One (former) submarine CO’s thoughts on being a great submarine Junior Officer:
“Put more into life than you expect to get out of it. Drive yourself and lead others. Make others feel good about themselves. They will outperform your expectations, and you will never lack for friends.”
— Rear Adm. Gene Fluckey,
WWII Medal of Honor recipient
I’ve weathered some rough seas during my naval career, which has informed my opinions on how young officers can succeed. Simply stated, I want you to accept two fundamental challenges: learn to fight your ship and lead your Sailors.
Getting the most out of your JO tour is a contact sport. Put yourself out there. Try hard. Don’t be afraid to fail; it won’t be that bad, and you will be forgiven. Then, try again. This is what your JO tour is all about—learning about yourself and what specifically works for you.
The following are some “knows” and “dos” to help you fight and lead. Not everything below will resonate yet, but I suggest you put this article in your “leadership toolkit” (everyone should have one) and read it again later in your tour. Knowing your ship, Sailors, and boss will be key to your success as a Submariner. Truth in advertising: I didn’t always do these things, but I wish I had! I made some mistakes as a JO, and most of this I learned from the school of hard knocks.
“But Captain, I am not planning on making this a career.” Doesn’t matter. The skills needed to fight the ship and lead a division or watch section are life skills and highly valued outside the Navy.
When I was a JO, my CO once asked if I aspired to command. The question caught me off guard. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to go to command or even stay in after my JO tour. I responded half-heartedly that I didn’t think I knew enough to command. He laughed and said, “of course not, you’re only a JG!” He went on to explain that, in your Navy career, what you learn today prepares you for success at the next level. Over the years, I saw that he was right! Your training to become a Submarine CO begins with your commissioning and continues every day that you are in uniform, preparing for the moment when you say, “I relieve you.”
My goal for each of my JOs: finish your tour ready to walk across the pier to another ship, equipped to perform at the next level—leading your own watch section and serving as a department head. By the time you leave, if you know your ship, Sailors, and boss and work to understand what to do as a leader, then you will excel as a JO!
What to know
As a new submarine officer, you will learn a new culture and language, leadership and management basics, new watch stations, running a division, and managing programs. You will feel overwhelmed at times. Keep after it! Eat the elephant one bite at a time.
Know your ship. Learn the basics first. When qualifying, stay a little later if needed. Come in on some weekends. Learn what you need to, and then go get your checkout or take your exam. I tended to “polish the cannonball,” over-studying unimportant things. Ask for help if there is a roadblock, if you don’t understand a concept, or you are in the shipyard and can’t get your practical factors done. Once you are qualified, it is purely a license to learn—become a true expert, lead your teams, and see what works and what doesn’t.
When I reported aboard my first ship, my ship’s leadership put me straight into engineering qualifications, as expected, and told me not to worry about forward quals at all until I had qualified EOOW. This was horrible advice. When you get aboard, come up with a plan to focus on qualifying EOOW, but don’t neglect getting your reps in control and on the bridge. Seek balance in where you spend your time so that you can grow multiple skills simultaneously.
You will earn the crew’s trust by working to become the expert. If you are the watch officer for an evolution, learn the evolution backward and forward and ensure that your team members know their roles and responsibilities and are ready to perform. This requires a lot of in-the-weeds details—watchbill, walkthrough, lessons learned, etc. Keep yourself in the driver’s seat; anticipate and decide if the team needs more training to perform the event. If your team is not ready to safely execute the task, have the courage to say so and take the time needed to do it right—the first time. Tell your department head if you do.
Early in my first tour, I went to the bridge as JOOD when getting underway from Pearl Harbor. One of the JOOD’s jobs was to operate the AN/PSN-11 handheld GPS, a military GPS unit that was about the size of a mailbox and completely unintuitive. Before I went to the bridge, someone showed me some basic button pushing, but I didn’t really understand how to use it effectively. Most important for the CO, I didn’t know how to find cross-track error. While piloting out, he asked for this bit of data, and despite my best efforts, I couldn’t figure it out. The CO got on the 27MC to chew out the NAV because the GPS unit “didn’t work right.” Butt-chewings generally roll downhill. When I got down from the bridge, the NAV was there to tell me just what he thought of my preparations for the maneuvering watch. In retrospect, I feel that the command could have done a better job explaining the expectations for me on the bridge. While I fixed this in subsequent tours, the lesson I took away stuck with me: you are responsible for your own preparation. You should also ask questions from someone who has done it before.
Know your Sailors. I received some more bad advice on my first boat. My leaders told me, “Your job is to qualify. Let the Chief run the division.” Wrong! Navy regulations, the Submarine Standard Organization and Regulations Manual (SORM), and the Engineering Department Organizational Manual (EDOM) are unambiguous about the responsibilities of a Submarine Division Officer. Clearly, qualifications will take most of your time at first, but you cannot neglect your division. I started out several steps behind because I did not get in my chief’s hip pocket right away and learn how to really run my division. Don’t make that mistake.
Step 1 to being a successful DH is learning how to run your division as a JO. First lesson: You are responsible for the success of your Sailors. Learn their strengths and weaknesses, and help them to overcome them. Your primary job is to remove obstacles so that your team can get the job done.
If any of your Sailors are struggling, whether in qualifications, adjustment, mentally, physically, or spiritually, your job is to get them the necessary help. Part of this is knowing when they are struggling, even if they don’t tell you. Inform your DH, XO, or CO if someone is deserving of public awards, recognition, or shout outs. Track request and leave chits, schools requests, etc. Don’t allow requests to be held up in routing; these things are important to your Sailors.
Bring problems your Sailors are having to command leadership, and have a recommendation on what you think will help. I recall a JO that found out that one of our Sailors’ racks had hydraulic oil leaking into it, and onto the Sailor who was sleeping in it. When the LT found out, he immediately put the issue in the green book, brought it up to A-division, and let the CO, XO, COB, and ENG know about the problem. The Sailor should have brought this up and had it fixed but didn’t feel comfortable “complaining.” The LT, however, had no qualms about raising the issue. You can play a big role in improving quality of life aboard.
Wasting your people’s time is unacceptable! If your people are having to wait around before getting to work because of tag-outs or needing permission, then fix it. I once had a division where Sailors would show up to quarters in the morning, wait around while the Div-O and chief finished up at officer/LPO call, and then would get their assignments for the day. In this division, it was common for Sailors to get assigned complex maintenance at 0830; spend the morning researching the maintenance, writing the tag-out, and prepping the WAF; then try to get the duty chief and duty officer, who were often detained by training, meetings, or lunch, to review the tag-out; and finally getting the maintenance approved at 1400. The problem is that it was a four- or five-hour maintenance evolution. After completing the maintenance and cleaning up the worksite, the Sailors were leaving well after both dinner and dark, some with duty the next day. That was not a good place to work.
Plan instead for the division to leave at a reasonable hour. Sailors should know what they are doing the next morning when they leave for the day so that they can show up to work and start immediately. All these efforts build morale and make your ship more effective. When the time comes that you must work an 18-hour day on a weekend before deployment, the team will know that the command did not take it lightly, and that their efforts are valued and essential.
Know your boss. Learn to communicate with your boss. Get to the point! Think about what you will say ahead of time. If briefing maintenance or an evolution, explain what you are asking for early in the conversation, and then give background as needed. Make sure you know the answer to more than just the initial questions. Read and understand the references and bring them with you to brief the chain of command. Learn to ask your chief and Sailors the right questions, anticipating what the CO or DH will ask. Learn how to deliver and receive bad news. Bad news doesn’t get better with time, distance, or shielding.
Figure out what your boss (the DH, XO, or CO) expects. Whether giving a morning update or checking out for the day, try to make their jobs easier by anticipating their questions and answering them up front. Know what your leaders are tracking. Anticipate tracking and completing the task before it gets on the DH’s tracker. This allows you to “play a level up,” working your boss out of a job. Don’t wait to be told what to do; figure out what needs to be done and go do it. Don’t fear getting ahead of your bosses; they will respect and appreciate your initiative to get the important things done without having to tell you.
You will find yourself writing awards, evaluations, radio messages, and reports that will go to the CO. Write clearly, in the active voice, with good grammar and spelling. Avoid repeating mistakes when writing for your chain of command (this is a good self-preservation tip). Go find the final product that gets released and see how the message or eval changed or how the writing flowed, especially if you weren’t present for the final edits. Don’t allow yourself to just be the typist; understand and discuss content, tone, and the message that the ship is sending off. A ship’s reputation is in large measure built on its messages, so learn to write well. Ensure that the reader will understand your message without you being there to explain it.
What to do
Lead yourself. Your energy can help the entire ship to improve. Never give up. Be “all in” as a JO on the USS Anycity. How you react when things go wrong or if you make a mistake will affect how the Sailors in your division or your watch section react and perform. Your Sailors will notice your level of energy and your attitude. The JOs can set the tone for the wardroom and the ship.
Our job as leaders is to take action on the things that we can control and be ready to respond—positively—to the things we can’t. While we may at times feel like victims, we are winners, never victims. Push past it. This is most important when things don’t go your way, whether making a mistake that requires a critique, performing poorly on an inspection, or not performing to the high standards that the Force expects. Winners don’t complain or make excuses; they figure out what went wrong and how to improve. Solve problems and offer solutions.
I went through a stage as a JO where I spent some time feeling sorry for myself. I was in three-section duty rotation as CRA, still in OOD quals, had all the pre-deployment and Arctic training to do, and the ENG had me working on a project to create a Chem RADCON study guide. I felt very behind, and I was mopey and grumpy. Because of this, at the end of a duty day I snapped at one of the DHs when he asked why I hadn’t completed one of my required post-watch reports. My XO called me out and told me that my attitude was bringing down my division and my watch section, and it was a drag on the Wardroom. I wasn’t happy to hear it, but when I brought it up later with my watch section, hoping that they would commiserate with me, they agreed with the XO. After that, I began to learn that my job was to get over the feeling that I had been wronged and try to improve the situations that I could control. When I shifted my attitude, it shifted everything. And I shouldn’t have complained to my watch section.
The Wardroom is a great place to discuss warfighting, ship driving, and leadership. Leave some time for fun, but make sure that you are contributing to excellence in your command. Stop periodically and reflect on your performance, good or bad. Ask for feedback from your chain of command, your peers, and your division. Always seek improvement. When I was in command, my JOs were superstars. They spent time in the Wardroom talking about leadership, including articles that they had read, ideas for improving performance, and lessons learned. These types of discussions are great because they make the whole ship better. If it’s not happening on your ship, take the lead to start it on your own.
If you are assigned to build an operational plan, own it. Train the team, conduct a pre-evolution brief, perform the operation, then assess how you did—so that you can do it better the next time. This process is the best way to become a subject matter expert. Integrate sonar, navigation, comms, and engineering department into your plan. You will find that you are able to see the “big picture” and help others to perform to their potential. Others will know their piece of the pie, but you will be the one that helps tie it together. Who knows? You may be called on to execute the plan…on short notice…with the trim pump tagged out…and with a team that has not performed the evolution since POM workup. That’s exactly when a Lt. j.g. can save the day.
When our ship conducted our SPT, we bombed our evaluated ASUW trainer. When working on the upgrade, we assigned one of our JOs as the ASUW planning officer and his hard work helped us do a 180! He developed a plan that included a valuable intelligence assessment tool to allow us to prioritize targets effectively. His plan also included training on ASUW-specific duties and responsibilities, which allowed every team member to contribute to decision-making data flow. Based on his ownership and our practice, months later we had one of the highest ASUW grades in the PAC. That JO led ship-wide improvement and made a difference!
Lead your Sailors. The most important concept that you will communicate to your Sailors is the “why” of what we are doing. As a JO, you have daily access to ship’s leadership. Use this time to understand and discuss command decisions—the “why.” If you don’t know the why, then ask. Make sure that you do understand so that you can share that message. You are the direct link between the CO and the Sailors. It is your responsibility to carry the command’s message to your division and your watch section. Take that responsibility very seriously.
Leaders onboard, including the division officer, must set an environment for integrity. How do you react to bad news? Is it costlier to tell the truth or to cover it up? Accomplishing the mission at all costs (or “just getting it done”) while breaking the law or violating protocol, policy, or procedure is simply not okay. If you find yourself saying or hear others saying things like, “just make sure it gets done” or “I don’t care how it gets done” you should hear alarms going off in your head. A division officer can, and ultimately must, help the chain of command identify where leadership guidance or pressure may force a moral or ethical shortcut. There is always way too much to get done on a submarine. If your team feels overwhelmed and can see no path to the finish line other than cutting corners, they will be tempted to do so.
We get stuff done correctly by planning ahead and ensuring that there is enough time to get the job done. If you run into a situation where there isn’t enough time, bring it up to the chain of command. This takes courage, particularly if the delay is due to a failure in planning on your part. Stand tall. As a team, you may come up with another plan, or the CO may decide to defer maintenance or that you can’t get under way on time (not good, but not the end of the world). You can avoid this situation by starting your planning early and using your lifelines to shipmates who have successfully completed the task before.
Don’t be overly sensitive to your Sailors’ complaints, but be ready to be their advocate. Listen to them. It is a truism that, when they stop complaining out loud, they likely feel that no one is listening or cares enough to help with their problems. Never complain in front of your Sailors, especially about your chain of command! This will undermine your ability to get things done, and they will actually respect you less for your overt disloyalty. You don’t have to defend the command if you don’t want to, but piling on to a gripe session is never helpful.
Build your team up, don’t tear them down. Sometimes members of your division will make fun of a teammate, perhaps one who is struggling or who acts differently than other crew members. Don’t allow that to happen in your presence, and above all don’t join in. Stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. Leaders do the right, unpopular, and uncomfortable things because they need to be done.
Lead your watch section. As a watch officer, you are a player-coach, responsible for your own performance and that of your team. Look ahead and plan the watch with your team. Figure out what you don’t know as individuals or as a team and come up with a study plan to fix it. Let the NAV and CO know if the plan in the night orders doesn’t work and recommend a change.
We are a results-based organization; mission accomplishment is our bottom line. If you don’t get the job done, it doesn’t matter how hard you tried or how bad you wanted to do well. To avoid these failures, you must build a team that learns from mistakes. You can do this by setting an expectation that you always “hotwash” with your watch section, looking for ways to identify small problems, keeping them from recurring and becoming bigger problems. Sometimes there is a tendency to assess from a “feeling” or compare to “how we did it last time.” Resist that. Go back to the base references and formally assess how your team performed consistent with the procedure or guidance. Know the right answer and the delta. Finally, write down what you learned and make sure to apply it next time.
You’ll spend long midwatches with your watch section. Use this time to run through the playbook (which makes the watch go by faster). Discuss casualties and how you would respond if something happened right now. Talk about things that your watch team has not done well and how you can get better.
Know the boundaries with your Sailors. You will spend a lot of time in Maneuvering with two or three Sailors your same age and who, but for various circumstances, could trade places with you. Don’t fall into the trap of being too familiar with the enlisted crew. Don’t be the “cool” watch officer who lets standards slip. You are selling the command, your watch team, and yourself short if you do.
That also goes for liberty. Maintain your boundaries. Avoid overly familiar relationships such as being drinking buddies with your Sailors. Be a professional. Don’t be domineering, but be firm in maintaining watchstanding formality, proper communications, procedural compliance, and watch team backup.
Lead your division. Communicate with your team. Go to divisional quarters and discuss where the command is headed. You should know this from your interactions in the Wardroom. Put out important information from message traffic or the squadron, talk about the schedule, and identify issues across other divisions or other departments that affect your division. Make sure you are on the same page with your chief before you go to quarters. A good way to plan ahead is to keep a notecard or section in your notebook to track things to put out. If you are often surprised by items that come up such as stores loads, GMT, or off-hull trainers, then look in the mirror. You probably aren’t communicating enough. Keep your ear to the ground. Listen up in your officer/LPO call. Talk to your XO, DH, COB, or department chief to ensure that you know what is coming, are actively planning to succeed, and make sure that your division is ready.
Learn to run a division and the technical aspects of maintenance from your chief. Don’t be afraid to question whether you are doing business the right way or the best way. If something doesn’t seem right, it may not be. Your fresh eyes may see a problem that others have missed.
Push evals, awards, products, or reports up. Don’t wait for your DH or the XO to ask for them. Come up with a system to be organized and track what you owe. If you miss a deadline or your team doesn’t perform to standards, own the problem, come up with a plan to train and get better.
If you are like me, speaking in front of a group is not natural, yet it is an essential skill for a Navy officer. Look for opportunities to practice; give training, address your division, department, or crew on your collateral duty or on topics of interest to your division. Outline what you plan to say on a note card. Ask for feedback on how you did, and practice!
There are my thoughts on being a great JO. Fight the ship and lead your Sailors! Know your ship, your Sailors, and your boss. Set the example for your Sailors, watch section, and division and then live up to the example you set. It’s not a simple job, but I found it to be very rewarding. Don’t expect all your days to be rosy. You may feel on top of the world one day, and the next you’ll feel that you have made the worst (leadership, watch standing, program management) mistake in the history of the Submarine Force. This is normal. Get over it. You have some great coaches and teachers out there with your DHs, your chief, the XO, the CO, and your fellow division officers. Ask for feedback. Ask for advice on issues that you are tackling. Learn from your bosses, good and bad. Most of all, own your division and your watch section. Get out there, push yourself, drive fast, and make your ship the best on the waterfront!