By Cmdr. Scott McGinnis
You say the words, “I relieve you” and report your relief to the Commodore,
“Commodore, I have properly relieved as Commanding Officer.”
So now what?
Most likely for the year prior to your command you were thinking about what you would want to do in command; were you also thinking about your command tour for the prior 15 years? If not, then maybe you were focused on your next tour as executive officer (XO) or department head. Although it is logical to focus on the upcoming milestone, this short-term focus may not result in the type of deep self-reflection the Navy requires in its commanding officers (COs). Leadership styles are definitely different for different billets, but if we are to develop the best COs, command leadership should be started as a junior officer and should be a priority during your command.
Today is the day to properly prioritize leadership training in your wardroom. While COs tend to focus on all the necessary day-to-day requirements, we, may fall short in long-term personnel development while in command. Following your tour in command, however, you will relish the successes of your people and quickly forget the small casualties of your command’s day-to-day submarine life. If you had 15 years of formal preparation for command, how well thought out would your first day in command be?
This article should serve as a reminder that training your relief as a CO starts with formal leadership training of the entire wardroom. If you have not started leadership training with your team, start today by asking them to read this. Then review it with them and listen to their feedback. There doesn’t need to be a Navy program or requirement; this is an implied duty for any captain, and as each CO is different, your style of leadership training will be different, but no less effective. Formal leadership training coming from the captain is the most influential way you can make a positive impact on your wardroom, ship and Navy.
Responsibilities of command
So, what do you actually do as CO? There are abundant examples and rich tradition depicting your role. There are naval regulations that precisely define your responsibilities, but you set the priorities and the pace for executing those responsibilities. How you outline, communicate, and execute your priorities is important.
You are the role model for your crew, and especially for your wardroom. Your actions will define what acceptable leadership looks like. No single person will have a larger impact on your team’s leadership future than you, and, if done properly, your example alone will have a positive effect on your team.
Leadership, however, takes constant effort, discipline, learning, and practice. If you believe you are a leader because you are in charge of people, are you then a pianist for owning a piano? How did you learn to lead? What did the Navy invest in you that gave the Navy confidence and trust in your ability to command? If you can’t answer this, or if you can only point to the formal schools that the Navy provided or on-the-job training, then you may not have been provided with the best possible tools.
While it is incumbent on you to continue your self-education as CO, there is really no time to grow into the job. Every day you did not spend preparing for the leadership challenges ahead is a day of lost preparation, from which your current team cannot benefit. Start today by thinking of your team as prospective COs and treating them that way. Discuss with them the challenges of command and provide them with the tools you have acquired over your years in the Navy.
Here are the rationalizations, mostly subconscious, that we use to give formal leadership training a low priority.
• “I want to be seen as a natural born leader. Leadership is an innate ability that cannot be taught.” Leadership is a taught skill, and it requires practice, feedback, and self-evaluation to improve. No great athletes or musicians, despite whatever natural talents they may have, improved their performance without a coach or teacher. Who is better suited to coach your team in leadership than you?
• “I don’t want to be seen as prescriptive. If I tell my team I consciously stop typing when they are talking to me, they will think I am cookie cutter instead of genuine.” Perhaps, but isn’t the benefit of having incredible leaders in the future outweighed by this risk of perception? Doesn’t it say something to your team that you make the effort to consciously think about your own leadership and work hard to improve it?
• “I don’t want to be held accountable for the leadership traits that we discuss because I might involuntary or voluntarily violate them at some future time.” Are you not already held accountable? The fear of being judged can sometimes be palpable. This is natural, but it is also natural to realize that, being in a position of authority, you are judged every moment. Now is the time to understand this and get past it. You will be judged poorly, in time, if you do not take the opportunity to develop your team.
• “My team doesn’t want something else added to their plate. There is enough to spend our time on and, by me adding this topic to it, they will either not do the preparation or resent the fact.” Once you engage your team members at this level, they will recognize the investment the organization is placing in them and may actually complain when you have to skip leadership training due to a higher, emergent priority. Do not underestimate the power of your investment in your team.
The limit of time
Why don’t COs make formal leadership training a higher priority? There are a lot of tasks competing for our time onboard a submarine. We have important engineering, operational, and maintenance tasks but, if you make leadership training an equally high priority, you will see improvement across those areas. Your team will increase its efficiency, improve proper delegation, and free up more time to allocate to other tasks. We perceive time as the primary restricting factor when it comes to giving leadership training a low priority, but time may be the best reason to give it a higher priority.
Since time is a zero-sum game, what’s the benefit of taking the time to do this? By teaching leadership, you are preventing problems in the future that will take your time when it is least convenient. You will eventually have a negative counseling session with someone on your team, and you are committing now to spend that time in a productive manner, vice a reactive one later.
Through formal leadership training, you are communicating your vision of the culture you want in your team. By vocalizing and reviewing actual decisions you have made on the boat, you open yourself up for feedback from your team as well as providing an opportunity to convey your decision-making calculus to your team. This will flatten your organization, making it more efficient. If training is executed properly, your team will be clear about your intentions, and you and your crew will be using a common leadership lexicon, making communications and counseling easier. By investing time now in preparing your wardroom for command, you will gain larger, future returns on your time than you originally invested. Start now, though. Make that down payment on the future.
Prioritizing leadership training
Your priorities are laid out daily by the plan of the day. If you have scheduled your day with maintenance meetings, then clearly maintenance is your priority. If you are scheduled to be at the trainer all day, that is your priority. Your presence is the single most non-verbal indicator of your priorities, and your schedule shows where you are. By having a formal leadership training schedule, you will be demonstrating that this is a priority for you.
Teaching leadership has the additional benefit of requiring you to continue to grow and improve. Because of numerous competing priorities, it is easy to push self development aside. If you do not continue to work to improve your own leadership, you will become stale, similar to resting on the fact that you have a great one-mile running time. If you do not continue to train, you will soon find that your ability to run that mile has atrophied. By scheduling required leadership training, you are holding yourself accountable to your team to allocate the time in pursuit of leadership improvement. This requires discipline. By voicing your priority to conduct leadership training, you are spreading this discipline burden across your team.
Below are ten submarine-centric topics you may want to discuss with your team to get started.
• How do leaders purposely change themselves to meet their perception of what is expected of them? For example, would you decide to not drink alcohol because you believe that is the best role-model? Would you drink alcohol to fit-in, even though you wouldn’t normally? How should alcohol be treated in our organization? How do we treat people who come in to work intoxicated?
• How do you invite contrariness into a team? Is it always warranted? When wouldn’t you want a different opinion? Who should be able to say “no” in your team?
• How much sleep should we get to perform our jobs? Do we do a good job of protecting sleep? How should decisions be made while underway when someone is asleep?
• Is leave a right or a privilege? If we support an aggressive leave plan, does that hurt or help the organization? How? Should leave be taken during an underway?
• How do you perform formal, negative counseling? What are the tools of discipline? How do we reward excellent work? What are the levers each chief or officer has in discipline and reward? How do you perform mid-term counseling? Why is it important?
• What part of your team does physical fitness play? Should there be command PT? What are the command’s responsibilities toward its team regarding physical fitness? How do you set the example and what is the balance required?
• What are your responsibilities as a leader off the boat? What is expected of you from your team?
• How do you use social media with crew members? Do you have a private facebook account? Do you tweet? Should you? Should you have a “friend” who is on the boat? How do you handle a negative comment on the ship’s facebook page? How do you handle an inappropriate comment?
• How does your leadership need to change from department head to XO? How did you prepare for your next challenge?
• Can you be vocal about your political thoughts? What can you post on social media? What should you post on social media? What are your duties in your online life?
Now that you prioritized leadership training, how is it executed? How often should you be training? Let’s assume you are conducting formal leadership training with your wardroom quarterly, chief’s quarters semi-annually, and crew annually. This can also include sub-groups: department heads and XO quarterly and the chief of the boat with the chief’s quarters quarterly. Chiefs and division officers can work with their teams on a regular basis. You can use existing structures such as CPO365 or a standard time slot on a given day while underway.
Leadership topics should include ethics. There are numerous ethics case studies from the Navy Leadership and Ethics Course, the Naval Academy, and the various military professional universities. While these case studies are great in the classroom, there is nothing more powerful than using these with your team and making them relevant to the leadership decisions they are currently making. In addition to using case studies, ask your team members to write down three leadership traits they valued prior to joining the Navy, a powerful example of a leader they admire, three worst leadership traits, or a time they were inadequately prepared for a leadership challenge and what, if anything, makes them ready now to handle such a challenge.
All professions require study and effort for improvement and not just on-the-job training and experience. The leadership style you used and were comfortable with as an engineer may not serve you well as a CO. As your responsibilities grow, your ability to communicate and delegate must also grow. Each leadership opportunity presents unique challenges that will require different leadership tools just as different maintenance jobs require different tools, even though the same person is accomplishing the task. You, as CO, need to address the different leadership demands and tools with your team members now so they are better prepared for the challenges they are to face.
I hope that reading this article has energized you to make regular leadership training an appropriately high priority on your boat and discuss your teaching methods with others on the waterfront. If we believe our greatest asset is our people, and if we define what “taking care of our people” really means, then we will quickly come to the conclusion that, by investing the time to formally teach leadership to our teams, we are investing in our own futures as well as theirs. By talking about it and socializing new ideas, we become better as a force. Don’t rationalize away your most important tool—your direct involvement. Make the time investment today and formally train your teams on leadership.