Leadership: Watch Your Manners


March 10, 2010: The U.S. Navy has relieved six ship captains so far this year, more than twice the rate that it has been relieving them in the last few years. That, in turn, is an increase over the rate for the 1990s. Other strange things are happening. One of the most recent dismissals was unusual for two reasons. First, the dismissed captain was a woman, and, secondly, the navy gave the reason (abusive treatment of the crew, and the captains' demeanor and temperament). Complaints from the crew had been coming in for some time, and the captain was relieved as she was at the end of her tour of duty on the USS Cowpens, and in the process of turning over command to another officer. The dismissed captain went off to her next assignment, as a staff officer.

The navy rarely releases details of why the officers are relieved. But the usual reasons are character flaws of one kind or another. Running the ship aground is seen as a rather obvious failing, but it is not the most common one. Those would be cases involving "zipper control" (adultery with another officers' wife, or a subordinate). The British also relieve a lot of commanders, and are more forthcoming with the reasons. One British skipper got the sack recently for "bullying." That is similar to what happened on the Cowpens.

In the last decade, the U.S. Navy has been relieving more commanders (of ships and units). In the first few years of the 21st century, the navy relieved 6-8 commanders a year. In 2003, that went up to seventeen, and the number has remained high every since. At the end of the Cold War, in the late 1980s, the rate was about a third less, and after the Cold War ended, it declined further.

So why has the relief rate gone up more than doubled in the last few years? Only a small percentage of reliefs have to do with professional failings (a collision or serious accident, failing a major inspection or just continued poor performance.) Most reliefs were, and still are, for adultery, drunkenness, theft or other unsavory behavior. With more women aboard warships, there have been more reliefs for, as sailors like to put it, "zipper failure." There may have been more than are indicated, as sexual misconduct is often difficult to prove, and a captain who is having zipper control problems often has other shortcomings as well. Senior commanders traditionally act prudently and relieve a ship commander who demonstrates a pattern of minor problems and who they "lack confidence in."

Many naval officers see the problem not of too many captains being relieved, but too many unqualified officers getting command of ships and units in the first place. Not every naval officer qualified for ship command. Only a small percentage of the 53,000 commissioned officers gets one. The competition for ship commands is pretty intense. This, despite the fact that officers know that, whatever goes wrong on the ship, the captain is responsible.

It's a hard slog for a new ensign (officer rank O-1) to make it to a ship command. For every hundred ensigns entering service, about 90 will stay and make it to O-4 (Lieutenant Commander), usually after about nine years of service. About 67 of those ensigns will eventually get to serve as XO (executive officer, the number two officer on a ship) after 10-12 years of service. Some 69 of those ensigns will make it to O-5 (Commander), where it first becomes possible to command a ship (a frigate or destroyer.) About 38 of those hundred ensigns will get such a command, usually after 18-20 years of service, and for about 18 months. About 22 of those ensigns will make it to O-6 (Captain) after 20-21 years of service. But only 11 of those ensigns (now captains) will get a major seagoing command (cruiser, destroyer squadron). Officers who do well commanding a ship will often get to do it two or three times before they retire after about 30 years of service.

But with all this screening and winnowing, why are more unqualified officers getting to command ships, and then getting relieved because they can't hack it? Navy captains point to the growing popularity of "mentoring" by senior officers (that smaller percentage that makes it to admiral.) While the navy uses a board of officers to decide which officers get ship commands, the enthusiastic recommendation of one or more admirals does count. Perhaps it counts too much. While the navy is still quick to relieve any ship commander that screws up (one naval "tradition" that should never be tampered with), up until that point, it is prudent not to offend any admirals by implying that their judgment of "up and coming talent" is faulty. In the aftermath of these reliefs, it often becomes known that the relieved captain had a long record of problems. But because he was "blessed" by one or more admirals, these infractions were overlooked. The golden boys tend to be very personable and, well, look good. The navy promotion system is organized to rise above such superficial characteristics, but apparently the power, and misuse, of mentoring, has increasingly corrupted the process.

The female captain of the Cowpens was accused of getting her job because of political correctness (because she was a woman and it was thought to be nice to show that a woman can run a warship as well as a man.) But there are other political correctness elements at play. The captain of the Cowpens was responsible for everything that went on in the ship, and among the crew. It's always been that way, and how the captain took care of business was largely ignored. Many captains in the past were foul mouthed and demanding. In the past, that was seen as an asset. No one wants a wuss commanding a warship at sea, much less in combat.

But times have changed. For example, in the 1990s, the navy began issuing "stress cards" to recruits in boot camp. These cards contained information about who the recruit could call (chaplain, psychologist, whatever) if they were feeling particularly stressed. By the time the media got hold of this, it was morphed into a "get out of an ass chewing" by an instructor card. The stress card was never that, and the navy got rid of them when attempts to make the media get the story right, failed. Instructors were taught to spot stressed out recruits and either calm them down or direct them to someone who could. But the trend was clear. The Old Navy was on its way out. The captain of the Cowpens apparently didn't get the word, or ignored it.

In some respects, there have been fewer reliefs. It's now common to leave a captain in charge after a major incident. When the destroyer USS Cole was hit by a terrorist bomb in a Yemen harbor in 2000, the captain was not immediately relieved. This is part of a new pattern which makes many naval officers uneasy. Officers, and sailors, would be more disturbed if the rate of captains being relieved went down. No captain is perfect, and crewmembers feel more comfortable if they know that their boss will quickly get the axe if there is a major problem.

There are also other ways of getting relieved of your command. Take the situation the 18th century British captain Bligh encountered. William Bligh was a British naval officer who, while commanding the Bounty, a ship conducting a scientific mission in the Pacific, had to deal with a mutiny in 1789. After 12 months at sea (and five at Tahiti to pick up breadfruit plants), 18 of the 42 man crew mutinied, and put Bligh, and 18 sailors loyal to him, in a 23 foot launch and sailed away. Bligh then navigated the launch, for 47 days, some 6,700 kilometers to the island of Timor. Bligh returned to Britain, and the Royal Navy. He served with distinction until 1817, achieving the rank of Vice Admiral. He was long believed to have caused the mutiny because of cruel treatment of his crew. But over the years, more and more evidence was uncovered showing that Bligh was not a seagoing tyrant, but did have some personality clashes with members of what was, in effect, a civilian crew serving on a Royal Navy ship (which, while armed, was not considered a warship.) Most of the crew remained loyal to Bligh, who was well liked by crews of the ten warships (including ships-of-the-line) he commanded after the Bounty. Alas, folk tales are persistent, and tough captains are often referred to as "Captain Blighs." Like the stress cards, Bligh got a bum rap, as do American warship captains who don't pay attention to cultural shifts. In wartime, things tend to become more Old Navy. This last happened during the early years of World War II, where the need to survive and win in combat swept away the better behaved peace time naval officers.





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