak leader. Sadly this is a private crucible that the truly weak feel they must burden alone.

    Let’s face it, if sent to an in-person command screening board you would already be feeling pretty good about yourself. You’ve had great FITREPS all the way up, the Navy sees in you what it wants, and gosh darn it, people like you. So, if posed the question, “Do you know of any reason you should not be given command?” What would be your answer? I've commented before that I thought Sean is someone who would answer truthfully to a question like this. I am not as certain about how I would respond.

    Bloom County had many series on the Anxiety Closet. Perhaps you can all relate to this analogy of things we hide from other and rarely look at ourselves. The difficulty for leaders, especially for those who are groomed by the will of others, is that the flaws that will test their moral constitution have been hidden so well up to this point that even the potential leader has forgotten them or believes they are under control. The truth is that these hidden aspects of character end up getting light shed upon them, and sadly for the many of the 2010-thirteen it has the most unflattering 1000W florescent kind of light.