Lex Describing the Nature of a Navy Command

Lex wrote so many things that I consider to be timeless. I’ve told people from time to time that many of his blog posts were not so much posts as essays.

And here he describes in a succinct and complete manner, the nature of a Navy command.

He wrote this 15 years ago, but it could have been written yesterday.

Command at sea is the pinnacle of achievement in the career of a line officer. It is the culmination of years of service, professional growth, demonstrated leadership and technical expertise in his or her war fighting specialty. Having climbed through the ranks by selection for promotion by statutory boards, and careful screening by administrative boards, an officer will finally put the US Navy Command Pin on his uniform. It is for many of us the height of our ambition, and a treasured symbol of success.

Recently it seems as though those pins are being attached with explosive bolts . As prestigious as it is to achieve command at sea, to be “relieved for cause” is more than equally disgraceful. The March issue of the Navy Times reports that 22 commanding officers had been relieved for cause in the preceding 13 months. Another three have been relieved this calendar year, bringing the total for 2004 up to nine. These numbers are unprecedented, and disturbing.

He covered his idea of an ideal CO here.

And his idea of great leadership wasn’t limited to officers.

The finest leader I’ve ever met was a Master Chief Petty Officer who was my departmental leading chief aboard the aircraft carrier. Perhaps a hundred and thirty pounds, 5’6″ of twisted steel and immense dignity. A man who no longer had to stand a watch, but insisted upon doing so. A man who could not see a flaw, whether it was in his gear, or those who maintained it, without correcting it instantly. For whom the “path of least resistance” held no allure. For whom the care and advancement of his people only took a back seat to the accomplishment of the mission. Unlimited professionalism, enthusiasm and dedication. He was the kind of leader I wish I could be.

He was a member of the CPO’s mess.

And, as Lex noted, all leaders aren’t the same. They don’t all come out of a “cookie cutter” with identical results.

During the fall of last year I had the opportunity (that’s what we call going to sea: an opportunity) to plan and execute three major exercises for three different carrier strike groups. We essentially put all three groups through the same wringer, with only minor modifications from exercise to exercise.

And in retrospect, the fascinating thing was how three nearly identically configured carrier strike groups, facing three nearly identical scenarios, came up with markedly different processes which often led to completely different results.

Which is kind of funny, but not in the “ha-ha” kind of a way: the Navy had invested the same amount in materiel, manpower and training on each group. And yet the same input signal often yielded different outcomes. And while all strike groups were successful, some of them, or their component warfare commanders were much better than others: More lethal, more survivable, and more nimble.

Which begs the question: Why?

I learned more about leadership in the Army by watching and observing.

Most of the officers and NCOs above me were competent. One or 2 were buttheads (Lex’s term, too!), and one that I can remember was exceptional. When I started reading Lex’s posts, he reminded me of an Army Captain that I knew. He started out in the Marines, then switched to Army Special Forces for Vietnam as a SGT. Then went to OCS and flew helicopters in Vietnam.

In our Air Defense bunker in Germany there were teams of 6 or 8 (I forget after 45 years!) enlisted led by a Captain.  And among the enlisted was an NCO, either an E-5 or E-6.

We had 24 hour shifts on the radar dais, communicating with various anti aircraft missile batteries (American and German) around the FRG.

Captain XXXX was approachable and we all shared some laughs together, but we all knew there was an invisible line we dare not cross. We would have done anything for him. One of his stories, told at oh-dark-thirty on the dais was a time when his small team  in Special Forces was on a recon mission and this North Vietnamese battalion located them and, of course, was in a hurry to kill them.

They literally ran for their lives for 24 hours and successfully evaded them through the extraction.

I don’t know why I have remembered that after 45 years, but we were friends – as long as we didn’t cross the barrier.

He invited us to his house to share Christmas with his family as soon as we were off duty.

My idea of a good leader?

“Friendship” isn’t even a component. Nice if it is there, but irrelevant. Respect is critical – both up and down the chain of command. Respect up to the CO from the XO on down. And respect from the CO down his chain.

When Lex was talking about the Goat Locker and Chief Petty Officers that he admired greatly – acknowledging that if they don’t respect you as a commander, the mission will still be accomplished but you will be “mushroomed”.

Kept out of the loop.

I was thinking today of a legendary Army general from WW2 – George Patton. While I think it is safe to say that among his men of the 3rd Army, George Patton was not very popular.

But I also read that among veterans of the 3rd Army, when asked where they served, most veterans would say “I served under Patton“.

Not the 3rd Army.

If I may be so bold, may I suggest another component of command leadership not mentioned yet?

The leaders that are respected (and those are the only successful leaders) have an aura. By their conduct towards subordinates everyone from the XO on down knows that you’d better not suggest anything improper, or face some bad consequences. Which means as a CO one does nothing improper. Which gets the aura.

A successful leader inspires the best of his (or her) subordinates, and by his (or her) conduct, they know what they can expect in return. They can count on their CO’s support and the CO expects (and gets) support and performance from them.

What prompted me to write this was yet another “removal for cause” article in the Navy Times, about a Captain who was having an affair with a Petty Officer aboard ship.

The commanding officer of the guided-missile destroyer Hopper was fired last year after his shipboard romance with a petty officer was revealed, according to an internal investigation obtained by Navy Times.

Cmdr. Jeffrey S. Tamulevich was removed from his post on May 21, 2018.

 

In the months before his relief, Tamulevich hosted a series of sexual liaisons with a second class petty officer, showing her favoritism that troubled other leaders on board the Hawaii-based ship, the probe determined.

 

Her name is redacted in the copy of the internal investigation provided to Navy Times in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, but it indicates she spent many nights in the captain’s quarters.

Tamulevich would peek into the P-way each morning to make sure the coast was clear before she headed to her 6 a.m. watch shift, according to the report.

Can you imagine the morale on that ship?

 

There seems to be no common thread linking all these CO’s getting the ax – and I think that’s what most disturbs naval leadership. The Navy gets pretty small at the top, and I know a number of these folks – almost all of them exceptional individuals, carefully screened for their responsibilities. But now their careers are ruined, and that’s just the way it goes. Because while I truly believe we are not a “zero defect” organization, I also know, as do my peers, that you absolutely must get the big things right. You must safeguard your ship and crew – that’s Hobson’s choice. In other words, no choice at all.

I’ve been in the Navy man and boy for 26 years, and I’ve seen a lot of changes. This at least, has not changed.

Well said, Lex.


 

Update 10/28/19 1414 : In regards to Lex’s saying there was very little (or no) commonality among all these firings, I came across a post that quoted former Marine Commandant  Joe Dunford as he addressed some Naval Academy Midshipmen:

“With regard to leadership, with the midshipmen over here, you know, it’s clearly something that you can’t wrap up in 30 seconds. But I guess what I would say to you is as you make the transition – and I think a number of you are making it this year – I think you probably have been told many times, and I’ll just remind you – it’s no longer about you.” 

 

To more of Lex’s posts

 

 

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