Where have all the leaders gone?

Written by LCDR E.L. "Jack" Spratt in 1999

Where have all the leaders gone? No, its not a new verse to an old Peter, Paul and Mary song. It's a very serious problem being faced by the Navy right now. Leadership seems to be a dying skill, and although there are many who show signs of leadership, they are thwarted, for a number of reasons we will discuss here.

TQL. Lets see, what does it stand for? I have heard some junior officers say it means "They Quit Leading". TQL is an offshoot of a civilian management program of dubious success. When did our top military people (our leaders) decide that leadership and management were synonymous? I'm sure the motives were sincere, but I don't believe that leadership and management are the same thing. Managers manage, while Leaders LEAD! Managers are 'bottom-line' oriented, Leaders are 'results' oriented. Therefore, I believe that taking a management program, changing the title, and accepting it as our leadership model was a mistake.

How important is Leadership in today's Navy? I recently read a survey of junior officers who were leaving the Navy, and one of the top reasons they were leaving was a lack of confidence in their leaders, or simply, a lack of leadership. The second reason was a feeling of not being appreciated for what they do. Can we fix these problems? Of course we can, but it will take some time, and some moxie. Leaders will have to stand up, look their Seniors in the eye, and say "That's WRONG, Sir!" We have to start doing the right thing, even if its not the correct thing. Here is an example of what I mean.

Not long ago, a Petty Officer retired from my command. He was recommended for an end of tour award, and the package was submitted to the ISIC. Someone, somewhere, dropped the ball, however, and on his retirement day, the approval had not been received.

This left the command with two choices, the right thing, or the correct thing. The correct thing was to wait until the medal came in, then forward it to him at his retirement home. Yes, that is the correct thing to do. But is it the right thing to do? I don't think so. I think the right thing to do would have been to award him the medal at the ceremony, in front of his family and his peers. Read the citation as proposed, and pin the medal on his chest.

This approach does what the medal was designed to do ... recognize him for a job well done for 20 years, the Navy equivalent of a gold watch. It certainly has more of an impact on loved ones than getting a package in the mail with a medal in it, don't you agree?

I know, you are wondering "what if the medal comes back disapproved, or downgraded?" In this case, I would say, just toss that info in the trash can, and leave things as they are. It certainly would do no harm, as the Sailor's DD214 already reflects the medal as received. Once again, this would be the right thing, even if its not the correct thing. By the way, in this case, the command chose to do the correct thing.

Leadership means making decisions. Sometimes these decisions are easy to make and very popular, but usually just the opposite is true. In an age of what is referred to as Political Correctness, or PC, decision-making is even tougher. You can't even tell the truth without worrying if PC is going to haunt you. As an example, if a Navy Admiral can't mention that a country has hookers in it, without worrying if he will offend someone, then there is a problem. If the Admiral loses his job because he told the truth (yes, its true, there are hookers in Okinawa), then there is a very big problem!

Recently, leaders decisions are being put under a microscope and critically evaluated by everyone up the chain of command, as well as Senators and Congressmen. Its no wonder, then, that our leaders feel that the easiest decision is no decision. Rather than perhaps make a bad decision, establish a Process Action Team, collect all the input, staff it out, and let the majority rule. Can you imagine Bull Halsey calling together a PAT? Leaders Make Decisions, Managers "Staff it out".

Another problem with today's leadership is the "zero defect" mentality. We are not allowed to make mistakes. I will give you two examples to illustrate this. First, a front-running Lieutenant loses his career over a moon-shot. True, this was not exactly the smartest thing he could have done, and certainly was not the most mature act. No harm was done to anyone by his actions, however. He apologized to anyone he might have offended, and at one time in my Navy, that would have been it. A little butt-chewing by a competent CO, and then back to business. But instead, because that Lieutenants leadership was afraid of what his Seniors might think, his Commanding Officer took the avenue that he thought was correct, and scuttled an otherwise front-running young officer.

A second example, with much more serious consequences was the tragic death of our Chief of Naval Operations. He was discovered wearing a ribbon he did not earn. Because of the "zero defect" mentality, he did not think he would be able to say "I'm sorry, I made a mistake", and have it drop there. He knew that his reputation would be tarnished, and his career would be over. Unable to deal with this situation, tragically he chose to end his life, a victim of the system that he, himself, helped to create.

Interestingly enough, its not just the officers, but today's junior Sailors feel the lack of leadership also. I spend a lot of time mingling with the troops on the deckplates and I have come to a couple of conclusions. They are not major revelations, they are just some common sense things that seem to have been lost since my first Chief was teaching me leadership.

First, Sailors need to be led! They don't know what do to without a leader giving them some realistic direction. Sure, they can do what they think is right, and hope it is, but in actuality, they would be much more comfortable if someone told them what to do, and what the standards were.

This brings me to the second conclusion. Sailors not only need to be led, but they want to be led. They want someone to give them reasonable training to accomplish the task they are assigned. They want someone to establish reasonable standards, and then to check up to see the standards are met. If they are met, the Sailors want recognition for a job well done; if the standards are not met, the Sailors expect guidance in the right direction. Then, the ever-important check up, to monitor the progress.

Sailors want a leader to teach them how to lead. If you are an effective leader, your Sailors will want to emulate you, whether you are the Leading Seaman, the Chief, or the Skipper. Teach the troops to lead through your example.

In the early 70s, my first Chief told me a story to illustrate the importance of leadership. Imagine you are a new recruit, who just checked on board your first ship. The Chief hands you a brass ball, and you are told that your job is to keep this ball polished to a high shine. You are given the tools to do the job, and showed how to do it. Then the Chief walks away, leaving you to polish the ball.

The next morning the Chief walks up and asks "How's that ball lookin', Jones?" You show him a bright, shiny good-looking ball. He inspects it, and tells you "This is good, Jones. See this little spot here. If you wet the gizmo before you apply the polish, you can get rid of that kind of spot too. Give it a try." Then he's gone.

The next morning, and every morning for a week, the Chief walks up, asks the same question. What do you think the results are? Exactly! The ball is polished to a perfect shine, and you are beaming with pride.

Now, imagine the same scenario, except the Chief only checks the ball on Fridays. What will that ball look like on Tuesday? Probably not very good, if you are the typical Sailor. Then, one Tuesday, the Chief makes a surprise inspection. You end up being called on the carpet for dereliction of duty, but who is really at fault?

This was one of many leadership lessons I learned from the Chief. He was a one-man leadership school. But he wasn't unique - most of the Chiefs back then were good leaders, and good teachers, because they were ALLOWED to be. Their seniors respected their decisions, and supported them. Unfortunately, we don't get that kind of deck-plate leadership anymore. Our leaders have learned to be Managers!

Maybe that's the answer to the question I posed at the beginning. Where have all the Leaders gone? Gone to Managers, every one! When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?