My First Chief

Like anyone who has been in the service, I've a number of photographs that grace my "I love me" wall. As a farewell gift, the ship or squadron to which he is attached will provide the departing officer with a photo in a matte and frame - in time these accumulate. Some of these, the ones I'm proudest of, I've taken down from the wall of my office at home, and taken to my office wall at work.

There's the one from the squadron I commanded, which I cherish. As much for the memories of the best job I've ever had, or would ever hope to have, as for the kind words that those who served with me wrote for my farewell. I'd like to think that you're very lucky to have the privilege of command, the chance to do something just the way you think you ought to, regardless of the consequences and taking into account all that you have learned over the years, the good and the bad. My hope was that the example of leadership could be like throwing a pebble into a pond - the ripples spread out into the infinite.

There's a matte from my days as an instructor at the Navy Fighter Weapons School - TOPGUN (one word, all caps, don't ask). Perhaps the pinnacle of my professional career as a fighter pilot (as opposed to a naval officer). It was a very prestigious place to be at, to be from. I got to work side by side with the pride of the fleet, 22 or so of the finest fighter pilots in the world, each and every one of them working with a passion for excellence that I've never seen exceeded, never even seen matched. A hard tour, long hours, exceptional standards - but a gratifying one. In the nature of such a place, the only thing on the matte are the instructors signatures - no other words are required. It is enough to say that you were one of them, and they were of you. For those who do not understand, no explanation is possible. For those who do, none is necessary.

But the matte I am the proudest of comes from the Chief Petty Officer's mess of the operations department on the aircraft carrier upon which I had the honor to serve as a member of the ship's company. The Goat Locker, in other words. It is a casually deprecative name for the one organization in the US Navy for which I hold the most esteem, bar none. There are many organizations and institutions within the Navy that lay claim to excellence, many that even perform superbly. But the Chief Petty Officer's mess is the most routinely excellent, the hardest working, the most effective, the most experienced, the most necessary.

The US Navy is the one service wherein a enlisted Sailor will change uniforms when he advances from the pay grade of E-6 to E-7. Because that is more than a mere advancement - it is an elevation. But to speak of pay grades to a Chief is to dishonor him - that is not who he is, it is how his pay is accounted. He is not a pay stub. He is a Chief.

My father told me when I was a young midshipman that if I was ever invited into the Chief's mess aboard a ship, that I should accept, drink my coffee, speak not at all. I should listen. The old man was a pretty smart guy. I have been on a few occasions so invited. And I listened respectfully at a table of several Chiefs, to a hundred years of accumulated naval experience.

Most officers go to college for four years, and then are commissioned. A Chief will work hard for 10 or 15 years, and then earn his anchors. The Chief will call him "sir." If he's smart, the officer will call him "Chief," but think "sir." Because you can never call a Chief "sir," and if you do, he'll remind you that he works for a living. And if you listen to him carefully, he will teach you everything you ever need to know about Sailors, and your job, and getting that job done.

Officers may have grand ideas, formulate strategy, think tactics. But without a Chief to carry the water for him, to take the rubber to the road, to see the tactics through to execution, everything he thinks or says or writes is so much finger-painting, so much vaporing, so much ephemera. With the Chief's mess on you side, all things are possible. If they turn against you, because you can't live up to their expectations of an officer (these are, thankfully, much less stringent than their expectations for themselves), you will fail. It is exactly that simple.

You will fail, but the mission will not - they will not allow it to. They will "mushroom" you - keep you in the dark, and feed you sh**, because they will not allow an incompetent officer to get in the way of fulfilling the mission. They will not allow an uncaring officer to neglect the fates and fortunes of his Sailors.

They don't coddle the Sailors, because they know that leadership is not a popularity contest. They will do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. They are truly, the back bone of the fleet.

The finest leader I've ever met was a Master Chief Petty Officer who was my departmental leading chief aboard the aircraft carrier. Perhaps a hundred and thirty pounds, 5'6" of twisted steel and immense dignity. A man who no longer had to stand a watch, but insisted upon doing so. A man who could not see a flaw, whether it was in his gear, or those who maintained it, without correcting it instantly. For whom the "path of least resistance" held no allure. For whom the care and advancement of his people only took a back seat to the accomplishment of the mission. Unlimited professionalism, enthusiasm and dedication. He was the kind of leader I wish I could be.

Author: Captain Carroll LeFon, USN (ret)