Thursday, December 9, 2010

Giving Ourselves Permission

I grew up the son of a (now retired) police officer and, as you might imagine, he and my Mom created a rather specific environment in which to nurture my brother and me. As children, my brother and I would often times contrast the specific rules under which we lived to those of our friends. Back then, such analysis would leave us angry as we realized that "Jimmy" got to stay out later than us, and "Jennifer" had a larger allowance than us, and "Johnny" wandered from house to house without telling his parents unlike us. Now that I am older (and a parent), I see those "facts" (and so many other things) very differently.

My parents had very specific rules and as long as we operated within the boundaries we were fine. Because they were clearly communicated, we completely understood them. If we were operating within the guidelines, there was no need to ask for permission. Likewise, if we had good reason to believe a deviation was in order, all we had to do was explain why we were going to operate outside family standard operating procedures. In essence, the foundation of my childhood was two-way communication: clearly articulated expectations and mutual trust. It should come as no surprise that as a parent I am doing my best to perpetuate a similar cycle.

Admittedly, my seven year old son is treated a little differently than most of his classmates are by their parents. My son knows our expectations and he knows that asking for our permission to eat a snack, use the family computer or retire to his room to play games is not required. At the same time, he knows when to inform us of his desires to stray from the stated boundaries. He has permission to act on his own initiative, as well as both make personal decisions and mistakes (though somewhat controlled…he is seven, after all).

Although I have been a part of the Navy for over 22 years, I have come to really question the culture we continue to build by placing such an emphasis on asking for permission. As a midshipman and a junior officer, I submitted my share of special requests and like most good Sailors, I followed protocol. All the while, though, I was wondering why I needed permission to do some of the things for which I intended to do. Now as a Commanding Officer, I continue to both understand the intent and in many cases question the practice. I question the culture we continue to create when we require our juniors to "Submit a Special Request Chit.” My concerns are validated when I hear stories of staff officers lined up outside a Flag Officer's office asking for permission to take action. By forcing ourselves and/or feeling obligated to ask for permission, opportunities are lost, progress is halted, initiative is stifled and a culture of contentment is perpetuated. I don’t believe our seniors want us to ask permission, we are just conditioned to not give it to ourselves.

I hope that my son continues to give himself permission to realize his dreams, just as I’d like the Sailors with whom I serve to see “Request” chits as a communications vehicle used to share “Intentions” and enhance the situational awareness of the chain of command, and not as a tool that promotes submissive behavior. Truth is, some of the things for which the Navy forces grown men and women to ask permission is insulting. And to those of us continually looking up the chain for guidance, please consider giving ourselves the permission necessary to truly execute our individual charter and make the most of our existing platform.


  1. Many COs across the submarine force adopted a similar philosophy around the time I was starting the PXO training pipeline in 2006. Instead of asking permission to do things, it became in vogue to say, "I intend to..." as a means of notifying the CO for his situational awareness that you're going to do X unless he tells you not to. The premise was that asking permission placed the decision and the responsibility in the CO's hands, but a Sailor or watch officer stating his intention was making the decision himself and accepting the responsibility for it.

    My PCO classmates and I had a similar discussion yesterday. I forget how exactly the question was worded, but an admiral asked us how we would know if we were empowering our junior officers and chiefs or if they were relying on the CO to make all the decisions. One of my classmates summarized it by saying, "very well." If you're JOs and chiefs are making the decisions, running the ship, and just keeping you informed of what they're doing, then all you should have to say most of the time is, "very well," and provide backup when necessary.