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Navy's bad leaders are hurting morale

Sep. 17, 2012 - 08:26AM   |   Last Updated: Sep. 17, 2012 - 08:26AM  |  
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You've been there before: standing motionless as your boss screams at you, his spit sprinkling your face as peers watch in terror.

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You've been there before: standing motionless as your boss screams at you, his spit sprinkling your face as peers watch in terror.

For most sailors, this memory dates to boot camp, where flurries of yelling, cursing and berating are a time-honored treatment to transform teenagers into sailors. But many sailors say this kind of behavior happens all too often in the fleet.

One officer said a former commanding officer on an attack submarine routinely swore at and demeaned the navigator before his sailors and the wardroom, yelling things like "What the f---, Nav?" for minor errors. The lieutenant, who asked to remain anonymous, said the CO's harsh behavior convinced him to leave the Navy: "I refuse to put myself in the position where I must serve under such a disagreeable person," he said.

Recent, high-profile cases have cast the problem of toxic leaders back into the limelight: A ship's executive officer explodes on his officers and chiefs. A destroyer's commanding officer bullies his. A one-star select runs his shipyard by F-bomb.

Severe leadership is a common thread in Navy reliefs. At least four of the 15 CO firings this year stem from this or what officials term "poor command climate," a catchall for problematic leadership that is typically on the hostile side.

And it remains an undercurrent in the fleet. Three out of every 10 sailors feel their command leaders have a negative effect on morale, according to the Navy's latest personnel survey. And as post-incident reports show, toxic command climate is a frequent culprit in the run-up to a mishap.

Sailors and experts say the Navy is not doing enough to dislodge a cultural practice that sows disruption and frustration, impedes retaining the best, and is out of step in a Navy where sailors are more educated and professional than ever before. The Navy could take cues from the Army, which now asks soldiers in an annual survey if they serve under a "toxic leader" and has instituted reviews across the service that let soldiers rate their officers.

"If you're getting abused day in, day out, … you're going to have a sicker crew, which means turnover is going to be worse, which means re-enlistments are going to be worse," said Dr. Donnie Horner, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who's now a management professor at Jacksonville University in Florida. "Who stays in that environment?"

It will require full-scale cultural change to stamp out abusive behavior and personal misconduct by COs, according to Navy Capt. Mark Light, a military professor who recently studied a decade of misconduct by COs and declared it an integrity crisis.

"Alarms should be sounding at the highest levels of Navy leadership," said Light, a naval aviator, in an article recently published in the Naval War College Review.

The Navy says toxic leadership isn't tolerated, arguing that it's monitored via periodic surveys and toxic leaders are fired or reprimanded. Navy officials point out that about 98 percent of commanding officers finish their tours successfully and that the limited number of harsh leaders doesn't require an institutional change. The Navy tightened the standards in June, adding a command exam and requiring officers from all branches to be screened before taking over as a CO.

"We're hardwired in the United States Navy to produce good leaders. It doesn't always happen that way," said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Navy's top spokesman. "For every case of a commanding officer being relieved, there's probably 100 different reasons that individual went off track. But I can assure you that one of the reasons is not because there's some kind of systemic failure to address leadership in the Navy."

The Navy's top officer says that severe treatments are generally inappropriate. "I can't imagine the screaming or cursing, but there's different ways to get someone's attention, and a raised voice may be that. It works for some people," Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert said in a short interview. "But there's a line, and it's difficult to write down where it is.

"It's like a lot of things: You know when you're there."

The Command Leadership School in Newport, R.I., which trains soon-to-be COs, XOs and command master chiefs, does not teach harsh leadership methods, officials said. They aren't able to spell out when a severe tactic, such as screaming, crosses the line.

"Every seminar we conduct here is an opportunity for us to work with our prospective command leaders and for them to develop their leadership knowledge or skills," said Capt. Michael Slotsky, director of CLS, in an interview. "We enable students to share ideas about building environments that will reinforce the standards of authority, responsibility and accountability. Our legacy and tradition in the Navy is — hundreds of years old — of strong, positive leaders."

‘Rocks and Shoals'

Harsh treatment has long been another hallmark of Navy life. The young republic's Navy earned a reputation for severity, largely because of whipping.

"The captain was God and ran his ship however he chose, usually with fairly liberal uses of corporal punishment," said Jim Valle, a former Delaware State University professor and expert on 19th-century naval discipline. This authority stemmed from the Articles for the Government of the Navy, a law that came to be known as "Rocks and Shoals."

When Congress abolished the lash in 1850, ship captains faced a dilemma: How were they to rein in their crews?

"They tried to devise punishments that would be similar to flogging or have the same effect as flogging but not be flogging," said Valle. Over time, these evolved from physical punishments to a CO taking away liberty privileges, docking pay or busting rank.

Severity was one of the tactics that officers relied on in this era. "You had to confront your men with an iron face, as it were," Valle said. "If they thought you were just an unyielding … officer, presumably, you had less trouble."

Abrasive leaders continue to be a problem today across a stubbornly high swath of the Navy. Roughly 30 percent of sailors said their command leaders had a negative impact on their command's morale, according to the latest Navy-wide Personnel Survey, or NPS, conducted five years ago and released in 2011. The next survey is scheduled for 2013.

Providing a shade brighter outlook is the Navy's 2011-2012 Quality of Life Survey, which cites only 27.8 percent of sailors saying command leadership had a negative impact. This survey report, still in draft form, was provided by Navy public affairs and may not directly compare with the personnel survey. Results of past quality-of-life surveys were not immediately available.

Unlike the Army leadership survey, the NPS does not ask service members whether they served under a toxic leader or have them specify what behaviors they view as toxic.

The NPS focuses on morale. About 17 percent of enlisted respondents said their immediate boss doesn't deal well with subordinates. That sentiment is echoed in responses to a question about tone, which the survey defined as a measure of how sailors feel about their job, career, quality of life and the overall direction their command is headed on a scale from high to low. Fully 35 percent reported their command's tone was "low," outstripping both the "medium" and "high" categories.

Command enforcers

Strains of the Rocks and Shoals mindset can still be found in the Navy's DNA. Nowhere is this more evident than the Navy's second-in-commands, who've earned reputations through the ages as command enforcers.

One recent case of this occurred on the cruiser Bunker Hill. Cmdr. Michael Hill, a former No. 2 on the cruiser, embraced his role there as the command's bad cop. The Naval Academy grad's temper flared early and often during his XO tour from 2008 to 2010, according to the Navy's investigation of his conduct, which was completed in March. Navy Times obtained a redacted version of this 114-page Naval Inspector General report, through the Freedom of Information Act.

Hill, who was not fired, raged at his subordinates habitually, even during complex ship evolutions. While the ship was exiting San Diego harbor in early 2009, Hill told a junior officer of the deck, then running a checklist, to keep it down so other reports could be heard.

A few minutes later, the officer inadvertently spoke too loud for Hill again. The XO stormed over to him, grabbed him by the collar and said, "If you don't lower your voice, I'll f------ kill you," this officer later recalled to the IG.

Asked about this abusive behavior by the IG, Hill said that, in early 2009, the ship had been coming out of a yearlong overhaul and that he used "forceful direction" to snap his crew back into a sea-duty mindset.

Hill, who retired in February, according to the LinkedIn networking website, did not respond to phone messages seeking comment.

In assessing Hill's behavior, the IG sought to determine whether his screaming crossed the line to abuse: "Persons in authority are forbidden to injure their subordinates by tyrannical or capricious conduct, or by abusive language," states Article 1023 in Chapter 10 of Navy Regulations.

Screaming in some emergency situations may be warranted, said the IG, which labeled this "acceptable yelling." This category of yelling — "necessary to complete a mission or avert a harm," the IG said — includes emergencies, like screaming "Right full rudder!" at the helmsman or shouting at a seaman to avoid stepping in the bight of a line.

Outside of these sorts of situations, screaming is less acceptable, the IG continued.

If an "ordinary reasonable person" who doesn't know the officer's manner thinks he might hurt someone, then the officer has an anger management problem, the IG said. It concluded Hill had used "unjust severity."

Hill's boss, perhaps not coincidentally, also used questionable language on the cruiser.

Capt. Dom DeScisciolo, the ship's CO, had a larger-then-life personality given to extremes. DeScisciolo swore profusely when upset, the same IG report found.

DeScisciolo called his officers "d--- f---," "d--- weed," and "f------ dumb ass," according to the report. When his temper flared, he screamed and threatened his officers, saying things like: "I can have you off the ship tomorrow!" When one of them turned on the wrong navigation lights on the ship — which other mariners rely on at night to determine the ship's type and heading — DeScisciolo pointed at this officer and said, "You extinguish those lights, or I'll extinguish you!"

The IG determined DeScisciolo had sworn at his officers but noted that context is important. Most of this foul language happened during stressful operations off Haiti in 2010, while Bunker Hill was one of the ships rendering aid to the earthquake-torn island. His cursing stemmed from incidents where he saw a performance problem. Still, DeScisciolo crossed the line, the IG concluded.

DeScisciolo, now assigned to the Naval Mine and Anti-Submarine Warfare Command in San Diego, did not respond to emails seeking comment.

‘Bullies breed bullies'

Only the best officers get a shot at the Navy's most prestigious job: command. Pressures are intense on officers, particularly commanders and captains. Their records must be flawless even to be selected.

That doesn't stop once they attain command. With more and more benchmarks to scrutinize their leadership, pressures continue to mount on COs, one former Navy clinical psychologist said.

"I've seen plenty of times that really competent, good leaders succumb to the pressures and they start to develop an assortment of physical conditions, as well as some mental health conditions," said retired Cmdr. Mark Russell, who left the Navy in 2009 and is now a psychology professor at Antioch University.

Russell said he counseled a number of officers at the breaking point. But he said many, many more senior officers were afraid to come in at all. They feared the stigma of seeing a mental health professional. Russell said the Navy needs to do more to help them.

"They haven't gotten the resources to help them cope when they are feeling under the pressure," Russell said. "You could almost see a little support group full of COs in a room."

This stress and the lack of avenues to relieve creates a culture where severe leadership is respected, even emulated.

The problem is ingrained in the Navy's culture, said Horner, the management professor at Jacksonville University, who explained that the unusual aspects of any culture are most apparent to a new person. The visitor eventually adjusts to it.

In any culture, the new person blends in to survive, said Horner, a West Point grad. In the case of a toxic climate, where a leader demeans a subordinate to reinforce his status, Horner continued, the new arrival accepts the harsh treatment as part of the culture.

The next phase is adoption. The sailor notices that those who get the "attaboys" and best evaluations are generally those who act like their leaders, Horner said. "And so what happens is ... you actually start taking on, assuming the characteristics of these bullying leaders," said Horner, who researched this trend in 2009, when he was a leadership professor at the Naval Academy.

He said one former surface warfare officer student of his told him at the time: "‘Doc, you do this as a matter of survival. And once you've been there a while, you actually get rewarded for becoming the person who at first you never wanted to be.'

"So there is replication here," Horner continued. "These bullies breed bullies."

There's only one way to break this suck-it-up culture, Horner advised: Change from the top.

"If the Navy is serious about changing these behaviors as it relates to bullying and so forth, it will require a fundamental cultural change with an institutional variety," Horner said. "And that has to start with the CNO."

Not all experts agree that the Navy needs to do more. Retired Marine Col. Art Athens, director of the Naval Academy's Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership, pointed to the fact that the CNO has already stressed the importance of character and integrity in speeches and articles and said the service was taking effective action.

"I think the Navy is very serious about tackling these issues because they're holding people accountable," noted Athens, who retired in 2008 after 30 years of service.

The Army, meanwhile, has taken more aggressive steps.

The service now asks soldiers about toxic leaders in an annual survey. And officers have to complete 360-degree reviews, where seniors, peers and subordinates rank an officer's conduct and performance. These reviews are not included in the officer's official record, but those who opt out of it will have that noted on their officer evaluation record, the Army equivalent of a fitness report.

These reviews are intended to show officers it's important to understand how they are viewed by their subordinates. While not part of their official record, the evaluations help officers assess and improve upon their leadership skills. Army leaders, including the Army's top general, have emphasized that these reviews will build better leaders and urged the officer corps to embrace them.

That's similar to the full-scale change advocated by Light, the Navy faculty member at the Army War College, who says the Navy needs to do more than fire bad COs: It needs to focus on developing ethical COs, a message that must be broadcast by the Navy's senior leaders.

"Unfortunately, beyond public firings, there has been no fundamental effort on the part of senior leadership to elevate the issue to a level that will produce meaningful change," Light wrote in the Naval War College Review, Summer 2012 issue. The article, he added, "is an effort to try to spark that sense of urgency."

Short of something like this, the Navy will continue to bleed talented people who refuse to become tough guys and screamers, said Horner, who warned that this cycle could harm the Navy's retention and enlistments over time. It could also lead to mishaps.

On the attack submarine Hampton, for example, a CO who set impossible standards, berated officers and distrusted sailors laid the conditions for the boat's 2007 cheating and gundecking scandal, a Navy investigation found. In the aftermath, retention collapsed among enlisted and officers, with nearly all of the sub's junior officers getting out, one former crew member recalled.

"I wish that the senior leaders of the Navy would speak to some of the junior officers that have to serve under toxic leaders," said Lt. Ryan Haag, a former Hampton officer who transferred to information warfare. "It's not just a numbers game for officer retention. There is a definite price that the Navy pays."

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