By lex, on June 14th, 2009
Got the good news last week that one of my red-hot junior officers when I was a CO had been screened for command of an operational FA-18 squadron. Sent him a note of congratulations. Was a little surprised (but privately gladdened) to read his reply:
Many thanks for that! Actually, I was going to write anyway but was having a tough time phrasing a question I had for you, which was something like:
“Would you mind summarizing your time as a CO/XO in a paragraph or two?”
Which, of course, would hardly be fair, but requesting a Vulcan mind meld to reach a more comprehensive understanding probably would be right out, if that gives you any idea of what movie I saw last night.
Anyway, I suddenly realized (“suddenly” in reality having been some time ago) that there’s quite the void between what I think I know and what I know I don’t know. I’m certainly grateful in advance for any thoughts you may wish to proffer!
Congrats again to (SNO).
I’ve given advice before, but that was to a flight school student. It’s a little strange being asked for command advice when the arc of your career was over-topped by your ambitions. But I always knew that I was a better aviator than an officer, so with that in mind I sent the young man – it gives you some idea of what “young” now is from my point of view when I use that term for a screened commander – this reply:
Oh, you’ve seen well enough I think to know what you’ll want to do, I have every confidence in your leadership.
As the XO, I tried to support the skipper’s plan, because that’s what I would have wanted in his shoes. That was pretty easy working for a guy like Oaf, it might have been harder with other guys I knew. Still, you don’t want the people choosing sides between the front office. Hope that you get lucky with your slate. It’s OK to come off as a hard ass on your first day, you can always ease sheets after. Hard to pull them back in though, when you start off as everybody’s friend.
You’ve probably got a better sense of my performance as a CO than I do. I do know that I tried hard to make it look like fun, tried hard to empower the CPOs to do their jobs and then hold them accountable for it. A lot of working with the troops ends up being a listening tour. People don’t need for you to agree with them or adopt their point of view. They do appreciate getting the chance to air it. With the aviators, I tried to emphasize the things I thought important; being combat lethal and taking care of our people. Don’t be afraid to speak from your heart.
I also tried to make my 15 months with the sheriff’s badge something I wouldn’t have to regret afterward. You’re not promised anything after command, so I didn’t want to become someone I wasn’t in the hopes of further advancement. You could change who you are – or seem to be – and still not make it to flag, or major command. And you’d have lost your self-respect along the way. I always thought if you gave it your best and it didn’t work out, then it probably wasn’t right for you. Whatever “it” is. But I may have been too downward looking, trying to run the outfit professionally and let the chips fall where they may. It might have been better if I spent some more duty cycles looking up a bit as well. If you get the CAG’s job some day, you’ll probably appreciate the same courtesy.
For example, I probably could have done a better job at keeping CAG apprised at what was going on inside the squadron, rather than surprising him – and his boss – when the occasional SITREP would come out. The regs are pretty clear on when such things need to be generated, but they raise a lot of eyebrows at the higher levels, and can lead to some second guessing. It never hurts to make the phone call first, so your boss hears about it from you. It turns out that there are flag staffers who sit by the message terminal lidlessly waiting for a squadron-level SITREP, in the hopes of getting to tell the admiral about it first. If CAG gets a call from his boss and you haven’t spoken to him, he might come to resent it.
You’ll probably hate it, but as an XO, make the time to step up to the War Room while you’re at sea (if CAG lets you) and get a feel for what the heavies talk about, what slides they show, their body language. Most strike groups have a morning flag meeting, many have an evening war council. The first is all about today’s effort, the latter more of a long range rumination combined with a retrospective on the day just done. You’ll get a much better sense of what the CAG wants to brag to his boss about, and maybe you can help give him some talking points when it’s your turn. Get that stupid CDO letter from the ship’s CO as soon as you can, preferably on the outbound leg.
Shit happens. Leadership occurs in the aftermath. People who shoot messengers end up not getting any more messages. It’s a little like first aid: Stop the bleeding, protect the wound, treat for shock. There’s always time later for in-depth reconstruction, but it has to be more about preventing recurrence than finding the right dog to beat.
I didn’t think about this enough, but the CAG probably has ambitions of his own. I didn’t have a very high regard for one of the guys I worked for, neither as an officer nor an aviator. I probably could have done a better job masking my contempt. I don’t have much in the way of unctuousness inside me, and always had a positive loathing for careerist apple polishing in any case. But a lot of my former peers are now commanding aircraft carriers and air wings and I’m a retired guy in a consulting job, fooling around with a blog. On most days I’m OK with that.
And I don’t know that I’d do anything all that differently, especially inside the squadron. I am who I am.
You just be you. You’ll do great.
All this for what it’s worth.
Free advice is worth what you pay for it.