Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens speaks with the chief's mess Oct. 17 at Naval Station Rota, Spain. In new guidance to chiefs, Stevens said they must "own" ensuring the deck plates maintain good order and discipline. (MC2 Thomas Rosprim / Navy)
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He's only been on the job for a month, but Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens already has a strong message to chief petty officers:
You've got to focus harder on maintaining good order and discipline on the deck plates.
"I believe with all my heart that many of the challenges we face such as sexual assault, domestic violence and drug/alcohol abuse, are symptoms of a larger disease," Stevens wrote in a Nov. 5 letter to all chiefs. "Most often, that larger disease is either the fundamental breakdown or conspicuous absence of good order and discipline."
Maintaining discipline and high standards at the command level, he said, is the primary reason for having a chief's mess. And poor discipline can sink a command faster than a torpedo.
"I'm not saying the Navy or our chief's mess is broken," Stevens stressed. "But I believe that we should take the opportunity to kick it up a notch."
Stevens' letter was intended as an action item for all chiefs, who he said "own" the job of keeping good order and discipline. But he said it can't succeed unless everyone from the deck plates to the wardroom is onboard with the efforts.
With good order and discipline, he said, comes a positive command climate. That in turn, translates to better readiness, war-fighting ability and mission accomplishment.
While good order and discipline was a primary focus in Stevens' message, he dubbed his overall theme "Zeroing in on Excellence." He also highlighted ways to develop better leaders and asked chiefs to focus on issues they can control.
Budgets, deployment lengths and other Big Navy responsibilities should not weigh too heavily. Rather, chiefs should focus and prioritize on what needs to be done at the deck-plate level.
So how do chiefs achieve good order? Based on hundreds of responses after polling messes across the fleet, Stevens came up with four broad ways:
• Leadership through personal example.
• Accountability commensurate with responsibility.
• Clear, unambiguous and personal communication throughout the chain of command.
• Excellence in things we have, rather than continuously inventing new solutions.
For execution of these principles, Stevens is leaving a lot up to individual commands.
"If they're looking for me to tell them how to do each individual thing here, then we're not going to get to where we need to go," Stevens told Navy Times. "Each and every command and community has different needs and problems, and their approach to tackling this will naturally be different. This is a blueprint showing them what we must do, but it's up to them to decide how to build it for themselves."
A closer look at his call to action:
Defining ‘good order'
The phrase "good order and discipline" is thrown around a lot in the Navy, but Stevens said when he really looked at it, he couldn't find a proper definition of what it meant.
So he came up with his own definition.
"I've decided that good order and discipline is establishing, maintaining and enforcing the professional standards that set the conditions for individual and unit success," he said. "Anything that interferes with and distracts from those conditions is then contrary to good order and discipline."
Having a good command climate is directly related.
"The commanding officer sets the tone but it's really up to the chief's mess to make sure that the command culture is largely positive," Stevens said.
If something is wrong at the command, MCPON wants the chiefs to identify the problem and fix it.
"There is no group of individuals within the Navy better positioned to recognize the climate within an organization — both up and down the chain of command — than chief petty officers," Stevens said. "I have yet to sit down with a group of chiefs in a CPO mess and have a 30-minute conversation and not hear from them very accurately what the culture and climate of their organization is and what problems they are facing."
• Leadership by personal example. Sailors often emulate their leaders, Stevens said.
"Most of us who have been in the Navy for a while can look back and see the bits and pieces of those who mentored us along the way in ourselves," he said.
"So leadership by example is where we have to focus first, and I believe we do that through consistent and routine interaction in the personal and professional lives of our sailors."
Stevens dismisses sailor complaints that chiefs are too involved in their sailors' lives and said "that shows our chiefs are taking this seriously."
Chiefs need to also look inward at their own lives and personal actions and behaviors, he said.
"We all make mistakes and must correct ourselves," he said. "But keep in mind that if you expect something of your sailors, they'll also expect that, and more, of you."
• Accountability commensurate with responsibility. Holding subordinates accountable is important, Stevens said, "because if we don't have consistent accountability for all, it fosters an environment that is contrary to good order and discipline."
But the higher you go in rank, the higher the accountability, he added. Chief petty officers know from the time they put on their anchors that they are being held to a higher standard and rightly so, Stevens said.
But again he gives some wiggle room, acknowledging that no one is perfect 100 percent of the time.
"It's one thing to make an honest mistake and that's completely different from committing a deliberate egregious act," he said. "And each should be dealt with commensurate with what has been done."
• Clear, unambiguous and personal communication throughout the chain of command. Too often, clear messages don't filter down through the ranks, Stevens said.
"Whenever possible, we should communicate with our sailors face to face," he said. "Because that kind of direct contact is one of the most important elements of developing trust."
It also cuts down on confusion.
"Don't default to sending emails," he said. "I'm not against technology, and email is a great tool to get a lot of information to a lot of people quickly, but it doesn't replace talking face to face."
• Excellence in the things we have rather than continuously inventing new solutions. The Navy too often tries to invent new ways to fight existing problems, Stevens said.
Many times, simply following existing procedures will solve most problems, if it's done correctly and sailors see it through. A complaint from many sailors is that the Navy piles on too much mandatory training or too many safety messages on alcohol, sex assault, suicide and other issues.
While these are important issues that need addressing, Stevens is stressing a smarter way of combating them.
"We have enough to do right now without creating more work for ourselves by reinventing the wheel," he said.
Building better leaders
While Stevens' straight talk on good order and discipline may raise the most eyebrows, it's by no means the only factor in his call for "zeroing in on excellence."
Forging more effective leaders is a major priority.
"No organization will ever rise above the capabilities of its leaders," Stevens said.
Stevens believes the Navy has excellent leadership development schools available — but doesn't think the fleet is taking full advantage. In his letter, he raises the issue of seats going unfilled at the Senior Enlisted Academy, for example.
Over the past few years, only about 60 percent of the seats in any given class have been filled.
"We as chiefs and command master chiefs, particularly — and I include myself in this discussion — have taken our eye off the ball when it comes to encouraging our chiefs, senior chief and master chief petty officers to attend this course of instruction."
The course is mainly focused at the E-8 and E-9 levels, but Stevens said 10 percent of any class is available for E-7s, as well.
"My goal is to fill every single seat we have in every single class," he said.
Stevens plans to re-energize the program by focusing on attracting the best course facilitators and has promised to be personally involved with each class.
"I am personally committed to do my very best to get up there and spend time with each class," he said. "That's a big commitment for me to go on the record for, but I am all in."
He's also called for a greater focus on so-called "people programs," which range from indoctrination of new sailors to career development and family care programs.
"These basics are all things that can collectively help to set the proper tone at a command," Stevens said.
What he likes most is the fact the class is required to be taught face to face with sailors, something he views as the most effective way to teach.
Some of the other courses are put in the hands of commands, however, and some don't take it as seriously as they should, Stevens said.
"We can't treat this as something we have to do, something that is a check in the box," he said. "To be valuable, it has to be done in such a way that that we are actually developing our sailors to be better leaders."
As a result, he's challenging the chief's messes to find better ways of delivering this training.
No room for ‘amateurs'
As the final part of Stevens' message to chiefs, he warns not to get distracted by things in life out of your control.
This could mean deployment lengths, budget cuts or manning issues.
What chiefs must do, Stevens said, is focus their efforts on what they can control.
"Things like good order and discipline, technical training, maintenance and administrative production, and the execution of orders," he said.
That doesn't mean he doesn't want chiefs to see the "big picture" and understand how they fit into it.
"Making the Navy run is a job for professionals only — we simply do not have room for amateurs," he said. "Professionals know what the priorities are and where to apply energy. They are not easily distracted by white noise beyond their control."