Chiefs should be leaders

CNO wants senior enlisted to take charge of the fleet

September 2005

Hey, Chief. Put down that wrench and lead. That's the message new Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen is sending to the fleet. And his unwritten mandate will soon impact every officer, chief and Sailor. What Mullen wants are chiefs who emphasize leadership skills over technical expertise. In an era of shrinking crew sizes, high-tech ships and multi-skilled Sailors, stronger deckplate leadership from enlisted khakis is essential to mission success, Mullen said. The CNO has pushed this point from the time he took office in July.And if he gets his wish, chiefs will rightly regain their place as the "backbone of the Navy."

"I believe that the chiefs run the Navy," he unabashedly told students at the Senior Enlisted Academy in Newport, R.I., on July 28. "You may think I run the Navy, but I assure you the Navy runs because of what you do."In an exclusive interview with Navy Times, Mullen said "aggressive, positive and focused" enlisted leadership can solve any number of Navy problems, from poor command climate and lax military-bearing issues to ship readiness. Chiefs, more than any other rank, can set the proper tone for the command and the service. That belief is honed from personal experience, he said.

"When a chiefs' mess is hitting on all cylinders, there is no better command, and when a chiefs' mess is not working well, there is nothing worse."Mullen is telling chiefs at every command visit he makes to assert their role as enlisted leaders and mentors. He's also telling wardrooms to let the chiefs do their jobs.

"Of course it isn't just them. It's the entire command that must work together to accomplish the mission," he said. Undeniably, a commanding officer "still has more impact on a ship than anyone else," he said. But, at the end of the day, he noted, "it is the formation of that whole command around the chief's mess that really makes it all come together - CPOs form the nucleus.

"That's because chiefs are uniquely situated to lead not only from above, but below the ranks, he said. Mullen views that role as critical to the Navy's success. So how do chiefs live up to the new mandates?

Experts working for them
Being a chief is primarily about leadership, Mullen maintains. He especially expects the Navy's newest chiefs, pinned Sept. 16, to heed those words. "Yes, they've been good technicians in the past, and they've had to exhibit leadership potential to be selected for chief," Mullen said. "But in Mike Mullen's view that isn't going to cut it anymore because they've now got a bunch of [technicial experts] working for them."Mullen said chiefs mustn't forget their technical expertise, but they must pass the wrench" to those coming behind them and instead use their experience as a leadership tool.

"I want them to focus on leadership, because if they just put on khakis and continue to do what it is they've always been doing, frankly, they are coming in under their potential."Mullen made it clear that he doesn't think chiefs are failing in their leadership role. He does, however, expect chiefs to step it up a visible notch. His expectations of chief petty officers are high, he said. That message is not going unheard. "Chiefs need to set the example," said retired Command Master Chief (AW/SW/SCW) Ralph Rao, most recently director of the Senior Enlisted Academy.

Mullen's message, Rao said, is loud and clear: "We're chief petty officers, and we are expected to lead."Rao said Mullen wants chiefs to get back to their rightful place of leading and teaching as well as mentoring their subordinates - and that starts with personal attention to detail.It's the small things, Rau said, that make a good leader. Things like instilling discipline and requiring sharp military appearance of one's charges as well as one's self."It's not running around the piers without wearing your cover," said Rao, who became a chief in 1982.

That lead-from-out-front style of leadership doesn't end when chiefs are off duty, said Pacific Fleet Command Master Chief (SS/SW) Rick D. West. "I think it's important to build on the moral ... fibers of our sailors," West said, describing the CNO's new mantra as "a very positive and strong message." To do that, West said, chiefs must be involved in all aspects of their sailor's lives.That is why, he said, chiefs who walk the decks and interact more with their sailors are the most effective leaders.

He calls that "proactive" leadership.West challenges every chief to go to the deck plates - the sailors' level - and listen to what they talk about. Only then can a chief really know how the sailors are doing, West said.Too often, "in this day and age, it's easier for me or anyone to [just] sit behind a computer or desk," he said.

"I think that is wrong. That is flat wrong."Leading from the front not only helps identify problems, it sets the example for the young leaders the chiefs are trying to bring up from the ranks.Force Master Chief (AW/SW) James Abeyta, the top enlisted sailor at Naval Air Forces Pacific at North Island Naval Air Station, Calif., agrees."This is not a nine-to-five job," he said. Chiefs must "invest time in our people."Mullen's message of "listen-learn-lead" also means chiefs must mentor above and below their paygrades.

That includes mentoring not just junior sailors, but also "junior officers that we work with so we can develop future leaders," Abeyta said.Good chiefs also ensure mission statements are passed on to and understood by the crew. Mullen said his job - and style - is to tell sailors "what I know, when I know it. I want sailors to be informed," he said.He expects chiefs to do the same. That means quelling false rumors, passing along good gouge and even telling the occasional sea story in order to ensure a point is made.

"We need to make sure that we don't leave the sailor behind," saod Command Master Chief (SW/AW) James DeLozier, a 22-year sailor who runs the Chief Petty Officer Academy at the 32nd Street Naval Station in San Diego.Mullen's unwritten mandate to chiefs isn't new. But the renewed emphasis on chiefs leadership by the CNO level is. "Chiefs have been running the Navy for a very, very long time," said Command Master Chief (SS) Steve Juskiewicz, who relieved Rao at the Senior Enlisted Academy on Aug. 22. "But it's important we remind them of the importance of leadership."

Changing role
Rao said the role of the chief has changed over time. In the post-Vietnam era, "the leadership then was strong," Rao noted, "but it was just a different culture" than today. At the time, the Navy had a large number of seasoned sailors with combat experience spanning from World War II, Korea and Vietnam.But that changed, starting in the 1980s, as the Navy expanded rapidly.

That was followed by an equally rapid drawdown in the 1990s. Those force structure upheavals put a strain on the enlisted force, Rao said. These events combined to change the role and expectations of the chief. Technical expertise was lauded over leadership. And once again the tide has turned.

The Navy's shrinking force structure requires pushing leadership roles lower in the ranks. "Though I expect the chiefs to set the tone of leadership, that doesn't mean they are our only leaders," Mullen said. "I expect everyone in the Navy to be a leader from the bottom up."That means first class petty officers will be required to step up, too. So will others. The blurring of the lines between officers and enlisted sailors is also in play.

That drama is evident in the Navy's ongoing experiment of making chiefs the division officers on the San Diego-based Decatur, a guided-missile destroyer, Rau said.It's unclear how that radical experiment will ultimately impact chiefs, sailors and officers. And because the Navy is becoming a force of smaller, high-tech ships crewed by fewer, more broadly trained "hybrid" sailors, technical expertise of chiefs can't be tossed overboard. But now more than ever, chiefs will have to balance their role as skilled technicians and leaders.

"As we decrease the numbers of sailors in the Navy," Rao said, "You need to be expected to do more."Family readiness is also a factor. Mullen has made it clear he wants sailors to have lives outside the Navy. Chiefs must help ensure sailors and their loved ones are cared for. "I can remember the days when the chief told me that the wife wasn't included in the seabag," DeLozier said. "The family is extremely significant to what we do today."

As a result, how a chief operates must reflect that change."A young chief is not only professionally involved with his sailors, but he's personally involved, too," he said. "That means running out to greet a new sailor and his family at the airport."Another sign of changing expectations for chiefs is education. It's official that any chief going up for senior chief in 2010 must have an associate's degree to even be seen by the board.

This comes a year after the Navy opened the War College, long only available to officers, to master chiefs. It is a sign of the future that chiefs are expected to know more about the business of war, not just the deck-plate execution of it."It's also important for the chief to understand the mission," DeLozier said. "We need to do a better job at the chief petty officer level of talking about the big picture and making sure every sailor understands the mission."