Navy’s promotion system struggling to root out unfit commanders
May 16, 2010
The Navy reached a milestone of sorts in April. It was the first month of 2010 that the service didn’t have to remove a commanding officer for misconduct.
The Navy removed seven commanding officers between Jan. 1 and March 15, a pace that would have more than doubled last year’s total of 17 fired officers and far outpaced the past five years.
Most of the firings were for bad conduct. For example, Capt. Glen Little was removed as commander of Naval Weapons Station Charleston, S.C., after being arrested for offering a prostitute $20 for sexual favors, according to Navy and media sources.
Other removals, including that of former USS Cowpens commander Capt. Holly Graf in January, have reflected poor leadership.
Graf’s cruelty, vulgarity, ethical breaches and failure to qualify her junior officers garnered national attention after the release of an Inspector General report in March.
However, such personal and professional behavior issues rarely come out of the blue.
Graf’s questionable behavior had been going on since at least 2003, when she commanded the USS Winston Churchill, according to the IG report.
So why aren’t unfit officers weeded out before being given commands of warships or installations?
The Navy Inspector General’s office is again searching for answers, according to an official who requested anonymity because the report will not be complete until later this year.
Five years ago, after the Navy experienced a similar uptick in firings, the Inspector General reviewed dismissals between 1999 and 2004 to determine whether systemic factors contributed to the removals.
That study recommended counseling changes and a course at command school to better prepare its leaders, but found no predictors of who would fail as a commanding officer.
“Now, with the rise in issues, [the Navy has] initiated a follow-up effort to that study to see if there are trends or pre-existing tendencies that might have been indicators earlier in officer’s careers,” the official said.
Stars and Stripes asked several active-duty and retired naval officers between the ranks of lieutenant commander and captain why unfit commanding officers weren’t being identified sooner. All active-duty officers asked to remain anonymous, concerned that speaking publicly might jeopardize their own promotion chances.
Some dominant themes emerged, along with some ideas for change at every step from the initial fitness reports to the promotion boards that make the final decisions.
‘There is never any accountability’
Some cite a lack of accountability for senior officers who rate officers they supervise.
Retired Capt. Mike Abrashoff, now a corporate consultant and best-selling author, says the Navy suffers because senior officers who endorse unfit officers for command face no consequences.
He advocates having a standard line in each senior officer’s evaluation record that would say whether the officer has recommended someone who was later relieved of command.
“Bring careers to an end if commanders don’t take their obligation to evaluate their officers more seriously than they do,” Abrashoff said. “There is never any accountability for the people doing the recommending when things turn out to be heinously bad. There were warning flags throughout Captain Graf’s career, saying that her treatment of personnel was not what it should have been.”
Some officers supported Abrashoff’s idea, but said some protection should be afforded senior officers if there was clearly no way they could have foreseen a serious problem, such as an officer who fraternizes with a subordinate.
“Some are pretty good commanding officers professionally who turn out to have a character flaw that no previous CO or fitness report writer would have reasonably known about,” said retired Capt. Jan van Tol, who commanded the amphibious assault ship USS Essex from 2003 to 2005 and served as special adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney before retiring in 2007.
But there are many official and informal flows of information that could tip off a commander when a subordinate officer has a serious professional or character flaw.
Unfortunately, he said, some commanding officers promote subordinates with such flaws because it’s easier than telling them they aren’t cut out for command.
“I consider the commanding officer to have the absolute obligation to be frank, and I have always tried to be that as a CO, but it’s a tough thing, and many COs don’t have the stomach for it.”
Van Tol’s idea to get around that: Make individual fitness reports available only to promotion boards and the Navy detailers who counsel officers on their careers.
Officers would still receive informal appraisals from their supervisors and get a good idea of how they stack up against their peers Navy-wide from detailers, he said. But evaluated officers would never see their own fitness reports.
“This would allow [senior officers] to be much more frank with selection boards,” he said.
A rigid system
Van Tol believes the system itself is crippling the Navy’s ability to promote the right officers,
He says the system discourages innovative officers from taking calculated risks — a trait that may make the difference in victory or defeat during the fluidity of battle. Many fear that any risk could result in a mistake and cost them a promotion. A bad recommendation can torpedo a career; keeping a low profile is safer.
If it’s a close call in the promotion process, he said, a senior officer is more likely to drop the officer who made a mistake.
Another way an unfit leader can rise is by gaming the system, building a career by avoiding anything that would catch the eyes of senior officers. An unfit officer can also get promotion recommendations by being favorably judged head-to-head against lesser officers. He doesn’t have to be the best, just the best of a mediocre group.
A limited process
Ultimately, the annual command screening boards have the biggest say on who will rise to the Navy’s senior ranks.
Their decisions are based on official records and the fitness reports, a collection of performance evaluations by each candidate’s boss, dating back to each officer’s first tour.
“We are making the assumption that our leadership is accurately making a judgment of the performance level and capability of our officers,” said Capt. David Steindl, director of surface warfare distribution and former command screening board member.
Although board size and methods vary among Navy specialties, the surface warfare community generally includes 13 to 17 officers. Each reviews a stack of personnel files.
Afterward, reviewers gather in a room where the candidate’s fitness report is posted on a big screen. The reviewers present the case for each officer. They assign scores from 0 to 100 based on a confidential vote.
Some officers praised the screening board’s procedure for its objectivity.
But one active-duty surface warfare officer noted that the final chance to decide whether an officer should take the helm of a warship lacks something that even military commissary employees go through: a job interview.
A grilling in front of 17 captains and admirals might reveal something not found in a personnel file, the officer said.
Ideas for change
Abrashoff believes screening boards could benefit from corporate methods.
Just as some businesses use 360-degree evaluations, which incorporate views from subordinates, Abrashoff believes that senior enlisted viewpoints on command potential should count for something.
The Navy does use the 360 approach as a counseling tool, but has never used it for decision-making at the command screening level.
As commander of the USS Benfold, Abrashoff informally consulted his top enlisted sailor, the command master chief, before deciding not to recommend his executive officer for command.
“I wanted to make sure I was seeing it from every angle,” Abrashoff said. “Nobody knows the effect of leadership on a crew better than a command master chief.”
Most officers interviewed disagreed with giving chiefs any official input into decisions about command appointments. One active-duty command master chief interviewed said he most likely could not give an honest assessment of his boss, since retribution could adversely affect his future assignments.
Abrashoff also suggests using a behavioral test to screen commanders for specific personality traits found among the best — and worst — of its leaders.
“There is a growing movement in the commercial sector to use tailored personality profiles as a factor in selecting managers,” he said. “It would be interesting if the Navy was at the forefront of using a similar profile … as a predictor of future success as a commanding officer.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Sandra Jontz contributed to this story.