Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Unhappy Ship?

Navy Times website just published an article describing a command leadership crisis on the USS Shiloh and rock-bottom morale coupled with safety and combat effectiveness shortcomings.  Shiloh, by the way, is attached to the 7th Fleet – the same fleet that has experienced multiple collisions and groundings recently.  It all ties in, doesn’t it?  You read this article and can’t help but come away with the impression of a ship on the verge of mutiny being run by an incompetent despot of a captain backed up by wholly incompetent fleet leadership.

However, before we form up the lynch mob, let’s take a brief moment and look just a little bit closer at this.  If you actually read the article and look at the survey results, you'll note that roughly a third of the crew respondents indicted that they were motivated, proud of their ship, and trusted their leadership.  That doesn't quite jibe with a ship on the verge of mutiny and crew being uniformly oppressed by their Captain.  How do we explain the contradictory results?

The situation may be just as portrayed by the article - a ship being badly lead and falling into despair and ineffectiveness.

On the other hand, an alternative explanation might be that the previous Captain was far too lenient and the crew came to believe that low standards, lack of discipline, and lack of performance were acceptable and normal and now, with a new Captain demanding actual performance and holding the crew accountable, we see a bunch of whiny, spoiled malcontents.  The third that responded as motivated, proud, and trusting are the ones who had wanted to do a good job and now have a Captain that is trying to whip a poor performing ship into shape and they fully support that effort.  People who have been cruising along with little expected of them will naturally rebel when forced to perform to standard again.  It’s human nature.  We get lazy and resist attempts to make us better.

As a general statement, most people will not perform to the highest expectations but will, instead, perform to the lowest standard.

No, you say!  Our crews are highly motivated, gung-ho perfectionists who aspire to the highest levels.  Well, some are but most are human and will perform as I’ve described.  No, ComNavOps, we don’t believe you.  You’re wrong!

Perhaps.  But consider the bits of evidence we have.

Recall the Iranian incident in which Iran seized two of our boats and crews without a fight even though we heavily outnumbered and outgunned them?  Clearly, those crews were not performing at a high level.  Heck, they weren’t even performing at a minimally acceptable level.  The list of things they did wrong is almost endless.  They had been skating by for quite some time.  Even when faced with a potentially life-threatening situation they failed to perform.  The same applies to the entire chain of command above them.

Recall the recent collisions.  Clearly multiple people at all levels failed to meet even the minimal standards of performance.

I’m not going to bother reciting more examples.  The point has been made.  There is more than ample evidence that our personnel are not performing to standard and are not being held accountable.

With that in mind, is it all that hard to imagine a situation in which a Captain takes over a lazy ship, tries to whip it into shape, and is perceived by two thirds of the crew as a tyrant just because he now expects minimal standards of performance?

The article could be completely right in their take on the situation.  On the other hand, my alternative explanation is potentially just as valid.  Without being there, I have no basis to make an assessment and that is not the point of this post.  The point is that we need to read these articles with an objective perspective while being mindful of the relevant background (the widespread failures of performance that have been documented). 

You’ll note that the article presented lots of survey quotes from disgruntled sailors but not one quote from any of the third of the crew that was happy.  Is that a balanced article, informative, investigative article or a hit piece?  There was no comment from the ship’s Captain although to be fair, he was presented the opportunity and declined for obvious reasons.  This was a lazy, one-sided, slipshod article that made no effort to actually investigate the situation.  The article went straight for sensationalism.  Again, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong but it does cast doubt.

I have insufficient information to make a judgment about this incident but I do note the one third of respondents who claimed to be motivated, proud, and trusting of leadership and I can’t reconcile that with the situation as the article paints it.  I remain non-committal but dubious about the article as it’s written and presented – and so should you.

I’ve written this post because I witnessed exactly the scenario I described occur in an industrial setting and a good leader was punished for demanding performance rather than making his people happy.  I’d hate to see that happen in this case, if that turns out to be the case.


(1)Navy Times website, “‘I now hate my ship’: Surveys reveal disastrous morale on cruiser Shiloh”, Geoff Ziezulewicz, 9-Oct-2017,


  1. Has Mr.Ziezulewicz read or seen the "The Caine Mutiny" ?

    1. The Caines problem was a Dept Head poisoning the
      the other Dept Heads view of the CO.
      Which would have shown up in enlisted surveys.

    2. Okay, I see. Worth considering.

  2. The Navy Times is owned by the Gannett Company (a media holding company which also owns USA Today). It's basically a run of the mill newspaper staffed by graduates of Journalism programs at universities. This makes their default position left wing. That's their slant on their reporting. However, the publication's primary focus is on articles attempting to explain to servicemen and retirees how to maximize their payouts from the taxpayer. With this nation's finances being effectively in a state of bankruptcy ($20 trillion in outright debt and $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities) you better get it while you can.

  3. You could also both be right. The crew could be lazy, and the captain could be an idiotic asshole at the same time.

    You should also always take satisfaction survey results with a huuuuuuuuuuge grain of salt and score them on an extreme curve. Why? Because the majority of people will almost always answer the survey the way they think people (especially their employers) want them to answer. Its basic human nature. You can put all the disclaimers you want about it being an anonymous survey or what have you but: 1: no one will trust you with that anonymity, 2: they wont want to let anyone else down by being too harsh (or they will suspect that if everyone is truthful the ship as a whole will be punished, and 3: low level employees know that management never wants to really hear the truth of the situation anyway.

    For 2/3 of respondents to answer unfavorably is wildly outside the norm. You probably wouldnt even get 2/3 of a prison population to answer unfavorably about their cafeteria food.

    1. True and possible. There are any number of scenarios that could be at play in this case. For example, I could imagine a relatively small core of malcontents influencing a large chunk of the crew to conduct a survey smear campaign to get rid of a CO who is forcing them to meet standards after a long period of coasting under the previous CO. Many crew would go along as part of the herd mentality.

      Let me repeat. I have made no judgement - I can't with the available information. I simply note that there is sufficient evidence to make one pause rather than accept the article's slant without questioning it.

      I think it's safe, if a broad generalization, to say that the enlisted serving today have come from a societal background of coddling and "me-ism". That has to play a role in what a crew, today, will consider "acceptable" treatment. Of course, we'd like to believe that those serving today are less influenced by societal norms by the very fact that they opted to join. How true that is, I don't know.

    2. EH, I really dont put any stock in that generational stuff. Us olds have to saying the same thing since the 1800's. And the me-ism is much more true for rich kids, who dont really comprise any meaningful amount of the enlisted population anyway. Poor kids are much scrappier. And they all went through basic training anyway, which hasnt really changed in 30 years. If there is an attitude problem with enlisted it should be addressed in basic, that is basically the whole point.

      I wasnt drawing any conclusions either, just highlighting some basic issues with surveys which could account for the noted discrepancy.

  4. Good stuff CNO! You made me rethink my first thoughts...we would need more info or at least USN should get more info! to find out the real state of that ship. Nevertheless, it doesn't look good, the captain (in article) is really bad or previous captain (your post) was really bad and let things slip....in wither case, you have a very expensive weapon system far from being operated well.....

    1. You astutely cut to the heart of the matter. Regardless of which case (or some combination?) is true, there was some seriously flawed leadership and a ship that was/is not combat ready.

      The Navy all too often seems to forget that combat is why they exist. Instead, they spend too much time on gender issues, diversity, environmental concerns, biofuels, etc.

      Great comment.

  5. Another article from the same website claimed that the CO frequently awarded "bread and water" confinement for minor offenses. Normally, these types of infractions are handled with EMI (extra military instruction) at the division level. The captain could have easily disproved any false claims, but yet he remained silent. Reading the comments by the sailors sound like victims of a tyrant CO, not a bunch of whiners.


    1. "Reading the comments by the sailors sound like victims of a tyrant CO, not a bunch of whiners."

      Could be. If so, how do we account for the one third that responded positively? My point was not to reach a conclusion - we don't have enough evidence one way or the other - but to point out that the article was incredibly slanted and that there was sufficient evidence to cast doubt.

      Why not a single comment from one of the positive responders? Clearly, the article's author had an agenda and made little attempt to investigate or present a balanced perspective.

    2. There will always be people at both ends of the spectrum. No matter how well the ship is run, there are a few people who will gripe and complain. Things could be absolutely terrible and some people will still check the satisfied box; I suspect they believe negative survey results will only make a bad CO even worse. Put on a fake smile and wait out the storm. They are not likely to make any written comments because they are trying to not stir up any more trouble. Many of the negative remarks regarded the CO pushing his own agendas over mission readiness.


    3. Given everything I discussed in the post, you don't see even the slightest possibility that this article is slanted and the reality may be different? I'm inclined to believe there was a problem with the CO but there is more than sufficient evidence, as I outlined, to make me hesitate before I join the lynch mob!

      The related issue is the slant of the article. I assume you can clearly see the blatant bias? A third of the crew responded positively and not one made a written comment? Does that really seem plausible? This was as one-sided an article as could be. That doesn't mean it isn't correct but it's a very poor example of reporting which casts further doubt in my mind. What's the odds that an article that poorly researched and presented got all the facts right? Slim and none. Again, doesn't mean it's wrong but it sure lowers the credibility of the author and the piece!

    4. It's very possible the article is slanted and I admit I'm likely slanted in the same direction. We all have biases created by past experiences. I'm not aware of any "lynch mob" unless you mean that figuratively. Just remember, you've called for several officers to be fired on this blog; did you have all the facts in those cases. The navy has a process for investigating situations like this; we'll see how it works out.


    5. Yes, the lynch mob is figurative although the Navy's natural tendency to fire Captains as a means of deflecting attention and blame is a form of a lynch mob.

      I have called for officers to be fired but only after I have accumulated sufficient evidence based on their clearly demonstrated actions. In this case, it's far from clear where the blame lies.

      As you say, we'll see how it plays out although I have little doubt how it will play. The easy course is for the Navy to make the CO a scapegoat and fire him whether he's at fault or not.

      The Navy averages around 25 COs fired per year. Either our promotion system is incredibly flawed or we're firing people for very poor reasons. Those COs represent an enormous investment in time, experience, and money to get them to that point. Throwing away 25 of those assets per year is a crime. They either need to be weeded out much, much earlier in their careers if they are, indeed, that flawed or we need to re-evaluate our criteria for firing. Either way, we're doing something wrong and our system is badly broken!

  6. I have deleted a comment for foul language. There was nothing wrong with the opinions so feel free to repost without the offensive language.

  7. Late to the party here, but I sympathize with the Captain.

    In my division officer tours, I was pressured by one captain who told me he wanted me to be a "mad dog" to my exceptionally-well-performing deck division (measured by numerous inspections and operational evaluations). He and the screamer Dept. Head didn't like my low key style. I didn't think "Mad Dog Ensign" would play well, and didn't see the need to interfere much with a very competent BMC and BM1 who trained some good strikers to BM2/3. High performance, high morale.

    In my next tour as an MPA, I had to battle a weak Cheng and BTCM who had let military, training, and maintenance standards slip to a dangerous level. I became a "mad dog" in the holes all the time. I got veiled death threats. Fortunately, a good BTC and the MM chiefs had my back, and got a new captain who appreciated what I was doing. The Cheng still tried to sink me, however.

    For a Navy career, I saw that you had to accept that arbitrary subjective judgments over style may outweigh objective performance measures of substance. You have the luck of the draw with regard to superiors. Subordinates you had more control over, of course, but your career was subject to an unjust sinking at any time. A big reason I chose not to go to Dept Head school and went USNR-R after 5 years.


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