The mark of a great shiphandler is never getting into situations that require great shiphandling. Admiral Ernest King, USN by Captain John Konrad (gCaptain) could a simple bit of advice from a Naval hero prevent collisions at sea among both military and civilian ships?

In our attempt to understand the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCainincidents gCaptain has reached out to maritime pilots with experience navigating US Navy ships because they speak our language, have the highest levels of professional experience and have finely honed observational skills. Pilots also have lots of experience watching crews perform during the most stressful high traffic situations. They are true experts and masters of simple, direct communication.

In the wake of the USS John S. McCain incident. “Every Captain in the whole military industrial complex received multiple emails demanding better ship handling from every officer.” said one pilot.” The USNS xxx’s Master said he got over 20 of them… forwarded and cc’d around the globe, covering everyone’s butt.” Another pilot said “I’ve seen these emails. Some are broad but many contain detailed lists of actions that should be taken by crews. None contain anything that will prevent the next collision at sea.”

Most mariners will shake their heads in disgust at this C.Y.A. mentality but few will flag them as dangerous. Which they most certainly are.

In the short term, C.Y.A. messages send the clear message that mistakes will not be tolerated. The authors of these emails often believe they are doing good by keeping the men on their toes and focused on the problems at hand. They are partly correct, C.Y.A. messages do narrow a crew’s focus.  These signals focus the mind on problems – not solutions – they also induce stress and fear and repress original thought. A watch stander needs to approach heavy traffic with plenty of rest, a clear mind and the ability to engage the problems ahead intuitively… not worried about his career and the possibility of being hit by another ship.

“When does a leader need to back off and when does a leader need to get into fine-granularity leadership?” asks CDR Salamander in an article for the US Naval Institute. “The more senior a leader gets the more he must ask himself what is a constructive level of detail? This time around this habit gained steam with ‘Intrusive Leadership’ and the belief in that if we have a long enough shafted screwdriver with a finely engineered head, then by-golly we can get things right!”

Intrusive leadership becomes especially dangerous when dictated by leaders who lack training and experience at the helm of a ship. The Secretary of the Navy is a USMC Aviator. Chief Of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson, is a submarine commander. Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran, is an aviator. Adm. Scott Swift, the commander of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet and the man selected to fix the problems, is an aviator.

In the wake of the USS Fitzgerald incident the small handful of senior U.S. Navy leaders with shipboard experience, like  Adm. Michelle Howard, were not dispatched to Japan – where her indomitable leadership might have found solutions – but to ribbon cutting ceremonies in Europe.

What other negative consequences develop when former Naval Aviators get too far into the weeds of ship-born problems? Well, as CDR Salamander points out – when in doubt, benchmark the best. And that person is a man with significant watch standing experience aboard ships, Admiral Ernest J. King, USN, Commander in Chief of Naval forces in WWII.

Here are Admiral King’s orders on the eve of our greatest naval battles:

CINCLANT SERIAL (053) OF JANUARY 21, 1941 Subject: Exercise of Command — Excess of Detail in Orders and Instructions.

  1. I have been concerned for many years over the increasing tendency — now grown almost to “standard practice” — of flag officers and other group commanders to issue orders and instructions in which their subordinates are told “how” as well as “what” to do to such an extent and in such detail that the “Custom of the service” has virtually become the antithesis of that essential element of command — “initiative of the subordinate.”
  2. We are preparing for — and are now close to — those active operations (commonly called war) which require the exercise and the utilization of the full powers and capabilities of every officer in command status. There will be neither time nor opportunity to do more than prescribe the several tasks of the several subordinates (to say “what”, perhaps “when” and “where”, and usually, for their intelligent cooperation, “why”), leaving to them — expecting and requiring of them — the capacity to perform the assigned tasks (to do the “how”).
  3. If subordinates are deprived — as they now are — of that training and experience which will enable them to act “on their own” — if they do not know, by constant practice, how to exercise “initiative of the subordinate” — if they are reluctant (afraid) to act because they are accustomed to detailed orders and instructions — if they are not habituated to think, to judge, to decide and to act for themselves in their several echelons of command — we shall be in sorry case when the time of “active operations” arrives.
  4. The reasons for the current state of affairs — how did we get this way? — are many but among them are four which need mention: first, the “anxiety” of seniors that everything in their commands shall be conducted so correctly and go so smoothly, that none may comment unfavorably; second, those energetic activities of staffs which lead to infringement of (not to say interference with) the functions for which the lower echelons exist; third, the consequent “anxiety” of subordinates lest their exercise of initiative, even in their legitimate spheres, should result in their doing something which may prejudice their selection for promotion; fourth, the habit on the one hand and the expectation on the other of “nursing” and “being nursed” which lead respectively to the violation of command principles known as “orders to obey orders” and to that admission of incapacity or confusion evidenced by “request instructions.”
  5. 5. Let us consider certain facts: first, submarines operating submerged are constantly confronted with situations requiring the correct exercise of judgment, decision and action; second, planes, whether operating singly or in company, are even more often called upon to act correctly; third, surface ships entering or leaving port, making a landfall, steaming in thick weather, etc., can and do meet such situations while “acting singly” and, as well, the problems involved in maneuvering in formations and dispositions. Yet these same people — proven competent to do these things without benefit of “advice” from higher up — are, when grown in years and experience to be echelon commanders, all too often are not made full use of in conducting the affairs (administrative and operative) of the several echelons — echelons which exist for the purpose of facilitating command.
  6. It is essential to extend the knowledge and the practice of “initiative of the subordinate” in principle and in application until they are universal in the exercise of command throughout all the echelons of command. Henceforth, we must all see to it that full use is made of the echelons of command — whether administrative (type) or operative (task) — by habitually framing orders and instructions to echelon commanders so as to tell them ‘what to do’ but not ‘how to do it’ unless the particular circumstances demand.
  7. The corollaries of paragraph 6 are:
    (a) adopt the premise that the echelon commanders are competent in their several command echelons unless and until they themselves prove otherwise;

(b) teach them that they are not only expected to be competent for their several command echelons but that it is required of them that they be competent;

(c) train them — by guidance and supervision — to exercise foresight, to think, to judge, to decide and to act for themselves;

(d) stop ‘nursing’ them;

(e) finally, train ourselves to be satisfied with ‘acceptable solutions’ even though they are not “staff solutions or other particular solutions that we ourselves prefer.”

The message is clear. If the US Navy wants to repair the damage it has done by closing it Surface Warfare School, scaling back ship simulator training, pushing crews to do more with less, and allowing Aviators and Administrators to manipulate policy for vessel operations… then it needs to put someone with ship driving experience in charge, someone with the rank and authority to make sweeping change. That person needs a mandate to listen to, empower and advocate for the men standing by the helm of our Navy AND Merchant ships without bureaucratic and budgetary entanglements. That person is Admiral Davidson and we hope he has the support of his peers.

And those shore side leaders of commercial ships might also benefit from reading Admiral King’s words before they send the next email out to their fleet or bolt another chapter atop their company’s SMS policy.


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