It’s been just over a year since retirement. Time clips by at a steady pace. In the planning stages of retirement, an old mentor charged me to “remain connected as a retired Chief Petty Officer." His graying goatee, the glass of whiskey, the company polo shirt all faded as a stern gleam came from his eye. “It’s important.”
How “remain connected”, is something without chart to plot a course by.
For me, it’s traveling to retirements. Meeting with Sailors still standing watch, hearing their stories and perhaps impart a little wisdom. Answering the phone for someone’s dilemma. Flying out to see a Sailor who successfully navigated a conversion program and graduated. And of course, interacting with Chief Selects as they undergo initiation.
I cringe reading the Facebook Retired Chief pages. Enough so I just left them. I don’t feel it’s a charge to scream at the internet about what it means to be a Chief.
17 Sailors died recently in two separate collisions. Last night a retired Senior Chief and I wondered aloud “what’s going on?” Some civilians sitting with us asked our view of what went wrong. How did it happen? How could it possibly happen? Who failed? We both said, “we can never really know unless you’re there." But leadership came up.
17 dead is not an argument. It’s not a statement. It’s a tragedy. And it’s an important teachable moment.
Thousands of people are commenting on what went wrong. Conspiracy theorist, political websites, technical experts, arm chair navigators are beating the internet senseless with the who/what/how.
For the Chief Selects out there, consider this.
Once the space is dewatered, the hull welded back, the equipment replaced and the memorials are conducted, there’s still shit to do. North Korea is still a threat. We’re still in Afghanistan. China is constricting our ability to navigate freely despite UNCLOS III. Pirates, smugglers, threats from rogue nations, terrorists, changing technology.
There are Sailors who likely had to close a hatch, knowing on the other side was their shipmate. There’s a group of Sailors whose whole adult existence has been living on that ship. There’s a division that has seen their leadership, guilty or not, brought up on charges and taken away. There’s a Ship of Sailors that have the eyes of the seemingly entire world looking at them.
And they’re in trouble. They are facing Loss, doubt, uncertainty, and fear.
And let me tell you. Doubt and Fear are killers.
We have survived loss, and we memorialize it. We hoist flags, build monuments, name ships, and have a day for it.
We live in a world of uncertainty. We train for it, as we are always a Ready Navy.
But doubt and fear will pervade their thoughts. It will keep them awake at night. At worst, it will lead to non-action.
Doubt and fear have to be overcome. And that requires leadership.
It won’t be you leading, Chief Select. Get it out of your head that it’s “you”. It’ll be The Chief. The Chief will step in, and instill Confidence. The Chief will inspire Pride, embolden Courage cut through the bullshit of coulda-woulda-shoulda and point the way. The Chief will balance the responsibility of acknowledging the pain of loss with the order of moving forward. The Chief will know when to embrace, and when to put a foot in the ass. It’s momentum, in its purest form.
You see, CO’s and Admirals are never remembered by anything other than “Captain So and So” and “Admiral So and So”. The Chief is an unambiguous ideal.
A former Commanding Officer had a version of what a Chief is. Looking straight in the eye of a group of Junior Officers; “A Chief Petty Officer is the Finest Blunt Force Object.” You gotta laugh a little at that. But, in essence, it’s very true. Bit finesse, a bit aiming, and a whole lot of swing. Things are going to get done, one way, or the other.
New leaders often default to stature for mentorship, rather than sutures. It’s easy to be a Chief in a meeting, arguing decisions. It’s easy to point towards great decisions made. It’s easy to tout the accomplishments of a deployment. It’s annoyingly easy to point towards success as a measure of how great we are. But correlation is not causation. Personally, I hate the times we pat ourselves on the back about shit that went right. It’s supposed to go fucking right. You were selected because you make shit go right.
Leadership is proven when shit doesn’t go right.
It’s those hard days. When you’re ankle deep. When there’s just no time. When there are 4 priorities, 5 people screaming, and only 1 outcome. When “I can’t” won’t be an answer. When Doubt and Fear fill the eyes of Sailors you stand in front of. When the dust settles and the solution is the problem. This is when you will have to lead. Not expected to lead, not relied on to lead, not in a position to lead. You will have to lead. Your decisions and leadership at that time will matter more, in the long run, than anything else. You’re going to be the blunt force object, and you will do something, because you will be The Chief. How do you prepare for the Hard Days?
First, stay clear of Facebook pundits. Be wary of couch commandos.
Second, as you gain knowledge from Chiefs, current and former, remember to ask about failure. Ask how they pushed on. Ask how they lead. Ask what they learned. Ask how they motivated, kept a positive appearance, how they approached the mess for help, how they made decisions and how they saw it through to the end. Some will have experienced organizational failure that they had to clean up and lead after. Some will have been aboard when leadership failed. Some will have been in a mess that failed (and yes, that happens), and had to recover. Some will have failed themselves. Those that say they’ve never failed are liars. Those that say it’s not important are delusional. But with those that get quiet, and pause. Open your ears. There’s a story to be heard. Learn from them. Learn so you can be ready.
It sounds kind of like a click bait advertising line. “Congratulations, talk to someone who failed.” But step back and look at the Navy right now. An operational pause fleet wide. 17 dead. How does The Chief lead in moments like this?
Retired Chief Petty Officer