Leadership: Ignoring The Chiefs

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May 2,2008: The U.S. Navy has suddenly discovered that its officers and NCOs have dropped the ball and allowed the readiness of warships to deteriorate to an alarming degree. Admirals and staff officers are scrambling to discover what went wrong. Asking the chiefs (Chief Petty Officers, the senior NCOs who supervise the sailors) might provide some illumination. Except that, over the last decade, officers have been less inclined to ask their chiefs much. The "zero tolerance" atmosphere that has permeated the navy since the end of the Cold War, has led officers to take direct control of supervisory duties the chiefs used to handle. The chiefs have lost a lot of their influence, responsibility and power.

The problem is that, with "zero tolerance", one mistake can destroy a career. This was not the case in the past. Many of the outstanding admirals of World War II would have never survived in todays navy. For example, Bill "Bull" Halsey ran his destroyer aground during World War I, but his career survived the incident. That no longer is the case.

Another problem is that officers don't spend as much time at sea, or in command, as in the past. A lot of time is spent going to school, and away from the chiefs and sailors. For example, while the navy had more ships in the 1930s, than it does today, there were fewer people in the navy. That's because, back then, 80 percent of navy personnel were assigned to a ship, and had plenty of time to learn how to keep it clean and operational.

Then again maybe not. This is all just a bunch of scuttlebutt from the chiefs. Are they really the solution as they were in the past? They may not be consulted, or listened to, as much as in the past. But they can't help but notice things. It's what chiefs do.

 


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