Our sailors deserve good leaders

by Vern Evans

Once again, a Navy leader is in the headlines for toxic behavior, including screaming at, belittling and hitting members of the crew.

While most commanding officers do their best with the sacred charge they have been given, this latest case of substantiated leader misconduct is not unique.

Too often, Big Navy allows bullies to rise to positions of authority, to a degree unparalleled in the civilian workplace, even as the sea service works to make itself a more respectful and welcoming place for the 21st-century sailor.

I know the power of command firsthand. As a former commanding officer of a Navy cruiser, I have been in that chair. There is almost no one who has more absolute power than the CO of a ship at sea, especially in major command at the O-6 level.

And while I’ve sat in that captain’s chair, I have also witnessed the wrath of toxic leadership earlier in my career. As a young division officer, I still recall one of my petty officers carrying a notebook entitled “things the Department Head has thrown at people.” That was in the 1980s, when such behavior was relatively common, but it has stubbornly persisted in our leadership ranks through the years.

In 2010, a cruiser commander made the cover of Time magazine after being convicted of “cruelty and maltreatment” of her crew. In her book “Long Way Out,” Nicole Waybright, a former division officer who served under that CO during a previous tour, describes how this abusive relationship changed her life, landing her to a dark place that she took 20 years to recover from.

She wasn’t alone in the harm she endured. One of the characters in her book, a department head who had borne the brunt of maltreatment, actually banged his knee into his stateroom sink over 100 times, intentionally injuring himself in order to get off of the ship.

Years later I spoke with that officer. His key point was that everyone knew about the toxicity of this officer.

“The other department heads, the command master chief, the commanding officer, the chaplain all knew, even the commodore at the time – and they did nothing,” the officer recalled.

Time and again, these failures of leadership lead back to a singular question: Why was this allowed to happen?

For one thing, such ships are often known for high performance. Fear can drive people to perform to make their boss happy and avoid their wrath. For another, the Navy has not been kind to whistleblowers in the past who raise alarms to their immediate superior.

There are second-order effects to such toxic leadership beyond how it makes a crew feel. In that culture, subordinates hesitate to bring such leaders bad news. They second-guess delivering any pushback to the CO when they think their leader is making an unsafe decision that could put the ship and crew at risk. Most troublingly, there are undoubtedly some subordinates who go on to emulate that behavior and perpetuate the problem.

So what can be done?

Based on my experience and the listening I’ve done with folks who have endured such horrendous leadership, the following policies would help:

– Provide a formal definition of what “toxic leadership” means, so that everyone is on the same page and investigators have a formal definition when delving into such allegations.

– Educate the community and raise awareness using past documented examples. Define the traits of a toxic leader and describe their impact on others, and add case studies to Navy leadership schools.

– Implement strategies to assess a potentially toxic situation, and include input from many levels, including peers and immediate subordinates, while ensuring command climate surveys are fully analyzed and acted upon by leadership.

– Determine a direction for the resolution of an active toxic leadership situation, which might include some type of intervention, such as a mentor or coaching program.

– Arrive at a formal resolution process or legal disposition that addresses the needs of all the parties involved, including mental health counseling for the crew.

– There should be a deep analysis of the selection process to command and major command for any officer relieved for toxic leadership in the past 10 years. The Navy would have no shortage of cases to study. This assessment should include both those involved in the process and leadership experts from outside the Navy, and perhaps even the military. The results should be made public.

The argument against such a drastic approach is often that “this is the exception and most captains complete their tour successfully.” While this is true, command at sea is truly a no-fail proposition. And the fact that the same leadership failures keep recurring under the noses of Navy leaders should be a huge red flare that something is amiss.

In all fairness, there seems to be motion in this area. The new Culture of Excellence (COE 2.0) may help address toxic behavior in its infancy, and there are efforts underway to expand MyNavyCoaching.

Meanwhile a pilot program involving a mentor-led assessment of leadership traits, the Navy Leadership Assessment Program (NLAP), will provide feedback to individual leaders at various stages of their career on their perceived leadership style and where they could improve.

A potential benefit of these program could be to identify and either provide corrective measures to – or if necessary redirect out of the pipeline – individuals who may have exhibited such toxic behavior in the past. That said, these efforts are all nascent and while they may be part of a long-term solution, the problem and potential short-term solutions are as urgent as they are necessary.

Our sailors deserve leaders who will lead with Honor, Courage, Commitment, and Respect. We can and must do better by them.

Dr. Cordle is a retired Navy Captain with 30 years of service. He was the awarded the Bronze Star and the 2001 VADM Bulkeley Award for Peer Leadership for his tour in command of USS Oscar Austin (DDG 79), the 2009 BUMED Epictetus Award for Innovative Leadership, and the 2010 Navy League John Paul Jones Award for inspirational leadership for his tour in command of USS San Jacinto (CG 56).

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