Fumbling with the enigma of leadership

Nearly 20 years ago on a sunny Friday afternoon, I was standing outside the Navy Exchange complex at Naval Base Norfolk. It was about a year after I transferred from USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) to be an instructor at Navy Supply Corps School in Athens, Ga., and I was back in Norfolk riding herd on a group of junior officer students during their Fleet Indoctrination Tour — commonly known as the Salt Water Trip.

The students were inside the Exchange, stocking up on uniform items that were in perpetual short supply at the very small Supply Corps School outlet, and I was checking my watch to see how much time we had left until our Navy flight to Naval Air Station Atlanta. When I looked up, standing in front of me were four Sailors from the Burke, including two from my former department.

Surprised and pleased to see familiar faces, I greeted them and asked what they were doing off the ship, which I had heard was downtown in the shipyard for a repair availability. One of them replied that they were off the ship attending Transition Assistance classes in preparation for leaving the Navy at the end of their enlistments.

I wasn’t too surprised at that as none of the four had struck me as “lifers” when we were on the ship, so instead of giving them a pitch I asked each what their post-Navy plans were. They answered with jobs lined up or plans to attend school, asked what I was up to and told me some of what had gone on since I left the ship.

Soon enough we were all caught up and some of the student officers had drifted out of the Exchange, so the Burke Sailors said their good-byes and made to move on. That’s when one of the four, a Sailor who had worked for me on the Burke, stepped up.

He had always been what I considered a marginal performer, never so much causing trouble but instead doing just enough to get by while disappearing into the background whenever possible. The fact that he was moving on from the Navy was not only not a surprise, in my opinion it was the likely best move for both parties.

“Mr. Whitmore, I just wanted to tell you something,” he said, and — figuring he was feeling pretty confident that his time in the Navy was nearly over — I braced to hear his opinion of me. Even before he could say another word I was thinking to myself, how should I react to this: I’m still an officer, he’s still enlisted; do I let him have his say or do I tie a knot in his tail just because?

Turns out, it wasn’t an issue although I could not in a million years have guessed what he wanted to say.

“Mr. Whitmore, when you left last year we were all about as happy as could be,” he continued. “But I want to tell you, the guy who replaced you is a bigger a—— than you ever were, and we all missed having you as Supply Officer.”

I must have had a shocked look on my face, because the other three Sailors began to emphatically nod and the other member of the Burke’s Supply Department added “That’s for damn sure.”

Laughing by that point, I told them to take care and after adding a warning not to talk so openly about officers, especially to other officers, they took off.

*  *  *  *

Leadership is a topic often discussed in the military, where success as a leader is the expected norm for officers and senior enlisted personnel. A saying (cliché?) often heard is “Things are managed but people are led.” The importance of that becomes clearer with time: the more senior you become the less you should deal with things and the more with people.

A very junior officer or petty officer can make a positive impression as the subject-matter expert on a piece of gear, tactic or procedure. The same narrow focus during the second or third tour of duty will cause justifiable concern — as will demonstrated unfamiliarity with the latest procedural changes or upgrades to equipment within your department or division.

This concern about leadership pertains mostly to Navy officers who are eligible to fill command billets. These are mostly line officers — ship drivers, SEALs, aviators and submariners — but nearly all staff corps branches also include commanding and executive officer billets.

Warrant and Limited Duty Officers are still expected to be leaders, but they were primarily selected for commissioning from the enlisted ranks specifically because of their technical knowledge or ability. The same is true of Master, Senior and Chief Petty Officers unless they are serving as the command’s senior enlisted advisor.

*  *  *  *

Some things have come out in this forum that I have never spoken aloud before. Here is another: Although I climbed the ladder from enlistee to commissioned officer, I was not a good leader. In fact, nothing caused me more worry or sleepless nights than that fact, especially as I continued to seek duty assignments where leadership was a necessary requirement for success.

As I advanced from enlisted to officer and then from Division Officer to Department Head, I was often frustrated at the feeling that my success owed less and less to my own performance as it did to that of the weakest Sailors who worked for me. Of course I realized the Navy expected me to lead those Sailors into performing at a higher level, but knowing that and knowing how to consistently achieve it — especially in the 24/7/365 environment of a warship — were two different things.

Without question, any success I may have obtained as a leader was the direct result of having some very smart people working for me. Those smart Sailors offset and made up for the weaker performers, often at some cost to themselves as they usually had to work longer or harder.

One of my critical roles as a shipboard leader was to serve as a heat shield for my Sailors, taking the blame for anything negative while ensuring any successes were properly attributed to the men who achieved them (remember, this was before women were allowed on combatant ships).

*  *  *  *

Although I was the instructor for a class in leadership given to junior officers at Navy Supply Corps School, I have come to the opinion that leaders are not created in the classroom.

Techniques, procedures and examples can be show, but there is no guaranteed formula for success on the deckplates: What works for one may not for another.

I learned something about leadership from everyone I served under in the Navy, not all of it positive. In many cases I learned from poor leaders what behaviors not to repeat. But much of what I thought would work for me when I became a leader simply didn’t have the same result on my Sailors as it did on me when I was the follower.

I came to the conclusion that becoming a leader, and then becoming a better leader, involved trial and error — trying different approaches to find out what works as well as making mistakes and learning from them.

Additionally, a good leader needs situational awareness to size up what is happening, knowledge of what resources are available, and then the ability to adjust his or her response to meet the various needs of all concerned to achieve the mission.

While I struggled to perform this internal algorithm, often coming up short, the very best leaders make it look effortless.

*  *  *  *

When I was a student at Navy Supply Corps School, the Salt Water Trip my class took to Norfolk included a visit to USS Charleston (LKA 113), an amphibious cargo ship that has since been decommissioned. Before starting our ship tour, we gathered in the ship’s wardroom for a few words by the Commanding and Supply Officers and I ended up in the front row.

When Captain Nicholas V. McKenna — both his rank and title in this case — stepped up to the podium to welcome us to his ship, I was pleasantly surprised to see a familiar face: we served together in the Operations and Plans Department on the staff of the commander of surface forces for the Atlantic Fleet, my final enlisted tour before Officer Candidate School.

Although I didn’t work directly for him, we saw each other every day and on a couple occasions I filled in for his administrative assistant during periods of leave. Still, about a year had gone by and I didn’t think Captain McKenna would recognize me as a (somewhat) newly-minted Ensign.

Surprisingly, when the Captain completed his remarks and had thanked us for our visit, he turned to one of the school’s escort officers (the same role I would play years later), pointed at me and said “I want to see that joker in my cabin when you’re done here.”

Once the Captain was out of the wardroom I was instantly surrounded by officers from the ship and the school, asking me what I had done to anger him during his remarks. Once I explained the situation everyone calmed down and I was escorted to the Captain’s inport cabin, where he greeted me warmly and poured me a cup of coffee.

Turning away from a desk covered in folders and paperwork, Captain McKenna asked about my time at OCS and Supply Corps School, how my wife and kids were, and what my plans were for a first sea tour as an officer. In turn I asked about the Charleston and how things were at the staff after I left. We drank our coffee and chatted for about half an hour — to this day probably the most relaxed visit I’ve ever paid to a Captain’s inport cabin.

With a look of real regret, Captain McKenna told me it was time to get me back to my tour group, but instead of reaching for the phone to call someone to escort me, he grabbed a ball cap off a peg in the bulkhead and led me down to the main deck.

Captain McKenna took me to every supply space he thought may be on the tour route, chatting easily with Sailors in storerooms, the galley and the barber shop. Although he was shown the proper respect at every turn — “Attention on deck!” ringing out frequently — the Captain’s interactions with his crew were relaxed, even when he questioned them closely about the status of repair for broken equipment or their progress in getting warfare qualified.

I realized having this Commanding Officer wandering the main deck of the Charleston was nothing new to these Sailors. During my enlisted days I saw ships where any unscheduled visit to the main deck by the Captain was a cause for concern: “Who’s in trouble now?” “What did we do wrong this time?”

Obviously being seen and interacting with his crew was part of Captain McKenna’s style of leadership — and it seemed to work well. The ship, which entered into active service back in 1968, was clean and well maintained, the Sailors looked good and displayed positive attitudes, even when the Old Man wasn’t around. Most telling, Charleston had a solid reputation on the Norfolk waterfront for performance.

*  *  *  *

A good leader, in uniform or not, lifts everyone around them to higher levels of performance. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but by that measure I probably failed the Sailor who gave me the backhanded compliment at the Navy Exchange.

Still, all things considered, I’ve had worse things said about me and likely some by that same Sailor. So, I’ll take it as I believe it was intended and have a quiet laugh at the memory.

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8 responses to “Fumbling with the enigma of leadership

  1. Enlisted leaders that move on to Officers are typically strong, sage service members.

    “Things are managed but people are led.” Honestly I have never heard that before and I think I will add this to my email tag outs at work 🙂 Thank you.

    I am a new Sergeant (E5) and I will carry this with me as well.

    “A very junior officer or petty officer can make a positive impression as the subject-matter expert on a piece of gear, tactic or procedure. The same narrow focus during the second or third tour of duty will cause justifiable concern — as will demonstrated unfamiliarity with the latest procedural changes or upgrades to equipment within your department or division.”

    I truly believe that a ‘good leader’ is humble and carries humility as their watch dog.

    With the right audience and the basic Navy knowledge this is (in my opinion) a wealth of knowledge in one entry.

    Major General R. Martin Umbarger, the Indiana National Guard Adjutant General (aka the top Officer appointed by the Governor) has such a deep understanding of situational awareness (aka ‘Ground Truth’) that he takes leadership to the highest caliber. His service has made it through seven years of Indiana politics. I really believe this is due to his involvement in his soldiers.

    In the end you made a difference one way or another as a leader. Accepting the challenge of commissioned leadership is brave in the first place. Losing sleep over you leadership performance may just be the unwritten part of the job description.

    Thank you. I am off to get you some reads here!

  2. I really enjoyed this article. I am Captain Nicholas V McKennas nephew.

    • Ryan, first off thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. I served for and with a whole lot of people in the Navy, but to this day only a few stand out in my memory. Your uncle is certainly one I remember and for all good reasons. Sitting down with him when I was a junior officer visiting his ship is one of my favorite memories of my 20-year Navy career.

      • I was talking with a coworker about my uncle and was searching for the ships he was on. That’s how I came across your article. It was a pleasure to read.

  3. I served in USS Charleston under three captains and he is the most fondly remembered.

  4. This is such a fabulous article and I so loved reading about my Beloved Uncle Nick! He was someone I really looked up to my whole life and I have the fondest memories of his change of command ceremonies over the years. I think I even went to a decommission ceremony as well, and it may have been for this ship. He was a good man who loved his career. I used to love getting mail from him when he was over in the Med. Thank you for this wonderful article. This really made my day today!

    • Happy to help you re-live good memories, Charlene. As I replied to an earlier comment, I served with thousands of people over 20 years and have forgotten far more than I remember. Captain McKenna is warmly remembered by me. My visit to his inport cabin is one of favorite “sea stories”. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

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