Friday, March 20, 2009

Priority and Punishment

Here is my latest column in the CityView magazine. The link is to the published version and the text is what I submitted. I haven't actually noticed any differences.


In my early years in Uncle Sam's Canoe Club, I was somewhat of a screw up. It didn't really start there but that was where it manifested and became obvious to anyone who cared to look. It wasn't anything intentional I was doing to screw up my job. No, it was more of a problem of self-confidence. On my communications watch section in Rota, Spain, we had approximately 27 sailors. I think there were six of us who did not have college degrees and at least a couple of the six had at least gone to college. Only about four of us had never gone past high school. As a matter of fact, there were more sailors with advanced degrees than there were with no college at all on my watch section. It was the tail end of Vietnam and there were still a lot of guys on active duty who had joined the Navy rather than depend on their luck with the draft lottery. As one of the "uneducated" I had rather
severe feelings of inadequacy that were to all appearances, not completely undeserved. My primary means of dealing with these feelings was to do individualized scientific research into the capacity of a given human body to metabolize increasing amounts of barley derived alcohol. I can't remember what the results were.

The thing was, in my mind, I had equated education with intelligence, a mistake that someone as smart as I should not have made. From a strict intelligence
standpoint, I had all the potential in the world and there were certainly plenty of people who either were or had been in my life that had told me that very thing. Of course, I thought I was doing all I could and whatever potential they were seeing was an illusion I had created.

So anyway, I screwed up. I have no memory what the specific thing was that I did or didn't do that particular time but, it earned me a trip to the Master Chief's office. In the USN, Master Chief is the highest of the enlisted ranks (E-9). It is a position that few, if any, achieve by accident, subterfuge, or favoritism. It
requires that one be proficient in one's job field as well as a proven leader and manager. They also have typically been in the Navy 18+ years. They may not know every trick in the book but bullshitting them was not an easy thing to do. The use of profanity in the Navy is legendary as evidenced by the common phrase "cuss like a sailor". The average Master Chief was above average in their ability to spew sustained bursts of incredibly creative invective. So I knew what was
coming when I was sent to see the Master Chief. I knew that I had screwed up and I knew that I was in for a royal ass chewing. Really, it would be somewhat cathartic, he would yell, cuss, insult and exhort me to never again be brave enough to screwup while he was in charge. I would be a little humiliated and maybe even get some looks and/or words of sympathy from other sailors but, that would be the end of it. That would be my punishment. So I walked into the Master Chief's office "knowing" what was about to happen and yea, sure I was dreading it but,
I was looking forward to being done with it. It turns out, he was using a completely different playbook.

I walked in and stood at attention and he said in a quiet voice "Have a seat Steve". He paused as if collecting his thoughts and then quietly continued "Steve, you
have really disappointed me." He went on in that vein for perhaps ten or fifteen minutes. He never raised his voice and no profanity was used inside that office. He told me why he was so disappointed and that he knew I was capable of better. By the time I left his office, I was practically crying. I had been blindsided, caught unawares. I didn't see it then but, that was a turning point for me. For some
reason I never understood, CTOCM Norm Champagne's expression of knowledge that I could do better, that I was smart enough to do anything, "took" when similar expressions from relatives, teachers, and other supervisors had left no real impression. I got much better at my job. By the time I left the Navy several years later, many expressed the opinion that I was the best in the job at E-5 and below. (at E-6 you really move more into a management thing)

At that time, I didn't really think about what he had done or how but, I have been
thinking about it a lot lately. Apparently, he didn't think it was important that I be punished. He had a mission to support. What was important to him was that I function in the capacity that was designated. So rather than focus his energy on punishing me, he focused on changing my behavior and/or attitude. He didn't worry about his reputation or image as a Master Chief, he wanted his crew to work
and he wanted to make sure that the taxpayer money spent training me, and the experience I already had, were not wasted.It is not news to anyone that reads me or knows me that I am no fan of the previous White House administration. I have loudly and vehemently expressed my opinion that Bush, Cheny, Rumsfeld, Gonzales, Libby, and others were guilty of criminal behavior and should be severely punished. My memories of the transformative experience described above
will not change that opinion but, I no longer think it is especially important. It is not where I think the lion's share of the nation's energy needs to be expended. We do need to learn from the mistakes. We need to make sure that the national experience is not for naught. We need to act on the idea that ensuring the health of the nation is more important than punishing those I perceive as having injured it.

I'm not ready to say we should just move on but, I think I understand why the current executive is not making issuing punishment a priority for his administration.

crossposted at


Chief said...

Interesting post about a visit to see the "Master Chief."

Two comments:

First, in 1964 I was attending an 18 week long school at NAS Glynco, GA. There had been a series of thefts in the barracks.
ETCM Melish, all of 5' 3" or so, had us in ranks at quarters and he began by saying "Crying Christ on a crutch, me, we's living in a den of thieves."

Second, I retired, after 21 years in Uncle Sam's Canoe Club as a Senior chief.

Chief said...

Shoulda been "men" as in
"Crying Christ on a crutch, men, we's living in a den of thieves."