Saturday, September 18, 2010

Bearded-Lady Accountability

A post with some interesting thoughts over at ID on the Navy-way of holding Commanding Officers accountable. [My highlights

Navy Fires More Leaders

There has been another rash of firings in the Navy lately, and this story details the end of three careers. I believe the total count of fired Commanding Officers is in excess of a dozen or so for the year. These stories are hardy perennials, quaint oddities that don't seem to fit in well with a world of shirked responsibility, forgiveness as a matter or course, and instantaneous redemption. How--many ask--can the Navy continue to hold its Commanding Officers to such ridiculously high standards? Where is the flexibility in a system of human beings, one that accounts for moments of weakness, errors in judgment? Isn't this kind of approach simply inconsistent with our complicated, hectic, modern world, colored as it is in hues of grey?

The plain truth of the matter is that the Navy remains a beacon of accountability and responsibility. Command is not a birthright, it is a great privilege, one that can and should be removed should the an individual forget his or her place. Yes, the practice of firing CO's seems quaint and anachronistic, but only because the general society has seemingly moved beyond notions of individual accountability, responsibility and culpability. The nation's financial system nearly fails, but were Wall Street titans removed by their Boards? How many resigned out of a sense of shame? How many members of Congress resigned over their roles in the oversight and regulation--or lack thereof--of the financial industry? Dig deeply enough, and you'll find greedy "homeowners" who never should have "bought" houses in the first place, or who bought houses far beyond their means. Where is their accountability, as the government falls all over itself to "keep them in their homes" and worse yet, conspires to "save" those who are "suffering" as their house value has fallen below what they owe? The Navy--and its insistence on accountability and responsibility--looks like a carnival attraction, a bearded-lady if you will--in a world of residue-free irresponsibility.

Where the Navy is most unlike the civilian world--is at sea. There, a commanding officer remains a figure of the past--someone whose authority is maximal, even in the age of networking and reach-back. The interesting thing is that very few people in the Navy--where this Draconian system remains--seem to want to dispense with it. This is because it is well-understood--that the the privilege of command is a fleeting sensation. Those who are commanded are the beneficiaries of the system, as their lives--their very existences--are placed uniquely in the care of the Commanding Officer. They have a right to expect that their leader will be held to exacting standards of professionalism and personal accountability. Their parents, husbands, wives, children and friends should also expect this to be so, as the Commander is entrusted with the treasured life of their loved-one.

Even in the Navy though--this system of accountability is fraying. Where? It is in those elements of the Navy MOST removed from the sea, the ones closest to the general society that finds the system anachronistic. I write here of those in the Navy who preside over large--mainly civilian--organizations dedicated to the acquisition of ships, airplanes, weapons, sensors, and things. Known mainly as "Program Managers" or "Program Executive Officers", these officers preside over organizations that routinely underestimate costs, mismanage allocated funds, collude with industry, and then deliver whatever capability was sought at 150% of estimated cost (which in some cases, would be a bargain). Secretary of Defense Gates recently fired the Joint-Strike Fighter Program Manager--but such sackings have been rare, even as cost over-runs have reach epidemic proportions. The culture of accountability and responsibility does not approach that of the operational Navy, and it is to the detriment of the Navy as a whole.

The Navy should not only NOT give in to the siren calls of society to be more human and humane--it should continue to practice its magnificent anachronism of responsibility and accountability, and extend it further into the world of acquisition. It is a great strength of a great Navy, what makes it unique and what makes it worthy of the respect it has.


  1. I wholeheartedly agree that the Navy needs to continue the ultimate responsibility and corresponding accountability with Commanding Officers. It needs to be there.

    I would counter that part of the problem with the non-At Sea portions of the Navy, and this extends to other areas as well, is that the responsibility / authority is diluted or not as clearly defined as in an At Sea command. Therefore, the accountability is equally diluted. We can try to hold the same level of accountability in leaders in these other areas but we then need to give them the commensurate responsibility and authority. Without the latter, the accountability becomes arbitrary and capricious.