La Cosa Nostra in Khakis

in Voices from the Fleet

Editor’s Note: From time to time, we will publish anonymous content from the Fleet, which we believe adds value to the conversation on making the Navy better. We still believe the best way to publicly offer criticism of your own team is to stand proudly and put your name on the line, but we acknowledge how difficult that can be. Our hope is that these authors will shape their ideas based on the feedback they get, and continue the conversation under their own name – here or elsewhere.

I’ve spent my entire career of nearly 20 years engaged with the Chiefs mess. At every turn I’ve seen abuse of subordinates, contempt for authority, and a complete and utter lack of even fundamental leadership skills.  I must acknowledge upfront there are many outstanding Chiefs, however I’d argue they are good leaders despite being Chiefs. Rate and rank don’t make you a leader, who you are and the influence you carry makes you a leader. I’ve spent some time trying to find a way to express how fundamentally broken and toxic the mess is, and I’ve come to conclusion the best example is their most cherished text… the Chief’s Creed. I purpose this analysis of the Chief’s Creed in order to better understand the flaws in the structure of the Chief’s Mess.  There are there three main trends in the creed which underpin the entire document: tradition, obedience and privilege. Fundamentally it reads more like a mafia initiation ritual, than a promotion oath in a modern military organization.

In Canada in 2017 an undercover agent was inducted into the Bonanno crime family, and for the first time a transcript was captured of the ritual.  “The reason why we’re here is from this day forward, you’re gonna be an official member of the Bonanno family, From this guy, this guy, this guy, everybody approved it, so from this day forward, you’re a member of the Bonanno family. Congratulations. You only answer to the Bonanno family.” Remember these words as you read the creed below and remember these folks go out into the woods and bury their E6 and below white covers in the ground during Phase 2. Also remember they differentiate between New Chiefs and “made”, I mean, “genuine” Chiefs. Chiefs make Chiefs, as they say.

Starting with tradition, it is baked into the organization so deeply they put “Sense of Heritage” on their Chief Evaluations.  While this may have some value, in a warfighting organization where our adversaries are constantly moving forward it is dangerous to be so reliant upon “the way things have always been done.”  RDML Grace Hopper is credited with once saying “The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.” While a sense of heritage is critical for understanding the ebb and flow of history when it comes to the Navy, it shouldn’t be a bullet point on an evaluation in a contested organization. This also explains why as a caste they are not willing to embrace new ideas, further complicating progress within the Navy.  The Chiefs mess is all too often the loathed “frozen middle” and their arrogant obstinance is arguably a threat to national security.

Moving on to obedience, they refer to themselves as a “fellowship” multiple times and often refer to themselves as a “brotherhood” or “fraternity”.  One line captures this internal organizational loyalty best “…exclusive fellowship and, as in all fellowships, you have a special responsibility to your comrades, even as they have a special responsibility to you.”  This implies that the bond between Chiefs is greater than the bond with their superiors or juniors. In fact, only one line in the entire creed addresses the rest of the Chain of Command at all, “Their actions and their performance demanded the respect of their seniors as well as their juniors.”  In that line the phrase “as well as their juniors” seems tacked on as an afterthought and more importantly doesn’t even apply to them respecting their subordinates but is used in terms of the rest of the Chain of Command up and down respecting THEM. There is also a sense that Chiefs grant themselves special privileges and authorities while enforcing obedience within the Mess.  “Your new responsibilities and privileges do not appear in print.” “It shall exist only as long as you and your fellow Chiefs maintain these standards.” I would postulate this is why Chiefs have a tendency to cover up their own scandals and take care of one another to the detriment of the rest of Navy and their own Commands. It is clear the Chiefs have a higher loyalty to the Mess than to the rest of the Fleet.

Finally, the most toxic aspect of the Creed are the references to privilege.  In multiple locations they appoint themselves as privileged subject matter experts above all else.  At times referring to this privilege directly in two forms as an “exclusive fellowship” and in internal “special” responsibilities.  I’d ask who enforces this subject matter expertise, and more importantly in a world of warfighting the Navy needs people who can evolve their worldview to rapidly changing threats vice troglodytes and luddites who fall back on “the way things used to be.”  The history behind the term “Goat Locker” further enforces this heritage of privilege. The Chiefs traditionally were responsible for the Ship’s goat, a critical source of sustenance for a sea going vessel. They were granted this privilege by being the “enforcers” for the Officer caste of the Navy.  The concept of privilege has no place in a military organization and erodes true Leadership. Leadership is about serving those under you, ensuring their success. This is why in the Marine Corps the Officers eat last… they don’t have a special mess with special cherished plates, Ice Cream Machines, Fresh Cookies, and quesadillas on deployment.

It is well known up and down the Chain of Command that the Chiefs Mess is a problem and fundamentally broken. I’d argue this entire creed, the different uniforms, concept of entitlement and internal loyalty above all else within the mess sits at the core of the issue.  While this separate caste was required in a pre-industrial world, it is no longer. No other branch of the military has a specially anointed entitled caste of bureaucrats right in the middle of the organization the way in which the Navy does. We are the only branch of the Military to have a special entitled caste of middle managers.   Point blank, the Chiefs mess is an institutional cancer eating operational effectiveness for the benefit of a few self-appointed leaders.

Today, with education being widely available via the internet compounded with the rate of change of technology and threats, they are often no longer the subject matter experts.  To put that in perspective there is an E4 in the Coast Guard with a PHD right now. I’ve personally had lawyers, electrical engineers, and people who are now Vice Presidents at JP Morgan work under me.

Finally, the concepts of “carrot-and-stick” management which are baked into the DNA of the mess, while outstanding for physical style tasks of pulling sails up and rowing… these approaches do not generate the results desired in a modern context and often do harm.  Time and time again this carrot-and-stick approach has been studied and repeatedly has been debunked, in a modern warfighting organization it is becoming less and less valuable. We need leaders and managers who are able to embrace the adjacent possible, vice ignore it due to their own incompetence and cowardice towards change.

I’d argue if you want to fix the mess, you must take away their “special” privileges and get more than a single afterthought reference to their subordinates in their Creed. Your rank or rate doesn’t make you a leader… who you are and your influence upon others makes you a leader. In the Navy a substantial section of the fleet has zero respect for their Chiefs outside of fear of reprisal and punishment.  That isn’t a healthy foundation for any organization or relationship. With our problems manning the fleet, the leadership of the Navy should ask why so many young Sailors walk away early… remember people don’t quit jobs, they quit managers. Risponiamo solo al Mess, SHIPMATES!

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