Before I get too far, I want to thank the folks at USNI for allowing me this venue to express my ideas, my thoughts, and my (hopefully not too reckless, feckless, or foul) opinions. This is august company that I have been brought into and I hope to at least keep the quality average up, rather than bring it down.


One of the things I am repeatedly struck by is the constant revolution (as in “turning around”) of the idea wheel. It’s less of “the more things change, the more they stay the same” and more of the “All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.” Which then brings on a healthy recitation of the Serenity Prayer.

While working on my command philosophy a few years back I reread an article that is a classic of Naval leadership. Without giving the whole thing away, I’ll just open with the fact that the author is a well respected Naval Officer who wrote his missive in 1950. Each time I read this article I am surprised to see how much of what he wrote then still resonates sixty years later.

I’ve encapsulated a few snippets below for your reading enjoyment. At the end I’ll tell you who wrote it, and link to the source. If you are one of those folks who can’t stand to read the murder mystery without skipping to the end, well, it’s there.

A well disciplined organization is one whose members work with enthusiasm, willingness, and zest as individuals and as a group to fulfill the mission of the organization with expectation of success.

Good definition and timeless start. He follows, in the classic manner of writing an essay, with the four items this esteemed Naval Officer intends to discuss. (My emphasis in bold)

In every case of breakdown of discipline the following four major factors have been present: (1) Lack of information–subordinates were not kept informed of problems or of reasons why the organization was required to take the action it did take. (2) Lack of interest–seniors had little interest in or knowledge of the problems of their juniors or if they did the juniors were left unaware that they did; (3) Slackness in command; (4) Instability. Senseless transfers of personnel, changes in operating schedules or in daily routine. The organization as a whole and as individuals felt insecure and uncertain of the future.

He further addresses why exit surveys for departing Sailors are important:

These men leaving the Navy have complained that their officers did not make adequate use of their skills and training. Officers were not aware of the men’s capabilities and potentialities, what contributions they could make to the Navy or to their ship. They felt that the officers made no effort to identify their men with their ship or with the Navy.

And an early comment on perception = reality:

That is an indictment whether the men were right or not. That’s the way they felt — and that’s wrong.

I was surprised to read the next section. Some things are eternal. Important to remember that he’s talking about how the Greatest Generation views the Silent Generation and early Boomers…

There is much comment that the younger officers and the petty officers are inexperienced and lack ability in their divisional duties. This is true. But they will get that experience only under the direction of their seniors, and we are back at the starting point again–that the seniors don’t have the time to exercise proper supervision. Seniors could well devote more effort to delineating to juniors, especially the “J.O.’s,” exactly what is required of them. Too often these enthusiastic young men are simply told to comply with the mass of directives from the multiple “higher authorities” without adequate guidance or counsel. The lads end up confused, frustrated, overworked, and disheartened. From that position it is a gentle down-hill slide to lack of pride and loss of ambition. The situation is gradually improving, but it will not improve at a high enough rate until more emphasis is placed on the handling of men and less on the volume of paper scanned.

Most of the present mass of directives, orders, instructions, etc., from the many offices and bureaus in the Navy Department, fleet, type, and unit commanders, and other sources, ultimately fall upon this one individual (the division officer) for execution. If he is conscientiously carrying out each and every such order and directive, standing his watches, supervising his maintenance and upkeep work, making the required inspections, and otherwise carrying out his prescribed duties and responsibilities, he finds that the 24-hour day is just not long enough. The result is that some of his duties have to be performed hurriedly or not at all if he is to cover the essentials. The average division officer, under these conditions, directs most of his attention and efforts to those tasks whose results are most immediately apparent to his seniors, or, in other words, to those tasks which, if omitted or neglected, would cause immediate repercussions. In this process the supervision, guidance, knowledge, and understanding of the men of his division are often neglected.

So, Division Officers…you really are the knife and fork of the community. You make things work, you translate the directives and ensure that tasking is carried out. And have for over half a century. Quite a tradition to have to live up to, isn’t it? Well, as a good Naval officer would, this one provides some advice and direction.

The solution to this problem lies in a more proper understanding of the relative importance of the division officer’s various duties, both by his seniors in his own command and by himself. It requires proper appreciation on the part of the many officers responsible for issuance of orders, directives, instructions, etc., regarding how and by whom they ultimately will be carried out, with respect to their effect on the over-all workload of the individuals and units affected. This would confirm the necessity for a reduction in “paper work” and nonessential directives.

60 years ago…

I’ve reproduced this entire section. It stands on it’s own, without editorial comment.

Slackness in Command. All major catastrophies in the loss of discipline in all organizations have been preceded by a general slackness in the command. The old saying that a taut ship is a happy ship is still true. The reason is that on a taut ship the officers and the men know where they stand and what is expected of them. There can be complete dependence on one’s associates, for lack of reliability will be brought up with a round turn. On such ships, all men do a day’s work, not just the conscientious ones. There are no soft billets in a taut outfit. The officers and the men are on the job and require others to be on the job. Chiselers and transgressors are promptly punished while their offenses are still minor.

Sure and everybody knows that’s true too, but the majority of the separates in the same survey by BuPers stated that the little things, the seemingly minor details that go to make a happy ship or an efficient one were apparently a haphazard matter. There was a lot of “made work.” The men complained that ships were slack; they felt that the Navy was a lazy man’s way of living and working. They felt that their work had little significance, and they got no satisfaction of accomplishment. Some of this is due to lack of information, to lack of explanation, but a great deal of it must be due to general slackness also.

There are a number of contributory causes for slackness in command–inexperience or lack of interest on the part of officers, the indifference of oldtimers, both officer and enlisted, who are merely passing the time until retirement, laziness on the part of young men who want to ride and produce as little as possible in the process. All can be corrected by tautening up the units.

Tautness requires absolute fairness above all else. Commanders must distinguish between good and bad men and take action accordingly. This means that men who fail must be punished promptly at mast and that each man’s record must reflect his conduct and ability. It means that commanding officers must tackle the onerous problem of the relative fitness of officers, so that officer’s fitness reports reflect faithfully the worth of the officer. There must be a clear differentiation between the excellent and the poor, or again the conscientious man is penalized and the poor man is favored.

Slackness in command always requires eventual drastic action.

And, finally…the capstone. Some things, I guess, will be with us as long as we are going to sea in ships.

Frequent sudden changes in the operating schedules of ships after the war in the United States Navy was also one of the major sources of discontent. Even though the necessity of such changes was explained, the operating personnel could not understand why adequate planning and foresight could not have made most of the changes unnecessary.

You can read the entire piece that Arleigh Burke wrote at the Navy Library.

Posted by M. Ittleschmerz in History, Navy

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Everything changes but the human condition.

  • Susan

    technical comment, the light green text is very difficult to read

  • Susan – I agree! I spent more time trying to change the block quotes color from that gray to ANYTHING else and could only get one or two paragraphs to change. So I went back to the original. My apologies and I’ll be looking for a different way to show quotes in the future.

  • Byron

    Mittle, I really like your nick 😉 I looked up your bio here, and googled the name and then I had to clean the monitor 😉

  • Flashman

    I can only second Grandpa Bluewater.

    Many senior officers, and officers generally, would proffer from reflecting on the words of Admiral Arleigh Burke. Things have not changed all that much — people have not changed all that much.


    Never read that before, thanks! Interesting how things don’t change much, particularly in the leadership realm. As I read through it, I reflected back upon my past and/or experiences coming up in the Navy. Just the words you quoted above could have a saved a few careers this year…

    I often like to take the challenge of a so-called “broken, poor or bad” command, dept or division, because tautness is all I ever needed to fix the issue. Of course, some extra pressure is needed on some individuals, but the majority come around with some direction and attention.

    I particularly liked the section referring to time-managment, of the divo. This holds true for almost anyone now-a-days. We have invented so many other things to do, that a lot of folks still follow the “less pain” method of doing work, thus neglecting what is really important, or worse their people. I’ve probably fallen victim of it many times myself. You need the foresight to see it, step back and recalibrate. Then do the same for those around you, or who work above and below you.

    Loved it, thanks again. I’ll be sure to read the remained of your link.


  • Mike M.

    I’m not sure if I’d describe it as “less pain”. More like “fending off the alligator nearest the boat regardless of size.”