Leadership 101 for Chief Petty Officers

By ATCS(AW) Patrick A. Nisley

As Chief Petty Officers, we have three main objectives: 1. To train and guide junior officers, to develop them into leaders (contrary to popular belief, putting on a butter bar has not made a leader yet, and won't any time soon), 2. To train and develop our subordinates into future leaders (read CPO's), and 3. To utilize all fellow CPO's experience and wisdom, in addition to technical expertise, when trying to solve problems and achieve the command's mission.

The first objective is often the easiest, and I challenge anyone to find a successful senior Naval Officer who will not look back fondly on "that Chief," who showed him the way when he was a boot. If he is an honest man, he will freely admit that were it not for "that Chief," he would not have enjoyed the success he did. The third objective is a new way of doing business for most of us, and quickly becomes SOP. It is the second objective which is the most continually challenging, and potentially rewarding aspect of leadership as a CPO. Many times, the CPO's are handed the proverbial bag of lemons, and yet we are expected to make lemonade. Here are some tips.

When I left my last sea command, I sent an open letter to the 218 personnel in my division. In it, I thanked them for the success I had enjoyed due to THEIR efforts, and challenged them to raise the bar themselves. I owed them the praise, and it was much deserved. But in spite of their past efforts, I wanted them to understand that good young leaders were out there among them, that stepping up to the plate and taking a swing was the easiest way to be one of them. I also told them that even if they got it wrong, it would be a learning experience, and that was forgivable. To not try at all was simply unacceptable.

An outstanding leader steps in front of the fan when the s__t hits, freeing the Sailors to do their job to the best of their ability, and steps to the rear when a good job is to be rewarded. These two traits alone will demonstrate for your Sailors that you are to be trusted. When I pass orders to my Sailors, I tell them what "we" are going to do. When I pass on results to my boss, I tell him what "they" accomplished, unless the results are bad, in which case I report what "I" was unable to achieve. Demonstrate loyalty to your Sailors, and they will kill for you. That's the easy part. How you deal with real challenges is what sets you apart as a leader. How to discipline a Sailor who doesn't care about him or herself personally or professionally? How to deal with your best technician getting busted for DUI? How to inspire that mediocre Sailor to pull themselves off a negative path, get them to grow up and make that commitment to improve professionally? For every problem, there are a thousand answers, and all of them may work. So how do you do it? First of all, you have to accept a few basic truths:

1. No one can motivate anyone else. I can point a gun at a Sailor, and get him to run. That is fear, not motivation. Motivation comes from within. It is your job as a leader to create an atmosphere where motivation is encouraged and rewarded. It will quickly become obvious who is content to just get by, and who wants to run the show. The key to that "content" individual is to realize that you cannot motivate them -- it must come from them, and it's your job to figure out how to get it.

2. You don't have all the answers, and you never will. Every time we invent an idiot proof machine, nature invents a better idiot. The moment you think you've seen it all, stand by, it's going to get interesting.

3. Somewhere, there are people who you can't manage to get anything good out of, and they will very shortly be placed in your charge. They are not the problem -- you are. You must continue to try different techniques until you find one that works. You give up on one person working for you, and no matter how you slice it, your Sailors will think you have given up on them all. It stinks, but it's the way of the world.

4. Condemn in private and reward in public. No one trips my trigger faster than a supervisor or especially a fellow Chief who dresses down a subordinate in front of his peers. Take them aside and chew them out. Then address the group, referring to the event anonymously. They will figure it out eventually anyway, but you will maintain their loyalty by not killing the offender publicly.

5. Whether you agree with orders as given or not, they are your orders when you put them out. Never ever be so weak as to tell your Sailors "the XO wants it done that way" or "the Div O said we have to."

6. This is a hard one. Officers are people too, and as such, they make mistakes. You are bound by duty and tradition to address these matters on the spot. You cannot allow the junior officers you are supposed to be training to make an ass out of themselves, or to unconsciously be a bad example. You must however, do so in a manner that preserves the dignity of their position. The is most easily done by putting them in the position of "helping" you. For instance, wearing a backpack in uniform is a clear violation of the uniform regs, and you just saw the new LTjg doing just that: "Excuse me sir, we're trying to take a round turn on the military bearing around here. Could you help me out by not wearing that backpack in uniform, so the junior guys don't get the wrong idea?" You put him in a position where he really has to do what you want him to do, but you have preserved his dignity and allowed him a way to escape with minimal embarrassment in the process. You win, he wins, you win again later, when he comes to you for guidance, because he trusts you not to treat him like an idiot. He becomes a better officer and the Navy is better in the long run, because you took the time to do it right. Be creative!

7. Reread number 6, and don't even think about letting them go by without you fixing the problem.

In the Navy, we live by three words. Honor, Courage and Commitment. You honor your CPO heritage and the members of your mess by doing your absolute best by your Sailors. If you need a source of personal motivation, go back and read the CPO Creed again. Really read it. Show some courage -- step up to that plate and take a swing at the hard problems. You won't get them all right, but if you never try at all, you will never make a difference in the life of that Sailor or JO. That isn't good enough for the people I believe run the Navy. Commit yourself now to making a difference -- improving the lives of the Sailors entrusted to your guidance, and yes, your care. A great CPO doesn't earn those anchors once -- they earn them every day. Last but not least, never forget that the people who work for you gained you entrance into the most exclusive fraternity on the planet -- the fraternity of Chief Petty Officers. It is their sweat that got you here, and you owe them for it. They made you and they will break you if you don't take care of them.

Commit yourself to being a leader -- a Chief Petty Officer