20 June 2012

“Character” by VADM John M. Richardson

Team, VADM Richardson just posted the following post on his COMSUBFOR blog. Although he wrote it with the Submarine Force in mind, I believe his message is dead-on and applies to all of us as well. Give it a read and let us know what you think. All the best, JCHjr

Originally posted by VADM John M. Richardson, Commander, Submarine Force: http://comsubfor-usn.blogspot.com/2012/06/character.html

It’s been a long time since I last added to this blog. So long, in fact, that I considered just shutting it down! It seems that there is no greater sin in the blogosphere than to be dormant. It’s not as if we have been quiet. Since making the last post, I have given 20 or so speeches, written an article for the U.S. Naval Institute’s PROCEEDINGS magazine (the magazine that contains our Navy’s intellectual dialogue, and one I HIGHLY recommend), and have made several trips around the Force. So now that I’m back, I thought that I’d share some thoughts I’ve had since I last posted.

I’ve been talking to the Submarine Force about two things:
  • Building depth – training and mentoring our future submarine force
  • The importance of Character in what we do
I’d like to discuss Character in this post and come back to ‘building depth’ in a later post.

Our character – our moral and ethical quality - is hard-wired to the success of our mission as a Navy, and particularly as naval leaders. From my standpoint, we need to pay particular attention to this in the submarine Force. Let me explain…

Our submarine force offers an important, unique contribution to our navy and our nation: we have a significant hard and soft kill payload that can go to sea and stay undetected for months at a time. We can and do go anywhere in the world and operate independently without logistic support or communications – truly self-sustaining. We are independent and invisible, providing our nation’s decision-makers with a wide range of options; most notably, a non-provacative platform that can quietly inform diplomacy one day, and then enforce it the next. Invisibility and independence is our advantage and it’s critical to our mission.

But our advantage comes with responsibility. In order to maintain the trust and confidence of our leaders and Sailors, we must constantly be assessing, correcting, and improving ourselves. We must get underway, and left largely to our own devices, return stronger than when we left.

Invisibility and character have a long relationship, and it hasn’t always been a healthy one. Being out of sight can uniquely challenge one’s character. This is not a new idea. In the Second Book of the Republic, written around 400 BC, Plato describes the challenge of the Ring of Gyges – a ring that will make its wearer invisible. From The Republic:

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.

Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. — Plato's Republic, 360b-d (Jowett trans.)

Plato surmised that we are moral because we must be – and that left unchecked by society’s eye, we’d devolve to a state of low morality, of low character. Beyond Plato and several examples in mythology (think Gollum in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings), there is plenty of evidence to support this proposition. One only need consider the more recent examples of the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971 or the abuses of Abu Ghraib prison in 2004-2006, both of which had elements of “invisibility,” to find examples of the degeneration of character that can occur when you think no one is looking. In short, Plato may have been on to something.

The Navy has been interested in the study of character, and its relation to being out of sight, for a long time – in fact the Stanford Prison Experiment mentioned above was funded by the Office of Naval Research. It makes sense – ships are on their own, out of sight – exhibiting some of the same elements that can lead to the sort of trouble that Plato talked about almost 2500 years ago. Even within the ships themselves there are opportunities for this “out of sight” behavior. Submarines even more so. If we think about instances of hazing, they often occur in areas of the ship that have been allowed to become remote – out of the normal ship’s circulation and not visited often enough by supervision. They become “sanctuaries” for outrageous behavior. One important ingredient for eliminating hazing and other outrageous and undesirable behavior is to eliminate these out of the way, “invisible” sanctuaries.

Polls routinely show that the military usually ranks at or near the top of any list of institutions when it comes to the confidence of our citizens. That’s proper and just – they desperately believe that those defending this country, those willing to go into harm’s way for us and for other nations, are our most honorable. When we military leaders fall short in character, it shakes the foundation of the standard against which all others are measured - it’s front page news, and that should be no surprise. It’s a violation of the trust placed in us to take care of the sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers that America sends to our care.

Any claim to leadership we have is founded on the trust and confidence that our Sailors, and the American People, have in us. It’s only possible to have that foundation if our leadership has strong character – strong moral courage. We KNOW what’s right, and we have the strength to DO what’s right. And furthermore, we have the responsibility – it’s our charge of command – to develop strong character in our subordinates, to build depth in our Navy now and into the future.

We’re not perfect. In the Submarine Force we’ve had some high-visibility lapses in character. You’ve read about them: the cheating incident on USS MEMPHIS, the fraternization between the Chief of the Boat and a female midshipman on USS NEBRASKA, an incident of hazing on USS FLORIDA, and the financial misconduct of some Supply Officers in Kings Bay. In each case, once discovered, these incidents were thoroughly investigated, and appropriate people were held accountable. This is our approach and we’ll continue to address these cases swiftly and decisively.

The discussion on these cases has been vigorous in the media and the blogosphere. I frequently take questions about these incidents when I travel – people want to know how this can possibly happen. To so many, it just doesn’t check…it’s so out of whack with their expectations, and feels so personal and close to home. A violation by one seems to be a violation against all. Again, we can’t be surprised by these feelings or the questions that come with them. Indeed we owe an explanation and we must participate in these discussions. Most of the substance of the media reports comes from the report of our own investigations that we release in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. And if we learn legitimate new information from these discussions in the media, we explore each new revelation until we have as complete a picture as possible.

Together with the rest of the Navy, Submarine Force leadership will continue to stress the importance of character in our force, and in particular our leaders. There is currently a vigorous and growing discussion of this throughout the force – that’s exactly how it should be. We need to take every opportunity to make character – our moral and ethical quality – not something exclusively academic but something we talk about directly every day. It should be part of our conversations in wardrooms and chief’s quarters. It should be discussed up front at our operational briefs – the importance of keeping our integrity intact. In this way, we make every evolution we do a leadership laboratory, a source of strength.

The Submarine Force is one of our nation’s true stealth forces. We get much of our strength from being invisible for long periods of time. To do this successfully, we must recognize the challenge that this poses and take every opportunity to make each other morally and ethically stronger – to strengthen the bond of trust and confidence we have within our Force and with our nation. Our best people – our Sailors – deserve nothing less.

Semper Procinctum
VADM John M. Richardson
Commander, Submarine Force

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