Leadership, Part One, in the Navy

Posted on December 20, 2015

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I am going to step out a bit here on the subject of leadership. I am not a professional student of the subject, but have flitted around the edges all my life. It is an immensely important subject. We have a presidential election in the making and my criteria—among others—for choosing a candidate is based on their qualities of leadership.

This is Part One of a little series we will devote to the subject. It begins, for me any rate, in the early 1960s.
I always thought, “well, it is kind of an intrinsic thing,” this leadership business.

We’ve all heard of the phrase, “born leaders.” So, I thought, leaders must be born to leadership. The rest of us, by definition, must be followers.

What am I, I thought over the years? A leader or a follower? I have been thrust into positions of leadership ever since NROTC prepared me, more or less, for a commission in the Navy. I spent two years in the fleet, steaming here and there in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, and was assigned, as a line officer, to the bridge from the get go.

First, a bit of definition here, since I suspect there are not a lot of ex-line officers out there reading this. If you are, sorry for telling you what you already know or have experienced.

For the rest of you, a “line” officer is what we would style a “regular” officer, not a supply or disbursement officer, not a specialist in some distinct area that took you away from duties on the “bridge.”

The Bridge is where the ship is piloted. The officers in charge of the safe navigation of the ship serve on the Bridge as Officers of the Deck. On our ship, you had an OOD, and a junior OOD in training. The OOD essentially ran the ship for a four hour watch. The ultimate authority on the ship was vested in the Captain. But he, obviously, wasn’t on the Bridge twenty-four hours a day while the ship was underway, transiting the Atlantic for example.

I started out as a junior OOD and in the normal course of events became qualitied as the OOD, and then later as the OOD in Formation. This meant you piloted the ship while steaming in a squadron, keeping station and minding your p’s and q’s a little more stringently since there was not a lot of room for error.

I accepted this responsibility as simply the normal course of events in my service. We had studied a bit in NROTC courses about leadership, and this was “leadership.” I was in charge, and, by George, I could handle it.
I did almost steam right through the formation of six ships in our amphibious squadron one night. Everyone turned left as we executed a turn, and I turned the other way, having heard the message and garbled it. The flagship suddenly, at a distance of about 1000 yards, was in my crosshairs.

I thought, “Geez [I used different words for expressing amazement those days], they all turned the WRONG way,” thinking I’m the only one who got it right. You are trained as a leader to take
responsibility and exercise it with knowledge and authority.

Needless to say, even though I knew I was right, after all, I was the OOD-Underway, I quickly ordered the helmsmen to turn away, and we steamed into the night.

The old man [affectionate name for the Captain] woke up and emerged from his little sleeping space—his sea cabin–on the Bridge that he sometimes used while underway.

He could tell something was amiss.

“What happened Larry?”

“Captain, the order came to turn to 270. I thought it said 070. So did my JOOD, here, Mr. Blah, Blah,” I added to help defend myself.
“Ah,” replied the Captain, sizing up the situation. “Well, get back on station. I’ve run through a few formations in my time,” and he went back to his bunk in his sea cabin.

He didn’t sack me. He didn’t criticize me in front of the small crew on the Bridge watch that night. He simply expressed confidence in me. I had made a mistake. We all do. I never ran through a formation again.

I thought, later on, he was a good leader. How and why did he trust in me? In fact, how does a good leader judge the integrity, honesty, intelligence, and other qualities, such as loyalty, in his subordinates? What does he look for in their character?

Leadership, as I observed over the years, was marked by good judgment. This reminded me of the saying—old or not—that good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgments.

But how do you judge people? That is something we will take up in subsequent columns.

Published as Pondering the Qualities of Leadership in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, December 13m 2015

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