For a while, officers departing USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) received a very special farewell gift from their peers in the wardroom. It was a coffee mug decorated with the ship’s crest and a photo of the Sailor who had been the departing officer’s biggest leadership challenge.
I never got one of the mugs because the practice of bestowing them died out as time passed after commissioning and the ship’s operational tempo picked up. But I know which of my Sailors would be on the mug; in fact, I’d probably need a few mugs to cover them all.
One of my good friends on Arleigh Burke was the First Lieutenant, who was in charge of the Boatswain’s Mates of Deck Division. Deck was responsible for deck equipment, mooring lines and anchors, operating the ship’s small boast and upkeep of the ship’s exterior surfaces. That last part’s a fancy way of saying the Bosuns oversaw chipping and painting the weather decks — salt water and the metal surfaces of a ship don’t exactly get along so removing old paint and/or rust and applying a fresh coat of paint is a never-ending job. Never. Ending.
Bosuns are sometimes derisively called “deck apes” because new enlistees with low entrance test scores ended up in the division as deck seaman. Working in Deck is physically demanding and not glamorous, but I always had the utmost respect for the Boatswain’s Mates of Arleigh Burke. I worked closely with them on the flight deck and during underway replenishments, and as a group they could get just about any job done.
The face on the First Lieutenant’s coffee mug would have been a 19-year-old deck seaman whose name escapes me now. Fresh from high school and experiencing the larger world for the first time, this young man was well-intentioned but somewhat clumsy; bumbling may be the best way to describe him.
Somehow or another this young man met and then fell hard for a woman twice his age. She was divorced from a Sailor and had several kids, but was able to convince the deck seaman he wanted to marry her. On Burke, Sailors were required to run a request chit to get married; something I did as an enlisted man assigned to Destroyer Squadron 10. In truth the request chit had little legal basis — even if denied, Sailors could still secretly get married — but it offered the Sailor’s chain of command a chance to discuss the pros and cons and ensure the Sailor was thinking with — as many of the chiefs put it — the right head.
When he sat down with his deck seaman, the First Lieutenant — himself not much older — struggled a bit with what he wanted to say. He didn’t think marrying a woman twice his age was a good idea for this kid, whose picture could be next to “naïve” in the dictionary. After staring at the seaman for a few moments, trying to come up with a logical, reasoned argument against the marriage, the First Lieutenant finally broke down and blurted out: “Why in the name of God do you think this is a good idea, marrying this woman?”
The young man’s reply — “I just love her, sir!” — quickly became a catch-phrase with the officers of Arleigh Burke. There is no doubt he was sincere about it — so sincere the First Lieutenant was speechless, allowing his crusty Senior Chief Boatswain’s Mate the chance to jump into the discussion by calling the kid a *&#!*ing idiot — but that didn’t stop us from using his words as a punchline for any number of leadership challenges.
“I asked Seaman Jones why he left the electric tool locker unattended and do you know what he said? ‘I just love her, sir.’” In due time another catchphrase took over among the officers, but for a while we all had some fun with it. You may think we were a callous bunch, but remember we were in a high pressure situation, a dozen or so officers charged with leading more than three hundred Sailors in the operation and maintenance of a billion-dollar ship. The days were long and therefore the laughs came where and when they did.
The end of this story isn’t upbeat. The deck seaman did marry the older woman, and he even submitted the paperwork to adopt her children, including a son who was just a few months younger than he was. But then one day the seaman didn’t show up for morning muster, and in due time he was declared a deserter. The West Virginia State Police picked him up hitchhiking on an interstate on-ramp, and he was returned to the ship for legal processing.
Asked why he deserted, the seaman explained his wife began to beat him shortly after the wedding, always in the body so there would be no visible marks. The seaman decided he needed a divorce, but when he raised the issue she threatened to kill him, a threat he took very seriously, so he decided instead to take off. He should have approached his superiors on the ship for help, but he was too embarrassed to admit being the victim of domestic abuse.
The deck seaman was processed for discharge, but while on legal hold — locked safely away from his wife — he was able to get divorce paperwork started. I imagine he returned to his home a wiser man.
* * * *
Leading people is incredibly difficult. Getting a diverse group of individuals, each with their own needs and wants, strengths and weaknesses, to move forward as a group toward an objective is something I always compared to the circus act of spinning plates on the end of poles. Just when you get all of the plates spinning, one of them begins to wobble and you need to stop what you’re doing and deal with it. By the time that plate is back on course two or three others are wobbling, and it goes on like that for however long your tour of duty is.
Over the course of my enlisted and officer Navy career I led groups ranging from two Sailors to several hundred, and while you may think fewer people equals fewer issues, the truth is leading any size group is a challenge. Smaller groups present more direct challenges while with larger groups there is usually a layer or two of intermediaries between the leader and the lead. Those intermediaries — in the Navy, chief petty officers, leading petty officers and work center supervisors — present an additional set of challenges for the leader, who must nurture and guide them in their own leadership development.
I was not a good leader, although I certainly tried to be one. For me the key issue was the knowledge that I was no longer going to be judged on individual merit; as a leader the performance of the group would be the measurement of my success, and as we all know the strength of a group is constrained by that of its weakest member. I often ignored my top performers — I thought, incorrectly, that they were self-starters who would do well regardless — and focused most of my attention on the weakest links, the ones who would damage my career the most. The Sailors in the middle, the ones who genuinely could have benefited from some care and feeding, didn’t get much from me.
Given the chance to do it all again — something I wouldn’t want, by the way — I’d like to think I’d do things differently, spend more time with my better Sailors and be more effective in dealing with the weaker ones. But that isn’t how life works, is it?
What’s that saying? Too soon older, too late smarter. 🙂