Building Leaders and Teams
When did you start to seriously prepare for what you wanted to do with the rest of your life? My date was June 30, 1965. That is when I took my first oath to “Support and Defend the Constitution of the United States against all Enemies, Foreign and Domestic.” That was my “What.” But without a “How” it is meaningless. My “How” was, as it is today, to Build Leaders and Teams.
That day in June 1965 was the start of a 30 plus year career in the United States Navy devoted to implementing the “How” to achieve the “What” in a variety of assignments.
In February 1987 I assumed Command of USS Aylwin (FF-1081), a 438-foot, 4000-ton warship with a crew of 367, average age 19-20, and 12 Officers. This was my first set of Command orders, although I had served on a similar size ship as Acting Commanding Officer for months when I temporarily relieved the Captain when he had to under go major surgery at the Navy Hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
I had been Building Leaders and Teams in organizations in various assignments for 20 years. Now I was presented with the opportunity as the new Captain of perhaps the most challenging ship in the Atlantic Fleet.
Aylwin was named after the Sailing Master of USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides.” John Cushing Aylwin was Canadian by birth and a War of 1812 hero. Rather than tie the ship to her historical roots, the Captain had adopted a more modern Hollywood theme, “The A-Team,” with a by-line on the ship’s bumper sticker of “Rogue Frigate.” This focus did not payoff in performance or the other key metric, retention. The ship had a poor operational reputation and dismal retention statistics for both Officers and enlisted.
I assumed Command on Saturday morning, February 7, 1987. I had written several Policy documents and Procedures during my week of turnover with the prior Captain which I had distributed over the weekend. On Monday I had meetings with the 12 Officers, then the 12 Chief Petty Officers (Senior enlisted), and finally the entire crew in an “All Hands” on the flight deck.
I introduced myself with a little personal and professional background, and then hit the high points of the new documents I had promulgated, focusing on Aylwin’s mission to “Be prepared to conduct prompt and sustained combat operations at sea.” I tied this to the personal mission of every crew member, myself included, to support the ship’s mission. I emphasized that if they couldn’t tie their daily tasks or assignment to supporting the mission, they should talk to the chain of command about how it did, and if it didn’t, we would change it.
I then proceeded to tell the crew about our schedule – the big picture and details for the next 15 months that I knew and could share. We had some local operations, a drug interdiction operation in the Caribbean, and a liberty port visit to the Bahamas. In 8-months we would leave Charleston for overhaul in Norfolk, VA and then in May 1988 change homeport to Newport, RI. As I suspected, although it should not have been, this came as a disheartening surprise to the crew and they started booing.
Is this a crisis or an opportunity? I said, “What do you want me to tell you? What I think you want to hear or the truth?” The boos ceased and you could hear the murmur. “Can he tell us the truth?” I went on, “I will tell you the truth of what we will be doing unless I can’t. If that is the case, I will tell you so and provide updates as I can release information.”
I had made my commitment to them and set my expectation for them individually, Leaders, and as a crew, a Team. I went one step farther. “Who is the most important person on this ship?” A somewhat muffled response, “You are.” No, I boomed. “It is the man that is going to save your life in an emergency. And you don’t know who that is. It could be you.” “That means you better do your best to be ready and help all your shipmates to be ready too.” I had started on the path to build Leaders and Teams on Aylwin.
Within six-months, Aylwin was at the top of the Retention list and performing superbly in port and at sea. World events and operational challenges aided greatly in this transformation by giving us the opportunity to do important and unexpected things that helped build confidence in themselves and each other as Leaders and Teams.
Joseph Conrad “Command at Sea”
Only a seaman realizes to what extent an entire ship reflects the personality and ability of one individual, her Commanding Officer. To a landsman, this is not understandable, and sometimes it is difficult for us to comprehend – but it is so.
A ship at sea is a distant world in herself and in consideration of the protracted and distant operations of the fleet units, the Navy must place a great power, responsibility, and trust in the hands of those leaders chosen for command.
In each ship there is one man who, in the hour of emergency of peril at sea, can turn to no other man. There is one who, alone, is ultimately responsible for the safe navigation, engineering performance, accurate gunfire and morale of his ship. He is the Commanding Officer. He is the ship.
This is the most difficult and demanding assignment in the Navy. There is not an instant during his tour as Commanding Officer that he can escape the grasp of command responsibility. His privileges in view of his obligations are almost ludicrously small; nevertheless, command is the spur which has given the Navy its great leader.
It is a duty which most richly deserves the highest time honored title of the seafaring world… “CAPTAIN”