By Cmdr. Scott McGinnis, USN

When the ship that is tired returneth,

With the signs of the sea showing plain,

Men place her in dock for a season,

And her speed she reneweth again.

6th “Law of the Navy”
by Admiral R.A. Hopwood, RN (Retired)

In our data-infused world, we try to measure each aspect of our crews’ performance. Whether it’s training and qualification progress measured against the expected glideslope or the trends in continuing training examination scores, we are constantly looking for an accurate method to gauge and predict operational performance. There is a historic lever the Navy has provided us that is often overlooked but, if used correctly, will improve long-term crew performance and enhance a crew’s cohesion. By looking at both your leave balance and crew lost-leave days, you can gauge your team’s health and rather easily affect positive change.

Leave is the new sleep
Before we address leave, we should begin by looking at the evolution in our cultural acceptance of sleep. It used to be that we would brag about how much sleep we didn’t get. We saw the person who could perform with little to no sleep as a hard worker and dedicated. Now we know that dedicated, hard-working Sailors prepare themselves by being properly rested and that leadership requires a priority to be placed on crew circadian rhythm and proper rest. “Sleep as a weapon” is popularly quoted, and sleep is now scrutinized on ride reports and something we discuss in most of our operational plans. In a relatively short amount of time, the Submarine Force has fully embraced the concept that sleep deprivation leads to poor individual performance and crew-rest planning is a vital part of our operations.

Today, similar to the old view of sleep, when the leading yeoman posts the leave report on the bulkhead (or emails it out), some people who have a high leave balance remark at their dedication to the Navy or how invaluable they are to the team. If this was a sleep log being posted, we would hold a critique if a watch section had gone 24 hours without sleep. So why is it that there is no reaction to a Sailor who has more than 60 days of leave on the books and hasn’t rested from the ship in over two years?

Maybe we justify Sailors losing leave by casually believing that manning shortfalls and/or a perceived, high operational tempo (OPTEMPO) prevents us from executing a successful leave plan. What if, like sleep, we are treating this all wrong and that high leave balances indicate that our team isn’t ready? Unlike sleep, leave is directly measurable and predictable. Contrary to our culture, high leave balances on a Leave and Earning Statement do not indicate positive value to the organization. What it may represent is a lack of planning or training in your organization and a poorly prepared operational team. If we have a people-centered focus, where does leave fit in to our priorities? If we were to recognize a direct correlation between high leave balances and crew performance, would we allow one Sailor, or even ourselves, to lose leave?

In the same vein that a command would seriously consider removing a tired Sailor from watch, commands should work to critically understand why their crew members are not afforded the opportunity to take leave or have simply not taken leave. We could ask ourselves the following questions.

  • Is there a cultural issue in a particular division?
  • Is this an indicator that we have a hidden fit-or-fill manning issue?
  • Does this indicate that our training program is ineffective or improperly structured to meet the watchbill’s need?
  • Does a division have a difficult time managing its people’s time?
  • Or is there a personal problem in the Sailor’s life?

Is leave a liability or an asset?
In addition to a well-rested crew, we all want an engaged, highly-trained crew that is working at the lowest level possible and operating at their peak performance. A well-executed leave plan could be one of the most important aspects of achieving these goals. Lost leave or high leave balances could indicate a shallow bench, clearly indicate misplaced priorities, and could eventually lead to poor crew morale and crew family issues, which will manifest themselves at the worst possible times.

While there are times that our operations and our manning do not support Sailors taking their earned 30 days of leave, this generally is not the case. If we are honest with ourselves, leave may fall in to the category that sleep used to—something perceived as extra and only needed by the weak. Although it is earned as part of a Sailor’s compensation package and we know that Sailors typically return from leave energized, taking leave is seen in some commands as abandoning one’s watch and a lack of dedication to the mission. The culture in these cases simply does not support taking leave.

Some may see leave as a liability to crew performance because this or that key player is not present, whether in port or at sea. While seemingly logical, this philosophy doesn’t look deep enough. If we encourage and require our teams to take leave, they then have a motivation to train their relief. During the time that a key player is on leave, the junior person receives an invaluable training experience. Admittedly, there could possibly be things that get dropped, but the benefit in overall team training and personnel growth outweighs this potential negative. If used properly, leave is an asset that intrinsically motivates Sailors and allows opportunities for personal and professional growth.

The submarine is too often at sea to allow leave
Skeptics will say that during a year of submarine deployments, it would be impossible to achieve 100 percent leave execution. However, deployments provide an excellent example of how to plan and execute a successful leave plan. First, crew leave is high on the priority list during the post-deployment leave period. Almost all Sailors are afforded the opportunity to take two weeks of leave, and this is typically only possible due to the fact that the crew is at the peak of qualification level. Second, commands typically execute an augment plan throughout the deployment. By placing 10 or so Sailors ashore for part of the deployment, you are ensuring that they are attending the correct schools and executing leave. Third, because the crew understands that they will be enjoying leave at the end of deployment, they work diligently to ensure that each Sailor is qualified and ready to stand the watch to support the impending stand down plan. The deployment provides a structure that gives a goal and ample time to achieve this goal.

However, the six months prior to deployments are frequently high-OPTEMPO periods marked by inspections and certifications. Looked at one way, this is the worst time to place Sailors on leave. Looked at another way, frequent Brief Stop for Personnel (BSPs) and a plethora of available shipyard Sailors needing submarine rides make this time a rich opportunity to rotate Sailors ashore. Unfortunately, commands sometimes have a standing “Noah’s Ark” approach to crew underway planning, meaning everyone in the crew is underway for all underways. While this method is seemingly a way to maximize crew training, it may not provide the solution that our complex manpower management requires. Maintaining the entire crew aboard reduces rack space, increases hotel loads, and doesn’t allow junior Sailors the opportunity to step up when their supervisor isn’t present. By placing five to ten Sailors ashore for each underway, you could intentionally make room for multiple riders from shipyard crews. This would maintain the manpower you need aboard while building backup crewmembers to support future personnel contingencies. This habit will provide you a deeper bench than even the most well qualified, post-deployment crews while simultaneously affording the opportunity for leave.

Although some may say that it’s easier for a submarine in a long shipyard availability to achieve 100% leave execution, it is probably more difficult in most circumstances for a submarine in the shipyard. If leave is not prioritized, the command could justify high leave balances due to the seemingly unsurmountable challenge of balancing ride time, schools, watchbill, and leave. However, by seeking out other manpower pools that can support your watchbill, all four can be achieved. In fact, it is probably more important for submarines in extended availabilities to properly execute leave for crew morale and retention.

Leave as a responsibility
Beyond the rational, positive impacts leave has on a crew, we should also highlight that affording leave to a crew is a command’s responsibility. By Navy regulation (Chapter 11, Section 5, Article 1157) and MILPERSMAN 1050-010, leave is a Sailor’s legal right; in other words, it’s part of the Sailor’s compensation package. Just as we understand that we must ensure that our people receive their proper pay, we are also required to afford them the opportunity to take leave. However, we often allow Sailors to lose leave, incorrectly justifying it by saying we have lost many days of leave ourselves, or that’s what is required to get the job done. These, of course, are poor excuses and only demonstrate our true priorities. Additionally, by accepting high leave balances, we are pushing our responsibility onto a Sailor’s next command to rectify.

We clearly understand our responsibility in the case of pay issues. If a Sailor had not been paid for a month, we would put forward a full court press to understand why and how to rectify the pay issue. Why then do we fall short when it comes to lost leave? A possible explanation is that when our Sailors do not get paid, it typically reflects an error of an outside organization, so we are eager to rectify this error. When a Sailor loses leave, it could reflect a command cultural issue and internal retrospection is more difficult. Because leave is not tangible, possibly perceived as not valued, and may point to a command’s values, we marginalize its loss. By not addressing lost leave, either consciously or unconsciously, we are not fulfilling our responsibility and unintentionally communicating how we value our people.

Let’s take a look at how a civilian organization sees time off. A typical business sees time off as a liability on their books that they must carry until it is liquidated. Leave, or in the civilian case, paid time off, is carried on the company’s balance sheet as an expenditure, committed to prior to the employee taking the time off. It is viewed as a debt owed to their people. Our Navy supply reports do not reflect leave, nor should they, but the description of leave as a “debt owed to our people” is valuable to take away from this. Also, some credit unions have a requirement that all personnel must annually take five consecutive days off. This policy is in order to have a second pair of eyes reviewing each employee’s work. This has the secondary benefit of reducing internal fraud and has many potential parallels throughout a submarine.

Leave supports the team, not the individual
Lastly, let’s look at team dynamics. Just as sleep can be seen as a checking account of individual performance, leave can be viewed as the savings account for team performance. First, as discussed above, senior personnel are required to diligently train their reliefs in preparation for their leave execution. This engagement will inherently deepen the bench and provide a second view on most records. Second, individuals in a group, when they know they will have the opportunity to take leave, will gladly learn and perform the duties of other Sailors in their group (both the division and watch section). This cross-training will broaden the bench. Third, watch sections will begin to encourage and rigorously support qualifications of junior personnel so that each watch section supports an executable leave plan. Peer-to-peer motivation is much stronger than top down motivation in improving shipboard qualifications. Finally, during leave people typically follow their passions, whether it’s spending time with their families, woodworking, surfing, or something else. Many studies clearly show that, when individuals are given time to achieve their own dreams, their creativity increases, work performance increases, and job satisfaction improves. Of course, as is true with sleep, the command team must lead by example by responsibly taking leave. As we know, a commanding officer and COB’s actions are their most powerful words.

There’s not much new under the sun regarding leave, but our views on it should evolve. By taking a few minutes to review your leave balances and your team’s lost leave, you may see a correlation with good or poor performance. Like any other issue aboard, spend the time to understand the root causes. While it may not be directly apparent that lost leave is affecting your team, it may be a leading indicator that your team’s performance isn’t where it should be, or could be. At a minimum, you should pursue your team’s leave balances as you would any Sailor’s pay issue. In doing so, you may end up seeing unexpected bumps in performance, cohesion, and retention.

  • Review your leave balances monthly. Make your team project expected leave losses. Use this as a way to engage Sailors and understand the personal side of your workforce. Monthly leave plans should include a leave loss mitigation plan.
  • Discuss leave responsibility with your division officers and chiefs. Place MILPERSMAN 1050-010 on your leadership training plan.
  • Ensure that your expectations on leave are clearly outlined in your policies and your leave policies are in keeping with the Navy’s policies.
  • Have a formal, standing policy that a transfer date for all crew members starts no later than 30 days prior to the crew member’s report date.
  • Require personnel on leave to be clearly marked on the underway watchbill, thus their absence is planned for with proper standbys.
  • Discourage Sailors from not taking leave in order to sell it back. This eliminates all of the benefits discussed above regarding the actual taking of leave.
  • Be an example yourself. Train your relief, plan your leave, and execute it. This is a fantastic way to grow your people and demonstrate trust.
  • Prioritize stand-down plans months out. In certain homeports, you are incurring a cost to each Sailor who wants to fly home by not approving a leave plan early.
  • Ride teams should ask how much leave has been lost by the crew in the past quarter. Try to understand why.
  • Incorporate lost leave and leave balances in command climate surveys and the reservist cultural assessments.
  • Ensure that leave chit routing takes no more than three days from submission to approval or denial.
  • Highly encourage each Sailor to take leave during stand-down periods. The only personnel who do not take leave should be those who may have augmented or who do not have the leave to take (this is exceptionally rare).
  • Prioritize leave by making it part of your command philosophy.