No More Bad Commanding Officers?

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Navy photo / MCS 1st Class Hana'lei Shimana

Commanding any of the Navy's fleet of nearly 300 ships is the most challenging assignment the sea service has to offer.

The headline in the June 18 Navy Times that arrived in my mailbox screamed NO MORE BULLIES, DRUNKS, & PLAYBOYS. It went on to detail Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert’s “tough new rules” for screening for command.

In addition to mandatory attendance at the two-week Command Leadership School, the screening includes passing a written test, sitting through an oral board, and receiving an informal evaluation (360-degree assessment) from peers and subordinates. The command qualification and screening will be required of all new command officers (COs), both ashore and at sea, by June 4, 2013.

This mandate comes as a result of an increase in the number of commanding officers being relieved for cause, thus the “bullies, drunks, and playboys” reference in the headline. I guess those folks just never got around to reading Navy Regulations, 1990, which states:

The Commanding Officer and his or her subordinates shall exercise leadership through personal example, moral responsibility, and judicious attention to the welfare of persons under their control or supervision. Such leadership shall be exercised in order to achieve a positive, dominant influence on the performance of persons in the Department of the Navy.

Command-qualification requirements are not new. Surface Warfare Officers have had command-qualification requirements for years…it hasn’t helped much, seeing that most of the commanding officers who get relieved are…Surface Warfare Officers. Although much of the past command-qualification process ensured the person was technically qualified for the job, the problem with the recent spate of firings is mostly for leadership issues. Or lack thereof.

But I wonder if the new rules for command screening and qualification will be able to sift out the “bullies, drunks, and playboys?” A two-week leadership course within a command-training pipeline of four to six months or more, prior to taking over a ship, cannot erase 15 years of poor leadership performance.

While a good leader may take something away from the course, or reiterate what he or she already practices, the time for a correction of leadership problems must occur much earlier in a naval officer’s career.

In the case of Holly Graf, for example, there apparently were plenty of reasons to counsel her on her leadership skills while she was an executive officer (XO). But her lack of skills in that area must have started much earlier in her career. If her COs had counseled her properly, or at all, perhaps she would have been a success story instead of one of the bullies.

I think another part of the problem with command screening is that it recently changed, and is still in transition.

Previously, there were separate screenings for XO and CO, the tours were separated by an interim shore tour, and the promotion to command was not a given. I always thought the shore tour was a time to de-stress from the rigors of being an XO before the even more stressful job as CO.

Although the XO runs the daily activity of the ship, and makes sure all goes according to plan, “The responsibility of the commanding officer for his or her command is absolute…” according to Navy Regulations. Which means that the CO is ultimately responsible for everything that goes on, good or bad. Thus, the CO gets the credit, or the blame.

The “fleeting up” from XO to CO began in 2009, when the surface community changed to the aviator’s model, in which the executive officer automatically “fleeted up” to command after a successful 18-month tour.

It seems to me that most of the problems with the firing of shipboard commanding officers happened after that major policy shift. Perhaps a proverbial “time out” from command is needed to give an officer time to contemplate the lessons learned of being an XO prior to taking command.

One can’t really do that if one day you are the XO, and the next day the CO. Your focus also has to shift from the tactical running of the ship to the strategic perspective of taking care of the ship and its personnel. It’s a hard shift to make overnight.

I do think the proposed 360-degree assessment — being graded by subordinates, as well as superiors — is a positive step. I suspect most officers have no idea how their subordinates view them, and they are afraid to ask.

But one thing is sure. Even though 99% or so of Navy commanding officers are doing a great job, there does need to be a better system for finding that small number of officers who continue to make the Navy look bad through their poor leadership.