Expecting chiefs to become more vocal, visible leaders is one thing. Having officers and sailors who support and value the concept is another.New Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen said good chiefs have done much to help mold and shape his success. Their historical function to lead, train and mentor sailors and junior officers, he said, is essential to the Navy's success."No one gets to this position without a lot of help along the way," he told Navy Times. "Quite a bit of that help came from the chiefs' locker." Mullen shared three key lessons he's learned throughout his career about dealing successfully with chiefs.
. Lesson No. 1: Stay out of their way. As a new ensign on the destroyer Collett in 1968, Mullen got a quick education on the role of the chief. During an exercise, the ship was having communication problems and "Ensign Mullen set off to [the combat information center] to fix the problem," he said."I was just learning my way around CIC and I got right in the way of an E-8 radarman," Mullen recalled. "He made it very clear to me that this was his CIC and if I needed comms, he would make sure I got them."
Mullen, the ship's weapons officer, said the encounter angered him. He marched right down to his boss and tried to put the senior chief on report for what he perceived as insubordination. "He let me cool down," Mullen said. "Then he talked to me for a while."Mullen was told the senior chief knew his business and was an important part of the chain of command. It was indeed the chief's role to re-establish comms, and it was his responsibility to do so. So long as the man was doing his job, there was no need to have a stressed-out ensign demanding answers in the CIC. Mullen said he "took that all in," and did not put the man on report."A couple of months later, we went on my first deployment, straight to the gun line off Vietnam." It was there that Mullen saw "this man work as a chief and as a leader." "I really started to see what my boss had meant those months before," Mullen said.Mullen said he began to realize that those officers "who I respected the most all listened to the chiefs," he said. "Making that connection really had an impact on my growth as a leader."
. Lesson No. 2: Officers command the ship; the chiefs run it. After 4½ years in uniform, Mullen got his first command: the gasoline oiler Noxubee, home-ported in Little Creek, Va."It wasn't a sexy ship, not like the [gunboats]. Everyone wanted a gunboat," he said. "But it was a command. "We had only six officers onboard with a crew of 75 to 80.
We didn't have command master chiefs in those days, but the senior chief onboard was an E-8 engineman named Van Riper," Mullen said. "I learned quickly that it was Van Riper who ran that ship."Understanding that unique fact of Navy life was enlightening, he said. It also allowed him to understand the difference between commanding a warship and running one. The ship, Mullen said, was not run very tightly at the time and was "bordering on a pirate ship because the crew did pretty much what they wanted."
This was the auxiliary Navy and "I was a cruiser/destroyer guy, so I blew in here with a totally different attitude than they were used to and no one wanted to see it."That clash of attitudes caused fireworks at first, but once Mullen explicitly laid down his laws and expectations, Van Riper took the ball and ran with it.
There was no abdication of authority, just clear lines of role and responsibility, Mullen said. Mullen and his officers commanded Noxubee. Van Riper and his chiefs ran it. The wardroom and chiefs' mess worked together, guided by the CO, to forge an effective command..
Lesson No. 3: Chiefs mentor sailors and officers alike. Learn from them. At his 10-year mark, Mullen decided that if he was ever going to get another command, he needed to learn about engineering."It was one place I'd never gone," he said.In 1978, Lt. Cmdr. Mullen reported as the chief engineer onboard the guided-missile cruiser Fox."I would never call myself an engineer, but I wanted to learn to be a 1,200-pound engineer," Mullen said, referring the type of main boilers on the Fox. Unfortunately, when he got to the ship, it was three months into an overhaul, and literally in pieces.
With an engineering plant in disarray, Mullen feared he wouldn't get the education he sought. "I remember standing in the after engine room and there was just nothing in there," Mullen said. Thanks to some industrious, hardworking and talented chiefs, however, he earned a deck-plate graduate degree in engineering. "It was the toughest job, the toughest two-and-a-half years I ever spent in the Navy, but I learned a lot," he said. And it came from "an E-9 machinist's mate, an E-8 boiler technician and an E-7 electrician's mate."As these chiefs literally put the ship back together, Mullen learned at their side.
He understood the day-to-day business of operating an engineering plant but, more importantly, learned the value of chiefs' technical knowledge. Such experience enabled them to lead sailors - and to teach the officers they work for, as well.Mullen said he would listen to and learn from the advice of his enlisted leaders, then make the critical command decisions expected of officers."In that tour, more than any, I needed to learn the technical aspects of engineering,"
Mullen said. "I not only got that, but it also completed the understanding in my mind of those first chiefs and why I respect these people so much."Mullen said successful officers understand that chiefs fill a critical gap in the chain of command. To successfully command, officers must trust their chiefs and allow them to carry out their orders.
At every command, Mullen said he's made sure he told the chiefs to lead, gave them their orders and then got out of their way. He then ensured they accomplished the stated mission."This is just how I work," he said. "I like to make it clear what I expect from people and they usually respond," he said. Even now as CNO, he said, if there's something he's not sure of, he knows that he can always "ask the chief."