During my last tour on active duty I got to see my peers take early commands as O-4s in the Navy. Many of these Commanding Officers were friends and as such, we spent time talking about issues they would not discuss with most people. One thing I noticed is that our community had developed a group of micromanagers as part of our culture. There was this extreme fear of even the smallest of errors. People referred to it as the “zero defect mentality”. Many of these COs felt like they had to do everything themselves, which resulted in them working themselves to death. Some of the worst offenders almost never left the ship. Many got divorced and still did not have a successful tour, ensuring they would never command again. As I worked thorough my latest class, “Inclusive Leadership Training: Becoming a Successful Leader”, I became aware that some of the people on this forum could learn a lesson from this story and become better leaders within their organizations.
As I tried to help my friends realize that they had a team of good people to help bear the burden of their command, I would tell them these two rules about every person on their ship:
1. They are smarter than you on something or things.
2. They will never do a task exactly the way you do.
The problem was fear. Fear that someone would mess up and one defect would ruin everything. But in reality, sailors understand their jobs. They know their tasks, roles, and functions on the ship. We have the best Navy in the world because we have the best sailors. The problem is to get the leadership to let them do what they need to do in order to get the job done. As I said, this was a culture in the SWO community, so the CO did not trust the Officers, then the Officers did not trust the Chiefs, and so on. This is where they were missing the critical mark of a good leader, which is to empower someone to be accountable and make good decisions. Every person wants the opportunity to succeed. In my opinion, no one wakes up in the morning and says to themselves “How can I screw things up today?”
So the good leader must let go and let their team support the mission. This process may take longer and be painful for the leader to watch. This brings up a corollary to the second fact about people, which is that it may not be the same way but is it good enough. In reality, things are never perfect and never have to be. To quote George S. Patton, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”
That is the mark of a true leader. Unfortunately, I think sometimes we get too caught up in this “zero defect mentality” to realize that we are hurting our organization. Hurting it today because our sailors do not feel valued and worthy of our trust and thus not operating at full potential. Hurting it in the future because these sailors grow up to be the leaders of tomorrow’s Navy.
A leader’s responsibility is to encourage and support their team to make decisions and grow. They should run top cover and ensure the team has all the tools and knowledge to be successful. Only then will their team feel fully engaged and working at full throttle. Allowing them to get their jobs done frees up time for mentoring and coaching. But, don’t use that newfound “free” time to look over their shoulders and fall back into that old habit of micromanagement.
In today’s Navy and Military we need transformational leaders. Gone are the days where it was an ole boy’s sailing club where what happened at sea stayed at sea. The fact is that we are a diverse, transparent organization where something could happen today and be the trending topic on Twitter tonight. Leaders have to get away from that “us vs. them” mentality and encourage feedback on ways to better the organization. Everyone from the senior officer to the junior seaman has to feel valued enough to be able to point out ways we can improve our system. We need transformational leaders that are willing to value both the differences of our teams and make each person know their opinion is considered.
I was honored to serve with many good COs and leaders in my 24 years of active duty and now in industry. I think each one of them had their strengths and weaknesses, but the good leaders always made me feel valued and encouraged me to make decisions without fear of messing up. I think that is the mark of a true leader. We are all part of a team and have never accomplished anything great on our own. Embrace your team and don’t be that micromanager that has a death grip on everything under their control. We are all leaders in some aspect of our lives and this applies to each one of us.
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