LT Matt Caylor began his Navy career as a nuclear-field Electrician’s Mate. Following four years of enlisted service, he was accepted to the United States Naval Academy where he graduated in 2004 with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering. After serving more than 7 years as a Submarine Warfare Officer, he elected to lateral transfer into Information Warfare. He is currently stationed at Navy Information Operations Command, Fort Gordon, GA.
Not long ago, I was faced with a choice of removing a skilled Sailor from my division or continuing to remediate behavior I knew was below par. The individual had been experiencing issues well before his assignment to me, but many factors seemed to complicate the process to resolve and correct the deficiencies. As plank owners of a new unit, we were under significant pressure to develop and maintain skilled individuals for critical work roles. I knew that balancing our team’s mission needs with personnel requirements left me with the type of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario that I had dreaded my entire career. As I turned it over and over again in my mind and heart, I tried to recount exactly how I found myself in this position.
During our first Quarters, I indicated to the Sailors of my newly established division that I knew each of them was capable of remarkable achievement. As no Sailor should strive for mediocrity, I didn’t just ask them to be the best…I asked them to be better. I challenged each of them to identify something within our team at which they both could and wanted to excel. I indicated being an elite group meant that I expected each of them to demonstrate a significant level of personal responsibility. I wanted them to know that I expected them to learn from their mistakes, to grow, and exceed their own limitations
Although it may sound strange, I related similar expectations to my chain of command and parent organization with whom we would work alongside. In particular, the previous relationship with our parent organization did not always provide our personnel with clear standards as it should have. I needed our partners to understand the commitment I demanded of my Sailors would need to be reciprocated on their end as well. It was during this process where I recognized that my Sailor’s deficiencies were never effectively addressed, only recorded. This failure, more than most, left my Chief and me in an untenable position to start; more than a year of substandard performance given only the lip-service of documentation.
I briefed my seniors during the weeks leading up to this situation that I might have to make the decision I was about to make. But deep inside, I had hoped to avoid it and spent several months striving to do just that. After all, my own division held examples of second chances that turned into opportunities for success. Although several of my Sailors were already superstars within our field of endeavor, there was another who had had a rocky start. Because so many others accepted the challenge to be better and willingly engaged both my Chief and me for areas to show improvement and had grown considerably as a person and a leader, I was conditioned to give the Sailor in question multiple chances. But, as a result of poor behavior, that opportunity was now gone.
My Chief and I discussed my decision at length. Part of me hoped that he might talk me out of it, that he might envision a different strategy I had not yet considered. He is a compassionate man, and I could tell that it weighed on his heart. But as the officer, it was not only my decision to make, but my burden to bear and accept responsibility for my failed expectations. In the end, I made my notifications to my seniors, gathered the necessary paperwork, and walked to a small conference room where I told this young Sailor that I would no longer trust them to serve in my division.
One of the principle functions of a leader is to set standards. In the Navy, those come not only as standards of appearance and behavior but also job performance and personal responsibility. I confess that I have high standards and believe that it is my duty to challenge my Sailors to continually redefine limitations. For a young officer, it is easy to misinterpret that to mean that perfection is the yardstick to which each of their Sailors must measure up. This idea is doomed to failure and, in my opinion, contributes to the growth of risk-averse leaders who stifle creativity and innovation in their units. Therefore, we must acknowledge many perceived “failures” are merely inadequately expressed or interpreted standards or expectations.
I have always believed that individual counseling sessions are one of the best ways to ensure that your expectations are not misunderstood. If your first counseling session with a subordinate is a corrective one (as was my case with the Sailor in question), then you are already behind the power curve. Outside of Career Development Boards or MidTerm Counseling required by the Navy, I always encourage my Sailors to take advantage of strategy sessions with their Chief and DIVO. If and when corrective counseling sessions are needed, I make certain that the focus of discussion is not simply what the error was, but rather what I expect in the future. I believe in teaching your subordinates to “own their mistakes” and to use errors as a path for self-enrichment. Success rewards our efforts, but failures enable us to grow by highlighting our shortcomings.
Roy Boehm summed up leadership best in two words, “Follow me”. For me, those two words resonant with the subtlety that our subordinates need to understand what we want and why. As a former nuclear-trained submariner, I learned very early in my navy career the “Why” is just as important as the “What” or “How”. Fortunate to grow up as a junior officer with leaders like CAPT Steve Perry, I learned firsthand how empowerment through understanding enables subordinates to take decisive action. In both tactical deployment of our ship or administrative management of our resources, we were able to respond to demands with confident choices only because he ensured that we understood his intentions. His example is something I try so hard not only to emulate, but to instill my sailors as the future leaders of our Navy.
As a leader, it is always extremely rewarding when you see your people succeed; however, failures are far more common and sometimes necessary to enable a person to grow. When subordinates fail though, a leader must not only address those failures but recognize the part they may have played as well. Was the standard you set reasonable and achievable? Was your guidance clear enough? Whether written or verbal, a leader should never underestimate the contribution that well-understood guidance makes in lives of our subordinates. It is how intent is transformed into action when the leader is not around.
Leaders affect the lives and futures of their subordinates. Unfortunately, we don’t always get second chances when we make mistakes and our Sailors pay the price for our actions or inaction. In this case, missed opportunities to provide sufficient direction and mentorship left my division in an intractable position with limited possibilities to recover a valuable individual. I hope that others will learn from this experience as I have and endeavor to take advantage of those opportunities to help our people realize our expectations.