Your Command Tour Starts Now, Ensign!

in Leadership/Navy Stuff

This post originally appeared on the USNI Blog here.

Ok JOPA, put your Ensign Cards away, time for some tough loving. Oh, sorry, I’ll wait for you to finish that rant about “Big Navy blah, blah, blah . . .” Ready?

So, you think you have a few years until you have to get ready for command? Wrong! Your command tour started when you put on those butterbars. Oh, you don’t believe me?

  1. Check your social media. Every hilarious meme, gif, “sh**post,” and whatever else you’ve shared to showcase how brilliant and witty you are is out there for the world to see. And it’s not going away, no matter how clever you are with your security settings, online aliases (trust me on this one), and new apps that hide or delete your messages. Someone will excavate that one post and drag into the public spotlight at the worst possible moment for your career. Just ask an athletedirector, or politician. The officers sitting on your boards will see it but, more importantly, so will your sailors. Twenty years from now, you will be judged on what you do today, like it or not.
  2. Get a motto. Instead of hideously mocking dependents on the JOPA Facebook page, you could—bear with me—say something positive (I know that’s rich coming from me). The best leaders have mottos, maxims, slogans . . . whatever you want to call them. It may be a gimmick, but it helps. If you can’t communicate in simple terms, you can’t communicate. And commanding officers who use these mottos don’t make them up at their change of command ceremony. They hone their thoughts over time. Here are just a few that I’ve picked up from leaders I respect throughout my career (I won’t use their names since I didn’t ask their permission, but happy to give credit if asked):
    • I can do anything, I just can’t do it alone
    • Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier (Colin Powell originally said this . . . it’s ok to steal mottos!)
    • Do great things!
    • #keepgrinding
  3. Make up your own mind. We’ve got this thing in our culture where, as junior officers, where we rail on “Big Navy” and embrace change. Then, at some point as senior officers (usually when we assume command), we publicly embrace every order from higher headquarters and start to resist change. Here’s a pro tip: you’re allowed to decide for yourself whether you like something or not. If you enjoy something about being at sea, its ok, you can admit it. You don’t have to be anti-everything. Here’s another: you don’t have to pretend you like an order for your sailors’ sake. Trust me, they will figure you out. Your opinions on the order don’t have much bearing on the situation anyway. Did you give your best military advice as feedback in an appropriate and timely manner? Check. Is the order lawful and ethical? Check. Move out. Instead of pretending that you “like” every order you receive, show your sailors that you will faithfully execute orders, regardless of whether you “like” them or not—and when your sailors execute the orders, they’re executing YOUR orders, not the “Damn Exec’s” orders. Isn’t that the essence of naval professionalism?
  4. Don’t lie to your sailors. Lip service kills morale. I’ll admit it, I’ve done it. I think we’re getting better as an institution about being honest inside the lifelines, but there’s one big lie that I keep hearing, and it starts when you stand in front of your first division. You tell your sailors it’s all about them. FALSE! Your heart’s in the right place, but you’re lying. It’s all about the MISSION. Ideally, every sailor’s interests (including your own) would be aligned with mission accomplishment, but military service doesn’t work that way. There will be times you’ll need to miss that appointment, that birthday, or even that wedding (hopefully in increasingly rare order). It’s called sacrifice, and you’re going to ask your sailors to do it. You’ll need to do it too. This is the service you and your sailors provide the nation when you commit to your oath. So don’t crush their morale by “blowing smoke.” Be honest with them. Try to articulate how you are all (including yourself) part of a system driving toward mission accomplishment.
  5. Write something! Someone once said “If you need something done, ask a sailor. If you need something said, ask an officer.” I’ll bet an officer said that. There’s some truth to it. Officers communicate, and none more so than those in command. By nature of the way we operate, most of that communication will be written: emails, orders, directives, publications, naval messages . . . the list goes on. Do you think that when you assume command, those who read your words will heed them, understand them, internalize them, and take the action you expected? HA! Let me repeat that . . . HAHAHA! Some people will ignore you, some will misunderstand you, some will challenge you, and some will set off on entirely the wrong course. The simple fact is written communication is tough, and you need practice, but reading and writing isn’t enough. You need to put your ideas in the arena before you take command. Practice receiving feedback professionally and adjusting course (or not) as you see fit. You don’t have to be a blogger (please don’t start a blog), but you can publish at USNI, CIMSEC, or any number of sites. You can also practice by drafting staff documents within Navy and DoD circles. Lots of ways to write . . . just write something!

So, don’t wait until you’re sitting in the captain’s chair to figure out how you will command. You’ll be too late. Your command tour starts now, ensign!

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