It’s hard to imagine any naval leadership task one would approach with more humility, or with a greater sense of history, than addressing the crew of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt over the ship’s 1MC public address system. The ship is a gigantic floating testament to American military power, and its namesake was a naval historian, an assistant secretary of the navy, and the president who launched the Great White Fleet on a mission to project U.S. naval power around the world.
It’s not too hard to imagine that prior to keying the microphone, one might recall a favorite proverb of Roosevelt’s: “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” Unfortunately, last Monday, acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly chose instead to key the mic and put his proverbial foot in his mouth. He took his historic opportunity and used it to cast blame and deflect responsibility in a tone that varied between condescension and contempt. He took his big moment and used it to be small and petty. If he was attempting to channel a president, it certainly wasn’t Theodore Roosevelt.
Perhaps Modly should have taken some time to imagine his audience, which included my son-in-law and friends and relatives of several of my Naval Academy classmates. These sailors have been operating a floating city at sea, complete with its own airport, while watching their shipmates fall ill. Their beloved captain was just fired and reassigned elsewhere. Many of them have spouses back in San Diego who are dealing with layoffs and homeschooling, or with being single-parent essential employees at a time when schools and daycare facilities are closed. By every account I have heard, the SecNav’s remarks were more ruinous to unit morale than any of those things.
If acting Secretary Modly imagined his speech would bolster the chain of command and discredit the fired commanding officer, he got it exactly wrong. Those of us who are normally inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the Navy in these matters are left wondering: Was this the kind of response Captain Crozier was getting through official channels? Were his requests met with sit-on-your-hands-and-keep-your-mouth-shut vitriol? We have seen commanding officers fired for various reasons throughout our careers, usually for the best, and always with professional decorum. No firing authority stoops to bad-mouth a fired officer.
At first, acting Secretary Modly seemed to imagine that his apology would suffice where a resignation was required. Modly traveled thousands of miles to meet the ship in Guam and had plenty of time to consider what he would say to the crew of the Roosevelt. His words weren’t the problem. Being the kind of leader who would address those warfighters in that way was the problem. The solution for that is resignation. I sincerely wish he had done better.
What I tell my son-in-law and his shipmates is this: Do not imagine that SecNav’s remarks reflect how America feels about you. We couldn’t be more proud of you or thankful for your service. Do not decide against reenlistment based on this experience. Sometimes the best leadership lessons are the ones that teach us what doesn’t work. This shared hardship has bound you together in ways a smooth, easy deployment never could. You have seen the unintended negative consequences of poor leadership, and you can tell this story, and many others, to the sailors you will lead in the future.
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